Pacific Rim and Cognitive Hybridity

November 12, 2017 § 6 Comments


Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 sci-fi flick Pacific Rim begins with a series of flashbacks that sketch out the fictional history of the Kaiju War. The Kaiju (Japanese for “monsters” like Godzilla) are a species of giant and deadly alien invaders who are somehow finding their way into the Pacific Ocean through an inter-dimensional portal, laying waste to cities from Sydney to Hong Kong to Los Angeles as they prowl the titular Pacific Rim. An elite group of human fighters – including protagonist Raleigh Becket and his brother Yancy – have been trained to battle the Kaiju using huge mechas called Jaegers. A mecha, in general, is a seriously cool, giant humanoid robot controlled by a human pilot (‘90s kids might recognize The Power RangersMegazord as another mecha). Pacific Rim doesn’t disappoint with its own iteration of these powerful machines. Take a look at Yancy and Raleigh suiting up for battle with their mecha, called Gipsy Danger, in the clip below:

This clip also highlights the most unusual feature of the mechas in Pacific Rim. They aren’t just operated by their human pilots; the machines and humans actually fuse into a single fighting unit when they initiate the “neural handshake” and head into battle. Each Jaeger requires two pilots, and each pilot provides one hemisphere of brain function and motor control to the robot body. Raleigh explains the resulting condition like this: “The drift. Jaeger tech. Based on DARPA jet fighter neural systems. Two pilots mind-melding through memory with the body of a giant machine.” Once pilots like Yancy and Raleigh enter the drift-space, the connection between them and the Jaeger allows the two-part human pilot system to sync up seamlessly with the robotic frame.

The Jaeger program has its up and downs over the course of the twelve-year Kaiju War. By the time Raleigh’s narration brings us back to his present, in 2024, for example, international leaders have decided to phase out the program in favor of building a really big wall around the Pacific Ocean. (This plan is as stupid as it sounds, and just as ineffective as you might expect.) Raleigh’s life without Gipsy Danger is sad and mundane, and the juxtaposition of his post-Jaeger existence with earlier scenes like the one in the clip above emphasize how much better the program made him. He also alludes to a lackluster pre-Jaeger past, introducing himself and Yancy like this: “Years before, you wouldn’t have picked my brother Yancy and I for heroes – no chance. We were never star athletes, never at the head of the class, but we could hold our own in a fight.” Alone, neither of the Becket brothers is that impressive. Together, and with Gipsy Danger, they are heroes.

This emphasis on mental synthesis, or the idea that Jaeger pilots gain something from their co-cognitive experiences in the drift, raises an interesting (and surprising) parallel with Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. (Possible spoilers here if you’ve somehow avoided contact with the culturally pervasive tale of the ill-fated Dr. Jekyll and his cruel doppelganger.) In his posthumous confession at the novella’s conclusion, Jekyll writes about “the profound duplicity of [his] life” and “the two natures that contended in the field of [his] consciousness” – one hedonistic, and the other moral – until he found the means to chemically separate them (42). The disturbingly violent and antisocial Mr. Hyde is awful on his own, but in Dr. Jekyll, the pleasure-seeking impulses Hyde represents simply contribute to the doctor’s complexity. Hyde is a part of Jekyll, and so Jekyll is aware of Hyde’s thoughts and memories; however, Jekyll’s memories and thoughts do not translate to Hyde, who represents simply one component of the doctor’s composite self. Stevenson’s gothic tale builds to a horrific reveal in which Jekyll concludes far too late that he should have embraced his original duality.

Pacific Rim’s drift technology effectively offers the opposite of Jekyll’s separating drug: it augments a single human mind (already incredibly complex, as Stevenson’s novella demonstrates) by doubling it and fusing it to a mecha. The two narratives, Stevenson’s and del Toro’s, have nearly nothing in common in terms of genre, setting, medium, and particular plot points, but each is profoundly interested in the power of duality, complexity, and hybridity.

The trailer for Pacific Rim’s upcoming sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising, debuted last month and seems to carry an even more robust passion for the Jaeger’s robot-human hybridity than the first film. In the trailer, below, John Boyega as Jake Pentecost (son of Idris Elba’s General Pentecost from the original Pacific Rim) encourages a new generation of Jaeger pilots to head into battle. “This is our time. This is our chance to make a difference,” he tells them fervently. In the final sequence of shots in the trailer, several flashy new Jaegers line up and brandish weapons in poses that feel reminiscent of recent superhero films like The Avengers. Yet Jake also calls the Jaegers “the monsters we created,” perhaps signaling a slightly more fragile faith in the Jaeger program than we saw in the first installment.

Raleigh Becket’s reference to the real-life DARPA program as he’s explaining the drift in the first clip embedded above indicates that we’re startlingly close to achieving the kinds of human-machine fusions that the Pacific Rim films celebrate. Are these augmenting possibilities really a way to enhance ourselves? Or are we heading down a path we should seriously rethink? I’ll be really interested to see whether Pacific Rim: Uprising tackles any of these questions in its handling of the “monsters” at the heart of the franchise.

— Katie Mullins

Works Cited:

Pacific Rim. Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Perf. Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, and Rinko Kikuchi. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013.

Stevenson, Robert Louis. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Ed. Tim Middleton. London: Wordsworth, 1993. Print.


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§ 6 Responses to Pacific Rim and Cognitive Hybridity

  • ajon8090 says:

    Thanks for your post, Katie! I am interested in how your connection between Pacific Rim and Stevenson’s novella draws out the long history of posthumanism, the theory that ‘the dividing line between human and non-human or animal is difficult to delineate… and [also] highly permeable’ (Buchanan). As you relate, the ‘co-cognitive experiences’ of the Jaeger pilots offset the cognitive divisions one sees in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Additionally, the historical contexts for each differ quite greatly. Stevenson’s novella bears the marks of the gothic tale, the Victorian fascination with crime, and of course an interest in all things science; conversely, Pacific Rim, along with several other rival Marvel films, are interested in (perhaps even obsessed?) with the digital future and the fate of the human species itself.

    What I find particularly interesting about these vastly different posthumanist tales is, funnily enough, the place of the human in them. Or, to be more exact, how the individual protagonists in these stories bear the weight of social and historical forces. In class, we have lightly touched on the peculiar way that the 19th century novel tackled this problem: by providing a resolution to the personal struggles of characters, Victorian fiction assuaged the social dilemmas that sparked the plot in the first place. I wonder, then, in what sense Pacific Rim and other Marvel films deal with the complex mediation between the personal in the social? A preliminary thought is that these films largely obviate the personal because the subject of the survival of the species is too broad to work out any problems the lone individual might have. Perhaps I am a little harsh, but it seems to me that most of the Marvel films do not bother at all with characterization; many characters in these movies are mere surfaces, too busy saving the world to have concrete personalities. They are, in a bizarre sense, post-human, beyond individual human problems precisely because they are trying to ensure species survival. Perhaps we could discuss this in class?

    Great post!

    Ian Buchanan, A Dictionary of Critical Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2010.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Excellent post, Katie, and super discussion starter, ajon8090! I like how you each address the cognitive hybridities of posthumanism, whereby the splits of consciousness blur the boundaries between human and non-human. I’d like to add more consideration to embodiment and the non-human for our discussion tomorrow, since Mr. Hyde is frequently described in animalistic terms. His attacks in the Carew Murder case wield “ape-like fury” (20), and during his escape from the cabinet later in the novel, his sound is describes as follows: “A dismal screech, as of mere animal terror, rang from the cabinet” (41). The associations of Mr. Hyde with animality are likewise made in terms of his appearance.

    The distinctions between the civilized Dr. Jeckyll and the animalistic Mr. Hyde are further complicated when we consider prior to his escape in the cabinet, the butler admits that he has heard him “[w]eeping like a woman or a lost soul […]” (40). Such a statement brings together the human and spirit, material and immaterial, in ways that complicate our understandings on what shapes the hierarchies between the human and non-human. (In many ways, this concept also relates to our reading/discussion of Colin Dayan’s essay on Poe previously this semester.) Looking forward to seeing how this corresponds more with the social and political forces of the late 19th century tomorrow!

    Liked by 1 person

  • vandyjg says:

    Hi Katie,

    I haven’t seen Pacific Rim, but your thorough synopsis and curation of clips does a great job highlighting its relevance to classic stories like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which complicate the line between the human and non-human. I’m especially interested in this demarcation in terms of how it calls forth questions of good vs. evil. I was surprised reading Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde this time around to realize that it’s not a classic story of good vs. evil. Though Dr. Jekyll is open to the possibility of human beings containing “a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens,” (104) the split that he ultimately orchestrates is between evil and “still the old Henry Jekyll, that incongruous compound of whose reformation and improvement I had already learned to despair.” We learn, “The movement was thus wholly toward the worse” (109). If human beings contain such polity, why is a purely good version of his identity not one of the variables?

    This line of questioning transfers well to the world of superhero movies, particularly because this genre so often traffics in good/evil binaries. In Pacific Rim, the insufficiency of human beings to represent the power of good on their own is underscored by the two protagonists’ ordinary characterization (“we were never star athletes”) as well as their empowering integration with machines; indeed, the vulnerability of man is a common trope of such action films, which often outfit its heroes with superhuman (or animalistic) powers (Watchmen (2009) offers a truly inspired divergence from this trope). I wonder why a story like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a fairly straightforward allegorical tale, ends up refuting such a categorical distinction. Could it be attributable to human anxiety about the power of pure good to stand up against pure evil? Do we suspect that good would lose, if given a fair, unadulterated chance?

    The question of purity runs throughout Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—human beings are imperfect precisely because they are “commingled;” medicine is ineffective if it is not pure. I wonder how this reflects on the integration of humans/machines that we’re seeing in so many movies like Pacific Rim (as well as outside the superhero genre). If people are imperfect and divided from the start, will technological aids work to suture that split, or further fracture it? Of course there’s not a simple or singular answer to such a question, but it is interesting to see its various manifestations in the “long history of posthumanism” that ajon cites above.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Marianne Zumberge says:

    Wonderful stuff, Katie! I also have high hopes for the next installment of “Pacific Rim,” particularly since Boyega is such a sympathetic leading man, in my very humble opinion.

    I’m so glad “Ajon” and Cameron brought up both Marvel and the animal/human comparisons, as those topics were heavy on my mind during this week’s reading.

    I’m caught by the suggestion made by Mark Ruffalo as Dr. Banner in the latest Marvel film (which is fantastic), “Thor: Ragnarok,” that spending more time as the Hulk weakens his capability to switch back and forth between personas. One might assume that more familiarity with each situation might improve one’s dexterity in the transitions; and yet the opposite proves true both for Banner/Hulk and Jekyll/Hyde. If these narratives are hoping to caution readers against spending too much time dissociating from humanity (whether via scientific endeavors, technology obsession, or similar), what are they suggesting about the personas we inhabit whilst engaging with these extensions of self (a la Marshall McLuhan)?

    The distinct lines drawn between “intellectual types” and “physicality driven personalities” in these narratives has me thinking about the differences between 2017 humans’ in-person behavior versus our online behavior, which is sometimes much more brazen under the precept of anonymity. Do we become animals online?

    Liked by 2 people

  • e.britos says:

    Thanks for this exciting post, Katie! I have yet to see “Pacific Rim”, but it sounds intriguing. I like the connection you made between a “neural handshake” in “Pacific Rim” with the conjoined consciousness we see in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
    I am particularly interested in a the quote you use regarding warring entities in the book: ‘”two natures that contented in the field of [his consciousness”–one hedonistic, the other moral–until he found the means to chemically separate them” (42). As vandyjg mentions, this is not a battle of pure good vs pure evil, but rather a relatively moral entity vs a purely amoral one.
    The discussion here is mostly about superhero franchises, but I would say the fantasy big leagues tout the mostly-good-vs-very-evil theme as well. I am thinking of Smeagol vs Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Smeagol is not wholly good, yet Gollum’s every action revolves around his obtaining the One Ring–or, one could say–power. The longing for and addiction to power (or, perhaps, the power to feel powerful) seems to be a theme in these stories, and Stevenson makes the analogy of a “drunkard reason[ing] upon his vice.”
    I am wondering if the double/power quest is a mostly male conceit in mainstream storytelling. The movie Black Swan offers a portrait of a ballerina driven to the brink of madness by her obsession to be perfect–which, it seems, means to lose her dancerly control. Her identity splits into her “black” self and her normal, plays-by-the-rules self. This split, one might argue, is borne of her desire for power–but this power is of a particular brand, one in which one gains power by being looked at. I am curious if anyone can think of a similar splitting/doubling/”neural handshaking” with a female storyline that is not somehow wrapped up in a quest for power-through-beauty. I’m sure they exist!

    Liked by 1 person

  • lucysmkim says:

    Great post, Katie!

    Your post and the comments on issues of hybridity, that is, the merging of human and machine, as well as questions of posthumanism, and the blurring of the boundaries between the human and the non-human all point to an enduring fascination with changes in the human mind and body which seem timeless – after all, with each advance in science, medicine, and technology (even criminology!), our notions of what constitutes the human, and even our humanity, shift. This reminds me of an article I recently came across concerning Saudi Arabia’s granting citizenship status to a humanoid robot, Sophia. This instance, already newsworthy in the sense that is speaks to growing concerns, even anxiety, over the increasingly obscure distinctions between humans and machines, struck many people as being particularly ironic in the sense that this occurred in a country that has at numerous times come under fire for its unequal treatment of its women as well as its considerable population of foreign workers and their inhabitants. You can find the article here: The article also contains some of the controversy surrounding the rapid advancement of AI – aka the “AI nightmare” question – in which Elon Musk is often summoned. The article quotes Musk, “AI is a fundamental risk to the future of human civilization in a way that car accidents, airplane crashes, faulty drugs or bad food were not. They were harmful to a set of individuals in society, but they were not harmful to individuals as a whole.” The superhero flicks which some other people in this thread have mentioned seem to draw their blockbuster franchises from such doubts and uncertainties that linger, even among seeming champions of technology such as Elon Musk.

    Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) seems to be a classic owing to its shared investment in questions of what constitutes the human, or humanity, questions which will always be as timely as they are timeless. Other people in this thread have mentioned human-machine fusions, which we find relatable, perhaps, than most any other topic involving such questions of human identity, but reading Stevenson’s novella also reminded me of particularly late Victorian circumstances, such as the growing presence of foreigners in London streets that, in a way, might find contemporary parallels in mixed responses to immigration policies. Jekyll and Hyde without doubt concerns the “commingled” (55) composition of individuals, but this can also be an allusion to the social body, increasingly “commingled” as it is with people from different parts of the globe-spanning empire and which could have been perceived with somewhat unease as foreigners passing as Victorians in broad daylight, visibly invisible. I think this could be another topic we could take up in today’s class, and perhaps continue in our discussion of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897). Looking forward!

    Liked by 1 person

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