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 Rangers’ Megazord 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
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.