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Drift Space

Film still from Pacific Rim trailer

It makes a certain sense that reviews critical of Pacific Rim are disappointed with its politics. The global disaster films of the last decade have primed us to judge them by their treatment of themes of globalization – and Pacific Rim’s is decidedly oblique. The contemporaneous transnational ‘mosaic film’, as Patricia Pisters has called it, invites a similar response. Though the latter genre is less spectacular and more narratively complex than the former, both promote a conception of the world as a single, claustrophobic, interconnected space; because ‘everything is connected’ – culturally and politically no less than environmentally and spatially – the fates of the ‘structurally unequal’ are rendered equally precarious. Local events have immediate global repercussions, the mass media mediates, space and time feel dramatically tight and measured – by flight paths and time zones, longitudes and elevations. Pacific Rim is not this kind of film, however – though it is careful to make the gestures necessary to thwart and mock these expectations.

In contrast to, say, Independence Day (1996) or The Day After Tomorrow (2004) or 2012 (2009), Guillermo del Toro’s film is not the sustained fantasy of global self-destruction and international cooperation that we have come to expect. Global space is not organized according to political or national landmarks, and the film is conspicuously alone in avoiding their gratuitous decimation. The Sydney Opera House is almost smashed, but left intact – and even the Statue of Liberty (which has been frozen, buried in sand, decapitated, and submerged)[1] is spared a cameo, despite the gag its Jaeger-like scale could easily have invited. Though we do always know where we are, geographically-speaking, locations are not moored to definite geopolitical contexts. This refusal to geopoliticize space is reflected in the geopolitical crisis, or failure, that the film only briefly treats, and never resolves (by dahl at dress head). The theme of global cooperation under American leadership introduced by Independence Day and symbolically transferred to China by 2012 is raised only in passing, in order to be quickly retracted in a brief conference call where the Jaeger program is canceled – after which, as far as we can tell, there is simply no functioning political or global institution.

As standard globalization themes are neutralized one after the other – the incomplete allegorical meaning of the Wall in the film has frustrated many – it becomes clear that Pacific Rim is interested in something much bigger, and less disappointing, than political economy: the relationship between materiality (matter, stuff, substance) and the self (subject, psyche, interiority) to which it is traditionally opposed. Though the film does initially frame the Kaiju as an environmental, rather than political, allegory – in a monologue toward the beginning of the film, Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) explains that the pollution of the earth by humans has finally made the planet hospitable to the Kaiju, after their failed expedition in prehistoric times – its conception of ecology is less materialist or physicalist than psychological and metaphysical. Instead of didactically condemning the pollution of the earth, it sets for itself a much more obscure, and immaterial, target: the model of the self to which this conception of matter is attached. Though the earth is introduced as a real ecology in collapse, it is also positioned as a kind of psychic space, and submitted to an architecture that turns it inward, as if the Kaiju are living nightmares, ‘the return of the repressed’, or some failed disavowal, but in any case something ‘inside’. The monsters, we are told in the opening voiceover, did not come from without, from outer space, as genre conventions would lead us to expect, but from an inter-dimensional tunnel beneath the ocean floor – a portal between worlds that, incidentally, corresponds to ‘the drift’ between otherwise unbridgeable minds. Achieving the one will destroy the other.

A kaiju skull prematurely committed to display in a natural history museum.

The inextricability of the two portals – one between worlds, the other between people – motivates the film’s events, and is raised to a metaphysical rather than strictly ecological problem. Aesthetically and narratively, the film relentlessly grafts the one onto the other, as if the world itself is a kind of drift space with which we are unable to ‘synchronize’. In the most powerful scene of the film – where Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) relives, in the drift, the trauma of her family’s death by Kaiju – her difficulty coming to terms with the experience is both rendered capable of destroying the resistance itself, through the magnified powers of the Jaeger (which threatens to become, in this instance, a Kaiju), and is resolved temporarily through the calming influence of Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and her memory of Commander Stacker Pentecost’s (Idris Elba) rescuing her from the ruins.

It’s difficult to say exactly what kind of subject this short, rich scene is envisioning, but its anti-Oedipal, non-white architecture, and rejection of classical conceptions of ‘presence’ and a ‘self-identical self’,[2] make it not only the heart of the film, but its clearest vision of a future. However we read this scene, it seems unusual, for this or any genre, to present it as an immaterial solution to what can no longer be thought of as a strictly material problem. It suggests that the one – our use and abuse of space, people, life – is intimately connected to a management of feelings, which is, moreover, only achievable through a kind of irreducible intersubjectivity. The visualization of subjectivity in the film makes this clear, and literal. The self is to the body as the pilots are to the Jaeger as the Jaeger is to the world: each invokes problems of containment, cooperation, and the magnification of effect (or affect?) at a scale determined by feelings and their irresolution.

Conversely, the film quietly makes of every relation a drift. That Raleigh’s brother was killed within the drift is no different than if he was killed without. ‘Drift space’, in a sense, merely isolates or gives a name to mourning and empathy as a kind of fold in the self, an exposure of its distribution outward and in others. Pentecost’s heartbreaking farewell communique by radio to his daughter makes of every death a broken drift for the ones who love them. And every cooperation, between the scientists Geiszler and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) for instance, aspires to the mutual receptivity of the drift, which gladly remains under-determined and vague. How could it be exact? Pentecost’s enigmatic remark that “I take nothing with me” rings with a profound capacity for empathy that, it seems, is inseparable from the deep sadness he carries with him and needs no explanation. Instead of displacing ‘cooperation’ to nations, and ‘sovereignty’ to the individual, Pacific Rim relates their twin mechanics to the monsters that they both resist and were born of.

Raleigh talking Mako through her traumatic memory, in the drift.

The trading of geopolitical for material space, and the displacement of action to an inner, affective space, makes the film’s massive visual landscape not simply an innovative, spectacular mode of special effects but a visualization of interiority, and a trembling before trauma’s capacity to consume self and world from within. Thus the magnitude and inhuman scale of Pacific Rim is not just an intensification of action-flick tropes, but takes these tropes to a kind of hyperbolic conclusion, rendering the materiality of the world curiously immaterial and abstract, and in so doing traces its shape and abuse to our motives and unresolved traumas. Certain imperceptible rules of action encourage the collapse of space and self: the first being the conspicuously unpeopled structures shredded often in close-up. No one in this film dies on screen, and even the most gory scene is retracted in the Easter egg after the credits. For a film supposedly about violence on an unprecedented, total scale, there are no bodies, only the subjects that, together, wear and comprise them.

Perhaps it’s less the case that, as Fredric Jameson famously remarked, we are unable to imagine a future without capitalism, and in so doing fantasize about its destruction, but rather that our world is organized as if without one. In a quiet, fleeting moment that could easily be mistaken for cliché, Raleigh says to Mako, toward the end of the film, “I’ve never thought about the future before.” The future, for Pacific Rim, is neither hopeless nor impossible; it’s a feeling we’ve never had before.


  1. In, respectively, The Day After Tomorrow (2004)Planet of the Apes (1968); Cloverfield (2008), Deep Impact (1998), and Escape from New York (1981); A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). []
  2. By this I just mean that the transparency of the self to itself, and its classical securement through a phenomenological ‘now’ moment, is directly rejected by this scene. Not only is Mako literally not present to herself, she is caught between two alienations – one from her past trauma, which erupts uncontrollably within her, and the other from the surrogate body through whom she acts as an uncontrollable eruption. []