Last month, at Continuum, Stephanie and I spent a lot of time talking about social justice on panels and so forth. (Sometimes we just yelled about issues informally, too!) But whenever people asked us for resources, we found most of the sites that exist are American. Which is lovely, but the Australian perspective is effectively non-existent.
So we’ve started this blog to give ourselves a forum to talk about media, social justice, fandom, the Australian experience, the non-American experience and more.
I’m going to begin with Pacific Rim.
[This post contains spoilers.]
I didn’t go into Pacific Rim wanting it to be bad.
I’d like to emphasise that because I’ve been quite openly cynical about the way it has been adopted on Tumblr as a great movie for social justice, diversity and all those good things. (I am often cynical about Tumblr when it comes to social justice.) I expressed amusement when the initial pro reviews were lukewarm, and was promptly taken to task by fanboys for saying their shiny robot movie might be a bit rubbish.
But then it was actually released, and I saw reviews from fans who had seen it, who were still praising its diversity, feminism and all around good qualities.
I was still cynical, but I went in expecting a movie like The Avengers — witty dialogue, great action scenes, just enough characterisation to hang a fandom on — but more diverse.
(I also wanted something that would take my mind off the rhinovirus that has made its home in my upper respiratory system. I would like a movie about giant robots punching the common cold in the face, please.)
Instead, I got … well.
Guillermo del Toro has said that he set out to recreate the kaiju and mecha films he loved as a child, and to introduce them to a new generation of kids. That’s excellent! I really applaud that! Especially the way he took a genre that’s quintessentially Japanese and made it all about white dudes.
“But Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi have major roles!” you say.
Yes, and in fact, I didn’t even realise the protagonist was a white dude until, like, a week ago. But Elba’s character, Stacker Pentecost, is a conglomeration of familiar stereotypes — Wise Mentor! Crusty General! Fatherly Paternal Father Figure! — and only briefly transcends them.
Kikuchi’s Mako Mori is a more complex character. She has a tragic past, and her ambition to be a Jaeger pilot is at odds with her respect for Pentecost, her adoptive father, and his need to protect her. (More about that in a sec.)
Much has been made of the film’s refusal to sexualise Mako (although Del Toro also said that he filmed the fight between Mako and the hero as if it was a sex scene, so make of that what you will), and I really admire the way she was portrayed. In a different movie, she would be a great character. As it is … well, normally I love media where brilliant, brave women have some secret trauma that still affects them. But Mako’s trauma turns her into an object instead of a three-dimensional character. The movie is full of men making choices for her, whether it’s Pentecost being protective and paternalistic, or Raleigh Becket, the whitedude hero, being … oh, look, protective and paternalistic! I wanted to pick Mako up and drop her down in a franchise that would appreciate her and treat her better. (You might say I started to feel protective and paternalistic.)
(I probably would have felt better about this if Mako hadn’t been the only prominent woman in the entire movie. There’s a Russian Jaegernaut, but she has, like, two lines of dialogue and then dies.)
There was a particularly pointless and horrifying sequence where Whitedude McManpain gets into a punch-up with the Douchebag Australian (more on him later) after he calls Mako a bitch. Mako stands in the background, clutching her hands and looking scared. It was quite stupid and laughably regressive.
That scene alone would merely be pointless, but it’s followed by Whitedude following Mako and literally backing her up against a wall to get her to open up to him. He’s a lot bigger than she is, and it the body language was ugly and intimidating. Mako just flees, and I realised that this was a script that had no respect for its characters.
Not that it’s easy to make any judgement at all about the script, because two-thirds of the dialogue was inaudible. That was partially because of the terrible sound-mixing and VERY LOUD SOUNDTRACK, but it was also because there were lots of actors doing accents that weren’t their own. Idris Elba had three or four going, and I have to say, his Australian accent was great. Much better than the actual “Australian” characters.
How to make a cinema full of Australians laugh: cast Americans and English people as Australians. (The audience also erupted when Mako peered at shirtless!Whitedude through her door’s peephole, ‘cos all Japanese are perverts, amiright? DON’T YOU GET IT? IT’S FUNNY.) But, yes, New Yorker Max Martini as the older Australian was not great, but okay. Brit Robert Kazinsky as his douchebag son, “Chuck” — seriously, the least Australian name ever — was terrible. I kept expecting kangaroos to appear in the background every time he spoke, and Paul Hogan to appear, throwing “shrimp” on the barbie and drinking Fosters.
(Tip: no one in Australia drinks Fosters. It’s an elaborate prank we played on Americans in the ’80s, and now we can’t get away from it.)
Now, I’m pretty eyerolly at the way Del Toro’s portrayal of Australians involved blond-haired, sunburnt white men who talk like Steve Irwin. How’s that “diversity” going, hey? Where is my Jaeger team consisting of Shari Sebbens and Renee Lim?
But if I can’t have a Jaeger team who actually reflect the reality of Australia’s demographics, I’d settle for people who talk like us. Hollywood is overflowing with hopeful Australian actors who’d jump at a supporting role in a big movie. Go find the next Hemsworths, or whatever, and leave your colonialist constructions at home.
Hey, that brings us to colonialism!
Ron Perlman plays Hannibal Chau, a white dude who runs a black market in kaiju organs out of Hong Kong. The part was originally for a person of colour, but apparently Del Toro decided it would be hilarious to have a white man with a Chinese name. SO FUNNY, RIGHT? WHY AREN’T YOU LAUGHING?
So we have Hong Kong, a former British colony, with a black market run by a white man. And not just any black market, but one that runs out of the back room of a traditional Chinese medicine shop — which is also run by a white man, while Asians stand in the background and look menacing (and silent).
Perlman’s workers are also mostly white, and Anglophone. There’s an extra in a conical hat (at night!) in the background of one scene, but otherwise, the only Asians in his vicinity are the gangsters who enforce his rule. So that’s nice!
Even outside of Chau’s milieu, the Hong Kong setting felt decidedly othered. (I had to run this past Steph, since the closest I’ve been to China is a couple of stopovers in Hong Kong airport, but she confirmed it.) There are narrow streets and lanterns and scary thuggish dudes! The kaiju shelter is full of people in suits who turn against the white scientist dude and leave him to the mercy of the kaiju!
(In fairness, he totally led the kaiju to them. Don’t mindmeld with unfamiliar entities. This is a public service announcement from the Vulcan High Command.)
On the subject of casual racism, there’s the name of the American Jaeger: Gipsy Danger. “Gipsy”, also spelled “Gypsy”, is a racist slur referring to the Romani. (It has been adopted, particularly in America, as a woman’s name, because people are awful.)
I don’t think I was meant to be thinking about the implications of a white American and a Japanese woman trashing a Chinese city in a mecha with a racist name, but by the time that scene came up, I was pretty disengaged from, you know, the narrative.
(This scene does have a pretty cool bit where Racist Danger picks up a MASSIVE SHIP and uses it as a weapon. It’s one of the few moments where you really appreciate the scale of the Jaegers, because most of the visuals are quite derivative of the Iron Man franchise — although that owes a lot to the mecha genre anyway. Tony Stark punches ocean-dwelling dinosaurs in the face. Actually, I’d watch that.)
There are a lot of white faces among the supporting characters, too. I mean, a surprising amount of white faces given that the Jaeger base is in Hong Kong. And a profound lack of South Americans, which I find strange since South America is, you know, along the Pacific Rim. Del Toro has made much of this movie being internationalist and devoid of nationalist biases, but it’s basically “a few countries that aren’t America, and also all but one of the non-Anglophones and people of colour are dead at the end”.
I will say that none of the deaths of people of colour are used to teach Whitedude McManpain an important lesson about heroism, so well done on that front. But we still end up with a hell of a lot of dead people of colour, and sidelined people of colour, and white people where people of colour could be.
There are also a hell of a lot of men. I mentioned that Mako is the only significant female character, but there are almost no female extras. Even in the Hong Kong scenes, there are very few women. We have two zany scientists having a love/hate bromance, but they’re both men. Science isn’t for ladies, right?
(One of the scientists is played by Burn Gorman. I think he might have been quite good, but it’s hard to tell because I couldn’t hear much of his dialogue.)
All in all, Pacific Rim is a mess. I found it quite dull, but I would be a lot more forgiving if it hadn’t failed on so many levels. Clearly I went in with expectations that were too high. (Friends who hadn’t been led to expect a really cool movie that treated its female characters and people of colour with respect were more forgiving.) But I don’t like to think my expectations for a big, dumb movie that wasn’t racist or sexist were unreasonable.
Stephanie has even more to say about this than I do, so stay tuned for her three posts dissecting Pacific Rim. I think she’s going to get all geopolitical about it, and she has already pointed out that the Mandarin for the Chinese Jaeger’s name doesn’t quite work, so this will be good.
[ETA: I got some actors’ nationalities confused. Well done, Liz!]