The World’s End & Pacific Rim on the Importance of ImperfectionPosted: September 25, 2013
It seems like the apocalypse has been showing up in our movies a lot more often recently; from huge, city-destroying battles in Man of Steel to the post-calamity hellscapes of Oblivion and After Earth to the comedic insanity of This Is The End or the more meditative considerations of something like Melancholia, the end of the world seems to be on everyone’s minds. However, despite the inherent grimness of the subject matter, the apocalypse can actually provide a hopeful point of view on the world, and this was most apparent to me in my two favorite movies this year: Pacific Rim and The World’s End. Spoilers abound for both, after the jump:
Obviously the real world looks to be kind of a mess right now: economic instability, mass shootings, wars… other bad things, I’m sure. So it’s really no surprise that pop culture would reflect the general shitstorm that is the world at large. However, it might not seem so obvious that a storyteller might use such horrific backdrops to tell reassuring, hopeful stories about the nature of humanity. And yet, that’s exactly what Edgar Wright, Guillermo del Toro and their collaborators have done with their latest films, and most interestingly they’ve done it not by focusing on the clear positives of human nature, but by exploring our faults instead.
Of the two movies, Pacific Rim definitely has the more straightforward and simplistic approach. It’s a film whose every frame drips the theme of cooperation, the idea that humanity can always overcome their differences for the sake of the greater good, especially in the face of tragedy and destruction. However I feel that its approach to this idea comes from a very specific point of view about what’s necessary for that sort of cooperation. The story of Pacific Rim is that a series of gigantic monsters called Kaiju have been pouring out of a rift in the Pacific ocean and attacking us at the behest of aliens wanting to take Earth for themselves (yeah yeah it’s just like Independence Day, whatever). In response, humanity has banded together and created the Jaegers, massive mechs that are the only truly effective weapon against the Kaiju. It is within the confines of the Jaegers we see the movie’s theme played out most effectively. It all comes down to The Drift.
In Pacific Rim, the Jaeger pilots must merge their minds through a psychic bridge called The Drift, and in doing so expose themselves and each other to the entirety of their beings, particularly (and most dangerously) to their traumas and demons. The main characters, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) have to share their fears of the enemy Kaiju; Raleigh from losing his brother in combat, Mako from her near-death as a child. It is only from their exposure to and acceptance of these awful memories that they are able to unlock their full shared potential and therefore win the day. To me, this speaks to the notion that in order to work together with someone against adversity, and be able to move forward, you need to accept them as a whole, and understand who they are, warts and all.
Meanwhile, The World’s End takes a much more complex and multilayered approach to the subject, but seems to still arrive in the same place. The story follows Gary King (Simon Pegg), who prior to the start of the film has been drowning himself in booze and drugs, running away from the adulthood that had become such a disappointment to him. This culminates with him regressing completely to trying to recreate the peak of his life, a pub crawl with his friends over 20 years prior. In doing so they discover an alien invasion in their home town, with people being replaced with relatively lifeless automatons when they don’t agree with the logical, mature values of The Network. This all comes to a head with Gary facing down The Network directly (while quite drunk) and convincing it that humanity isn’t capable of submitting to a higher intelligence, no matter how right it might be. The Network agrees, abandons Earth and sends everything back to the Dark Ages.
Essentially the view of The Network is that humanity has great potential but our faults are holding us back. They’re offering us a path of progress and superiority, provided that we stifle some of our baser- and more human- instincts. But the viewpoint of Gary and his friends is that its more important for people to retain their flaws (and therefore their humanity) than to give up their personality in the name of some bland emotionless “utopia.” As Gary tells The Network, “… Earth isn’t perfect alright? And humans aren’t perfect and guess what? I ain’t perfect!” Much in the way Pacific Rim‘s Jaeger pilots must accept each other’s baggage in order to function as a whole, so too must society as a whole recognize and (on some level) accept people’s flaws before anyone can move forward. (Devin Faraci at Badass Digest has also put forth the theory that the whole climax is a metaphor for AA and how flawed it is, which is awesome and I think emphasizes the theme I’m talking about.)
But there is more to it than that, on both fronts. It isn’t just a case of “Nobody’s perfect, so let’s embrace everyone’s imperfections and go from there.” In both Pacific Rim and The World’s End, there is another important step to take before that. In Pacific Rim, Raleigh needs to overcome the pain of losing his brother, first to come back to the Jaeger program at all, then again when first Drifting with Mako. He has to deal with his own problems before he can even think of accepting Mako’s, and Mako must do the same. Similarly, in The World’s End Gary needs to get over both the disappointment of his adulthood, and his debilitating nostalgia for his youth, before telling The Network to “fuck off back to Legoland.” Before being able to cope with the imperfections of the people and the world around them, both heroes first must cope with the imperfections in themselves.
And the results speak for themselves: Raleigh and Mako together pilot Gypsy Danger to victory, with both of them secure with both their own issues and each other’s. And Gary, after the apocalypse, is able to still live the rollicking life he wanted, but sober and seemingly with a purpose (defending the rights of blanks). Both Raleigh and Gary have come to terms with their own pasts, as well as the world around them, in order to succeed. In the end (or rather, The End), both films serve as a reminder that people’s problems and imperfections are the rule, not the exception. It’s certainly possible for humanity to work together towards a greater good, but not while being ignorant of our nature. And, as The World’s End demonstrates, utopia isn’t really possible, but it also isn’t really necessary. All that’s necessary is that we work together, and be mindful of both our own faults and the faults of others, rather than trying to eliminate those flaws altogether. Together, both films paint a hopeful, if measured, picture of how we can move our world forward, starting with ourselves.
As Stacker Pentecost (the great Idris Elba) says in his Rousing Pre-Battle Speech: “… we have chosen not only to believe in ourselves, but in each other. Today there is not a man nor woman in here that shall stand alone.” But also, as Gary King cheekily puts it: “Hey it is our basic human right to be fuck ups. This civilization was founded on fuck ups and you know what? That makes me proud!” And, if we can embrace both sides of this particular cinematic coin, therein lies the recipe for beating the apocalypse.