Canceling the Apocalypse? Cosmic Monsters and Tiny Humans in ‘Pacific Rim’

Canceling the Apocalypse? Cosmic Monsters and Tiny Humans in ‘Pacific Rim’ August 2, 2013

This summer saw the release of Pacific Rim, the latest movie from Mexican-born director Guillermo del Toro, who won widespread acclaim for several of his earlier films, especially Pan’s Labyrinth. Though performing strong overseas, Pacific Rim has fared relatively poorly in America despite generally favorable critical reviews (a solid 72% at Rotten Tomatoes). This failure may be due in part to poor marketing; while the movie was heavily promoted by Warner Bros., previews focused almost exclusively on the effects shots of giant robots fighting giant aliens.

Though such battles are indeed the movie’s central conceit, del Toro’s work goes on significant stretches that zero in primarily on its characters, a feature which would not have been evident to those simply watching the trailers. Indeed, it’s this focus that in part makes Pacific Rim such a peculiarly intriguing movie to me, because it represents a significant departure from the philosophical matrix of one of del Toro’s major influences, horror author H. P. Lovecraft.

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) made his reputation publishing tales of terror in the Golden Age of American pulp magazines such as the influential Weird Tales. In the process, he spawned the “Cthulhu mythos,” a series of stories in which his characters (often New Englanders like himself) encounter massive primordial monsters from beyond our solar system. Such stories helped Lovecraft — an ardent atheist — advance his commitment to what has been termed “cosmicism.” According to Lovecraft critic S. T. Joshi, cosmicism can be understood from three angles:

[A]s a philosophical conception (an awareness of the vastness of the universe), an ethical conception (a realization of the insignificance of the human race), and an aesthetic conception (the suggestion, through literature and art, of the boundless universe of unknown elements, entities, and phenomena)…

Del Toro’s admiration for Lovecraft is well-known. Prior to Pacific Rim, del Toro was hard at work trying to convince Universal Studios to bankroll a movie version of Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness. In some regards, Lovecraft’s work is not entirely unlike Pacific Rim; they both place humans in the paths of trans-dimensional alien monsters that emerge from hidden locations (Antarctica in Mountains, the ocean floor in Pacific Rim). And, to a certain extent, they are both manifestations of cosmicism. The massive yet sentient creatures that arrive to torment humanity function to a certain extent symbolically: they represent the vast, indifferent (or actively hostile) cosmos, the dark backdrop against which insignificant human life is set.

Where del Toro parts company with Lovecraft’s cosmicism, however, is in his love of, and interest in, humanity. While his friends would not have characterized him as a misanthrope, Lovecraft maintained that the human race was ultimately entirely insignificant and that to deny this insignificance was intellectually dishonest. To that end, the characters in Lovecraft’s works are almost exclusively bland. Though some of his protagonists exhibit an autobiographical curiosity about the terrible unknown, Lovecraft deliberately leaves them underdeveloped. Dialogue is sparse and mostly functional when it comes; women in general, and love interests in particular, are almost wholly absent. But none of this is an accident: Lovecraft doesn’t want you to care about his characters because he doesn’t care about his characters, because the cosmos his characters inhabit doesn’t care about them.

It would be fascinating to see what del Toro would do with At the Mountains of Madness, since he actually does care about humans. Indeed, he has been reported as saying, “I believe in man. I believe in mankind, as the worst and the best that has happened to this world.” This belief animates the key difference between Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos and del Toro’s epic of robots and aliens. In every Lovecraft story, humans are powerless in the face of the ravening invaders. Moreover, his characters tend to be solitary, seldom experiencing any sense of human community. But in Pacific Rim, human beings do not remain powerless against the rampaging monstrous kaiju. Instead, they create the massive robotic jaegers so as to make themselves a match. The jaegers are possible only through human cooperation and connectivity. They are funded and created through international efforts and must be piloted by not one but two individuals neurologically linked. According to del Toro:

The pilots’ smaller stories actually make a bigger point, which is that we’re all together in the same robot [in life]… Either we get along or we die. I didn’t want this to be a recruitment ad or anything jingoistic. The idea of the movie is just for us to trust each other, to cross over barriers of color, sex, beliefs, whatever, and just stick together. Fundamentally, it’s a very simple message.

There is certainly some room for critical debate about how well del Toro succeeds in developing the pilots’ stories in Pacific Rim. Many have decried the pilots for being flat or generic, though I personally found them somewhat compelling, particularly the dynamic between the psychically traumatized pilots Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), along with their mentor, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). But even if the critics are right, anyone who has read stories in the Cthulhu mythos can affirm that del Toro’s characters are certainly more substantial than Lovecraft’s.

All of which lads me to the question: To what extent is del Toro’s “belief in mankind” consonant with the cosmicism he has clearly, at least in some regards, inherited from Lovecraft — what del Toro has elsewhere called “the transitory nature of our agency in this world and the unyielding ferocity of the cosmos”? In naming the jaeger program’s leader after the day on which the Church was founded, del Toro invokes his Roman Catholic upbringing to suggest the unity across boundaries that occurred at Pentecost. With his Pentecost, however, the only “gods” are the Cthulhu-like kaiju.

In his final rousing speech, Stacker Pentecost claims that “we are canceling the apocalypse.” In the immediate context, this apocalypse means the would-be annihilation of humanity by the kaiju. But in rejecting any clear eschatology, del Toro must also “cancel the apocalypse” of Christian hope, the thought of an eternal life beyond this one. The cooperation of people across borders in the face of extinction can ensure survival, and the radical empathy experienced by jaeger pilots can create intimacy and temporal happiness. Yet these actions can only stave off extinction for a moment. Ultimately, in cosmicism, Lovecraft is right: humans don’t matter. Ultimately, the kaiju win.

That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate Guillermo del Toro’s call “to trust each other, to cross over barriers of color, sex, beliefs, whatever, and just stick together.” Such trust and unity is certainly admirable. The biblical call for shalom and the global nature of God’s kingdom cross many of these barriers. In Pacific Rim, the only way such trust can occur is when the survival of the species is at stake, and it comes in the form of a violent resistance against a monstrous cosmos. But perhaps the original Pentecost offers a more coherent call for cooperation and unity, one founded on an apocalypse that is a source of hope rather than terror.

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