Pacific Rim is a movie that I love. Giant robot’s fighting giant monsters? Hell yeah, I’m so there. It is also, unfortunately not a movie that is particularly good. Don’t get me wrong, the core concept is great and the fight scenes incredible, but the story is lackluster, the character stilted and unengaging, and the world makes absolutely no sense.
And yeah, I know: you don’t watch a movie about giant robots expecting hard science and realism. But I’d argue that the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and that having to throw out all suspension of disbelief actually hurts Pacific Rim. The thing about science fiction and fantasy is that while you have to accept some ridiculous things at the front door as the price of admission, once you’re in, the story has to play be the rules it’s set up in its little self contained universe.
And Pacific Rim doesn’t really do that. In the logic of the film itself a lot of things still don’t make any sense. Why don’t the humans just bomb the kaiju from range when we’re shown quite clearly that explosives can kill them? Why doesn’t Gypsy Danger use it’s forearm blade only at the last second? The problem with logical inconsistencies like these are that they snap the audience out of the world and sap the tension from the movie. There’s no tension in the fights if the jaegers can just pull a sword out of nowhere.
To reintroduce tension and some kind of logical framework, what Pacific Rim needs is what all good science fiction has: a techno-babble explanation. And I think I’ve thought of one that works really well.
The Drift Effect
For lack of a better name we’re going to call it the drift effect. Essentially, the drift effect is key to the functioning of a kaiju biology. It’s a kind of field or net that binds the entirety of the kaiju together and keeps it from crumbling under the strain of its own impossible size and weight. The effect not only makes kaiju immune to the stresses of gravity, but also makes them nearly impervious to both explosive and concussive force and a kaiju could skip off the surface of the sun without getting so much as a sunburn. It also means that essentially all conventional firearms or ordinance of any kind is useless against them. The drift effect does have one weakness though; it can be breached and damaged by another drift effect. Which is where the necessity of jaegers comes in.
From the corpses of the first few kaiju that were eventually worn down and defeated by repeated saturation nuking, humans were able to reverse engineer how to generate a crude drift effect of their own. The effect still isn’t well understood though, and while the human version is easy to maintain on an object while it’s stationary, as soon as the object is in motion the effect destabilizes and the object immediately begins to crumble and slough away.
The only way to stabilize the drift effect in movement is for it to be hooked up to a human nervous system. Something about the autonomic nervous system regulates it far more efficiently than a computer, but the interface is far from perfect. Regulating the drift effects causes huge strain on the human mind as the jaeger chassis is processed by the nervous system as a second body and tangles with the pilot’s subsconscious understanding of their own body. This is why all jaegers are human shaped and confined to the use of their own limbs as weapons against the kaiju; any other jaeger form would cause phantom limb pain and neural backlash severe enough to render the pilot catatonic. It’s also why two pilots are a necessity: it shares the neural strain and keeps them from going catatonic.
Compatibility between pilots, and pilots and jaegers, is an incredibly fickle thing though, and the factors involved are not well understood. An aspiring pilot might have a low compatibility rating in general, but have a perfect match when paired with a specific jaeger, or only with the specific combination of another pilot and jaeger. And even when paired well, keeping the drift effect even and stable is difficult and requires constant effort and razor sharp focus. The drift is regulated by the pilots’ subconscious, and so any emotional distress or uncertainty will begin to destabilize it.
The strength of the effect is also enhanced by the compatibility and focus of the pilots: the stronger the drift effect the more resistant to damage the jaeger becomes, and perfectly synced pilots can even extend the effect to bladed weapons for short periods: doing so risks the entire drift effect destabilizing though, and the longer the effect is extended to a weapon the higher the risk grows. This creates a tension and risk vs reward tradeoff in using them.
In all, drift effect technology adds three key things to Pacific Rim: it explains why kaiju and jaegers are immune to normal weapons, it puts a huge mental strain on pilots, and it requires constant focus to maintain.
What The Drift Effect Fixes
If the drift effect literally binds jaegers and kaiju together, it actually fixes a huge amount of the plot holes and logical inconsistencies in Pacific Rim as it exists right now.
- Why don’t the humans just bombard the kaiju from range with bombs and artillery barrages? Because the drift effect makes kaiju immune to conventional weaponry.
- Why does Stacker seek out and recruit a disgraced pilot like Becket? Because jaeger compatibility is a fickle thing and Becket is already known to be compatible with Gypsy Danger.
- Why do the jaegers use bladed weapons so inconsistently? Because it’s dangerous to do so over sustained periods of time.
- How does an oil tanker not snap in half when swung? Because Mako and Becket are temporarily extending the drift effect to it.
- Why does Gypsy Danger only use its forearm blade right at the end of the battle? Because Mako and Becket were desperate and it even if it destabilizes the drift effect it’s their only option at that point.
- Why didn’t they use it from the start in the final battle? Because they’re more in sync at that point and able to use it without destabilizing the drift effect.
- Why is the bat terrasaur kaiju’s acid attack so devastatingly effective? Because the drift effect doesn’t normally allow for ranged attacks like that and so none of the jaegers were prepared for it.
The Plot Possibilities It Creates
The drift effect being a physical field also opens up a lot of great plot and fight possibilities and tensions. In the movie as it is now drift compatibility is already a metaphor and way of externalizing inner character growth: Mako isn’t able to pilot Gypsy Danger until she’s processed the trauma of her parents’ deaths. But this concept isn’t taken as far as it could be, because drift compatibility essentially binary: it either works perfectly, or it doesn’t. Mako initially has trouble connecting in the drift, but after that never has a problem with piloting Gypsy Danger. And that means her conflict, and the conflict of her and Becket piloting together, completely evaporates in the second half of the movie.
If instead of a binary switch, the drift effect is a constant process, it adds an entirely new dimension and tension to fights and externalizes character growth even more. Can Mako keep it together? Is the effect beginning to destabilize? Will deploying a blade risk the effect failing completely? Is it worth it? All of the above are great sources of tension, and connect directly with the characters’ arcs and conflicts.
Upping the mental strain the drift effect puts on pilots could also leads to scenes showing Mako and Becket exhausted between training sessions, nosebleeds and migraines gnawing away at them, a pressure cooker of neural strain. And that would help sell the concept that piloting the jaegers is hard, that these are colossal machines, double edged swords.
Robots and Logic
With the right concepts and forethought, even the most ridiculous premise can be executed in a way that makes sense. We don’t have to choose: we can get both giant robots fighting monsters, and a movie that doesn’t rupture an audience’s suspension of disbelief. We can, in fact, have nice things.
Photo Credit: IMDB