Pacific Rim and Picking Protagonists

One thing I keep reading and hearing in the discussion of Pacific Rim is this phrase: “Raleigh Becket, the protagonist.” I take issue with that description.

Raleigh is to Pacific Rim as Nick Carraway is to The Great Gatsby: He’s a point-of-view character and a catalyst. The voiceover used at the beginning of the film is from Raleigh. He welcomes us in to the world of the film and the initial events in the film’s present tense feature him. While not every scene comes from his perspective, much of the film involves his presence. However, by many measures of how a protagonist is defined, Raleigh doesn’t fit the bill.

The character with the greatest growth and development during the course of the story is Mako Mori. Mako goes from Stacker Pentecost’s ward and assistant to a full-fledged jaeger pilot. She steps out from Stacker’s shadow and reveals herself to be a capable fighter and strong-willed individual.

Consider the focus the film puts on revealing Mako, both visually and in her character. When we first meet her, she is hidden under a coat and large umbrella, distinguished by the two blue streaks in her hair. We only begin to understand who she is in these scenes as she tells Raleigh that she doubts he’s the pilot for this job. Later, during the drift compatibility test, she removes her uniform shirt and shoes. She is more visually exposed, and through her actions, we also see further aspects of her character expressed: The tactician and physical combatant. We see more of the internal fire pushing her to get inside the jaeger. Finally, during the test, we go inside her own memories. We see, mediated through Raleigh’s experience in the drift, the small child in that blue coat who ran from a massive kaiju having lost her family. The film slowly pulls back the layers of Mako, revealing them to the audience, making the development and exploration of her character necessary work toward getting her in a jaeger and achieving the goal of finally defeating the kaiju.

Mako and Stacker are two characters who must come to difficult decisions over the course of the film. Raleigh has no questions about what he needs to do from the moment Stacker comes to take him away from the wall. Mako’s development as a hero is stifled by her conflict with Stacker, and how Stacker needs to learn to respect Mako as an adult/a pilot/an autonomous person who can live without his protection.

Raleigh is a catalyst for this conflict, pushing it toward resolution. Raleigh may push for Mako to be given a chance, or for Stacker to change his mind, but his words are not the most important actions. Mako’s years of training make her capable of proving her drift compatibility with Raleigh, and her efforts as a teammate with him make Gipsy Danger a key part in the final battles against the kaiju. Raleigh doesn’t make Stacker’s mind up for him, but he doesn’t allow Stacker to close the discussion. Stacker’s choices about what actions he will take are his own, and the result of his long relationship with Mako.

Consider the other side of this argument. What does support Raleigh as a protagonist? At the beginning he’s a former jaeger pilot whose brother was killed while they were linked together. He’s suffering from that trauma and tries to disappear, going off to work alone on construction of the Alaskan wall. However, all it takes is one quick speech from Marshall Pentecost to get him back in the game. Yes, Raleigh does need to learn to trust a new co-pilot and learn to let somebody else into his head, but these challenges don’t receive as much focus and screen time as the conflicts surrounding Pentecost finally letting Mako out of his protection, or Mako’s fulfilling her vengeance against the kaiju and realizing her potential as a jaeger pilot.

Furthermore, this film acts in the mold of a decentralized war film/team-up film than a single “hero’s journey” style story. While Mako’s conflict provides a spine for the story to follow once we’ve been introduced to the characters, she isn’t the only one involved in this fight. While Raleigh may make the final, decisive actions of the battle, the themes of the film center around the idea of cooperation being stronger than individual effort. Raleigh closing the rift couldn’t have happened without the sacrifice of Stacker and Chuck, the intelligence gathered by Newton and Gottleib, or his partnership with Mako.

This film weaves the theme of cooperation over isolation into almost every major beat. For example:

  • Jaegers need two, mentally linked pilots.
  • Newton’s attempt to drift with a kaiju required him to team up with Gottleib, putting aside their individual differences to better carry the neural load.
  • Kaiju are more deadly because of their hive mind. Each new one has learned from the experiences of the kaiju before it.
  • When Raleigh is working on the wall, the stakes for the workers are on an individual basis instead of focused on a greater victory for all. Instead of the foreman talking about how this wall will protect people, he says that if they do this work, they can earn individual ration cards for themselves. And soon after, we see how weak these walls are.

These are all aspects of a deeply embedded theme that makes picking out a single protagonist difficult at best and missing the point at its most extreme. This is not Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc. This is a movie about teamwork. This is a movie about how great victories aren’t accomplished alone. Identifying Raleigh as the (sole) protagonist misses out on this complexity.

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