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At the Lumière brothers’ first screening of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat in 1896, so the story goes, the audience panicked, screaming and running for the exits as a steam locomotive came straight for them, these pioneering cinemagoers unwittingly proving science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s later adage about sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic. Not the stage magic of conjuring, misdirection and illusion, but the magic of the spiritual and paranormal, of summoning forth the denizens of another place, another time, through the portal we know as the cinema screen.
The cinema of Guillermo del Toro is itself a portal into worlds adjacent to but hidden from our own, transporting the audience into the supernatural realms of his imagination to explore his hopes, fears, dreams and desires as filtered through fable and fairytale, history and horror, gothic and ghostly, monstrous and mechanical, which have captivated him since childhood. Among these childhood influences were the Japanese TV shows and anime in which giant monsters waged battle with giant robots, a fusion of allegorical fantasy and spectacular science fiction to which del Toro would return with 2013’s Pacific Rim.
The Breach is the portal at the ocean floor through which Pacific Rim’s giant monsters, termed Kaiju in deference to their Japanese inspiration, are sent by otherworldly masters to destroy humanity: to fight them, humanity creates monsters of its own, thirty-story robots named Jaegers after the German word for hunter, armoured mechanical knights standing between the cities of the world and the Breach, humanity’s champions sent forth to slay the advancing leviathans.
Riding the Jaegers into battle are their pilots, brains interfaced directly with the behemoth using the advanced technology of the Pons – Latin for bridge – to transform its limbs and weapons into magnified extensions of their own body. The neural demands of exerting this control being too great for one person in but a handful of exceptional cases, the Pons is also used to open a portal between the minds of the pilots themselves, forming a single consciousness in which to share the load, the merged headspace of the Drift.
Within the Drift, physical, mental and cultural barriers are erased, the pilots transcending language itself as their most intimate memories are revealed to one another and their deepest pains laid bare, the formative moments of their lives on display in a technologically mediated intimacy deeper than that of even the most devoted lovers. They do not just see, but experience each other at their best and at their worst: with no secrets between them they have total trust, unity of thought and purpose, and attain an otherwise impossible cognitive and empathetic bond.
This bond extends beyond their time together in the Drift, the footprints they leave in one another’s memories echoing like the itch of a missing limb, only strengthening their connection as they come to adopt each other’s traits and mannerisms, anticipating their moods and moves.
Thrust together for a last desperate assault on the Breach after trials reveal their unexpected compatibility, mismatched pilots Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori each carry deep emotional trauma with them when first they enter the head-like control pod of Gipsy Danger, and thence the Drift.
Becket left the Jaeger Program four years earlier, carrying with him not only the shame of being defeated in Kaiju combat, but also the agony of his co-pilot brother’s death during that fight. Dying as he did while the two were Drifting together, Yancy’s final memory now haunts Raleigh’s dreams, and the effort of piloting the shattered Jaeger to shore solo has left its own mental scars.
Mori is a rookie, determined since childhood to become a Jaeger pilot and exact revenge for the destruction of both her family and her city during a Kaiju attack on Tokyo, haunted by memories of being alone and terrified amid the rubble-strewn streets as Kaiju and Jaeger did battle overhead.
Once in the Drift, Becket and Mori share not just the neural load of piloting Gipsy Danger, but also their memories of both these ordeals and the delights which balance them out, the joys which make that darkness hurt all the more. As they come to understand one another in their sharing, they lend each other the strength to conquer their personal monsters and set about conquering the Kaiju.
Seeking to conquer the Kaiju using a more intellectual approach are the research scientists Newt and Gottlieb. Newt is hands-on, trying to understand the monsters by examining their remains, while Gottlieb’s approach is wholly theoretical, using the frequency of previous attacks to predict future assaults.
The differences between their approaches and personalities cause conflict between the pair, but when they Drift together with a Kaiju brain all their disagreements evaporate. Once filtered through the Drift their antagonism becomes a bonding experience, their quarrels set aside as they return with the crucial information about how the Breach can be closed once and for all.
It’s this engendering of empathy that gives the advanced technology of the Drift its power, dissolving the divisions between people in order that they can work together for the greater good, just as empathy is the fundamental magic of cinema, breaking down the barriers between us as it takes us to other places and other times through that portal of the cinema screen, bringing us back changed by a deeper, broader understanding of not only the world in which we live, but those other worlds adjacent to our own, and those who live within them.
The films of Guillermo del Toro transport us to those worlds with a single-minded devotion to opening our eyes and engaging our empathy in order to better understand the monsters which invade our worlds, our imaginations and our dreams so that we, and they, might find peace. In sharing that magical cinematic headspace with us, del Toro leaves his footprints in our own minds, and with them the assurance that we can always find him in the Drift.