On Pacific Rim and the Neural Handshake

There are many, many reasons why Pacific Rim is an astonishingly well-crafted blockbuster.

Chief of which are its characters and the mechanisms, literal and figurative, that bring them together.

I’m talking about what the film calls “the drift” — the science-as-magic method of joining two characters together to pilot a skyscraper-sized battle mech (“Jaeger”).  In the drift, the joined pilots share memories and emotions, becoming truly intimate in a way that all of us crave, but rarely, if ever, experience.

But the genius of it, the alchemy, is when we see how the film subtly acknowledges that cinema and the drift are analogous to one another.   In a pivotal moment, Raleigh, the protagonist, enters the mind of his traumatized co-pilot, Mako, and sees the tragedy that has defined her life unfold before him.  He can walk around the scene of the memory, but not interact — the memory, like the film, cannot be changed by our desires.  We are powerless before the film as Raleigh is powerless to change Mako’s tragedy.  It does, however, give him the power to communicate with her on an intimate level — it gives him a level of empathy that could not have existed without this visceral recreation of the traumatic event.  It connects Raleigh’s emotional imagination to a symbol, and that symbol becomes as real for him as it was to Mako.

In the same way, cinema is a symbolic mirror of real internal lives.  A good film gives us enough information to leap from imagination to intimacy — but, strangely, not usually intimacy with a specific person, but with humanity in general.  We see how someone fictional deals with tragedy, how they pursue their dreams, how they fall in love — and we experience those things along with them.  They become real to us.

Yes, cinema is symbolic — but it is also sacramental, nourishing us spiritually, deepening empathy, connecting us with other people.  It’s not just imagination.  Emotionally, it’s real.  Through movies, we, like the Jaeger pilots, drift together as a species.

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