Thursday, July 25, 2013

How Pacific Rim Commits the Cardinal Sin of Sci-Fi: Bad Philosophizing

I finally got around to seeing Pacific Rim.  This was due to reading "The Visual Intelligence of Pacific Rim" which offered a defense of the movie as being mistakenly viewed only textually rather than visually, and thus seen as "dumb" rather than intelligent in a different way.  Needless to say this argument intrigued me, particularly as someone who's a student of both phenomenology and deconstruction.  Yet much as the author of the blog post seems to maintain a division between textual and visual registers that does not mirror how real life embodied perception operatesand thus the author's own attempts to defend the movie's intelligence only really work if you were actually watching the movie on mute rather than having to hear the constant cliched dialogue and hammy acting—so too does Pacific Rim operate with a disembodied version of reality.

Now it may of course seem silly to argue with the way reality is presented in a movie about giant robots and monsters from different dimensions fighting each other, but I think that sci-fi when done well actually illuminates reality through taking certain details to an extreme, hyperreal level (not unlike satire).  Hence both Star Trek and Star Trek: TNG involved flying through space faster than the speed of light and shooting lasers at aliens, but more importantly their episodes often revolved around hyperreal depictions of real-world conflicts, such as the Federation vs. the Klingon Empire as a way of discussing the Cold War.

Pacific Rim's wrinkle on Independence Day's Will Smith vs. Aliens storyline is the use of "drifting" as a requirement for how tiny humans could possibly operate the giant Jaegers.  This is described as a way for the two pilots to become linked to each other such that they can divide the burden of interfacing with and operating the Jaeger.  If you know anything about philosophy you might think that this isn't a plot device so much as a thought experiment from a philosopher of mind trying to contend with John Locke's arguments about the relationship between personal identity and memory.

As Locke famously argues:
Law was an ardent disciple of John Locke.
John Locke
For suppose the soul of a prince, carrying with it the Consciousness of the prince's past life, enters and informs the body of a cobbler, the soul of the cobbler exiting the cobbler's body at the same moment.  In this case it's plain that the cobbler is the same Person as the prince—i.e. that he is only accountable for the prince's actions.  But none, surely, would say he was the same human being as the prince.  The body as well as the soul is part of what constitutes a human being, and I think everyone will agree that in this case it settles the question: the cobbler is the same human being throughout this whole process.  The fact that he has the prince's soul within him does not make him a different human being from the cobbler, and everyone (other than himself) will take him to be the same human being as before. ("Of Identity and Diversity," Section 15)
This is not unlike what is depicted in Pacific Rim whenever drifting occurs.  The consciousness of each pilot—presented as memories from one's past—is shared between the two pilots, thus bonding them to each other, as the pilots say repeatedly in case we missed it the first time.  Yet, whereas Locke suggests that for consciousness of one pilot to "enter[] and inform[]" the body of the other would require "the soul of the [other pilot] exiting," Pacific Rim instead suggests that drifting forms only an emotional bond rather than a psychological or existential one.  Hence when Raleigh's brother is torn from their Jaeger and killed, this leaves him emotionally scarred enough to go on a 1980's-esque vision quest of self-discovery that ends with him doing construction work (this is of course very similar to what happens to Clark Kent after watching Jonathan Kent die in Man of Steel, as apparently the death of a loved one drives cinematic protagonists into doing physical labor).  But Raleigh is still shown to be the same person he was before and only needs the love of a good woman to make him whole again.

Patrick Stewart as Locutus, the assimilated Je...
Similarly, when Raleigh and said good woman, Mako, are first drifting Mako suddenly becomes her child-self again reliving in perfect detail the Kaiju who killed her family and tried to hunt her down.  Raleigh is then shown as able to walk around Mako's memories and is so self-aware that he is presented as wearing his Jaeger uniform and tries to remind Mako that this is all "not real."  What does it mean to share consciousnesses in the way that Pacific Rim says is required for drifting to occur if you can nonetheless maintain your personal identity in the way that Pacific Rim portrays?

Now that's what I'm talking about
The failure to delve into the ramifications of "entering and informing" each other is not only a wasted opportunity, but, most egregiously, commits the cardinal sin of sci-fi: bad philosophizing.  When Jean-Luc Picard became Locutus of Borg, this had ramifications that operated on an existential level, whereby Picard was no longer sure of who he was or what it meant that he could become integrated with the Borg hive-mind or whether he was responsible for the deaths that Locutus caused.  Similarly the Vulcan mind-meld was always presented as leaving a trace of the other behind after the mind-meld, for which reason Spock used it sparingly and it was portrayed as an encounter that was both violent and erotic, or, more interestingly, presenting the intimacy of eroticism as inherently violent and vice-versa.  Pacific Rim instead teases us with what should have been a parallel portrayal of the violent eroticism of interpersonal intimacy but leaves us merely frustrated and unsatisfied.

Now go watch some real sci-fi...

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