The Drift is Healing – Pacific Rim and Mental Health
As is so often the case I’m a little late in contributing to an ongoing cause. As I write this Mental Health Awareness Week 2021 is coming to an end so I can’t really say this piece is linked to that in any way. The connection is actually coincidental as I had no real intention of putting something together around that so it’s something of a coincidence that inspiration came when it did. To all those who have shared their stories, experiences and feelings over the course of this week and in all of the other weeks of any given year, I salute you. It’s not easy to admit or talk about so well done for letting others have access to that part of yourself.
I was inspired to write this after completing a rewatch of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim. I number this among my favourite films simply because of the way it makes me feel. It’s unashamedly fun and fully committed to being the best version of what it tries to be. Del Toro knew exactly what he was making and he threw everything he had into making it. Pacific Rim is a film about giant human piloted mechs fighting giant monsters and it undeniably delivers on that in spades.
A valid question would be what Pacific Rim has to do with mental health. For me it has everything to do with it. My own struggles have been overwhelming me lately to the point that I’ve been having difficulty functioning. These include insecurities about friendships and other relationships making me worry that I’m a burden on people I’m close to, a sweepingly negative perception of my own worth, a complete lack of confidence in my own creative ability -to the point that I don’t feel that this piece will be worth reading- and other connected problems that will all be referred to throughout this piece. Life has been difficult for a long time for a number of reasons with what feels like one setback after another, negative thoughts and feelings that just won’t go away, an inability to accept anything others say to help counter them and feeling generally anxious most of the time. I understand my issues on an intellectual level but on an emotional level I’m stick in a relentless cycle that I’m currently unable to break. It’s frustrating, demoralising and a constant struggle.
Pacific Rim is one of a number of films I tend to go back to when I’m in need of cheering up. After experiencing a couple of other setbacks I was in need of a boost so popped the disk in and prepared to escape for a couple of hours. For the most part it had the intended effect; I was able to disconnect from my life for a little while and immerse myself in the detailed world that exists beneath the mech on monster action but there was more to the experience this time out that I didn’t expect. Something about the film resonated with me in a way it hadn’t before therefore inspiring me to write this.
On a heavily indulgent podcast where myself and Kat discussed the film at length from the point of view of people who have a lot of time for it, we suggested that Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) wasn’t really all that interesting a character. That may be harsh or it may be entirely accurate but it was his perspective that prompted my altered reaction. Before getting onto that, it should always be noted that Kat has said that she found this to be the most enjoyable podcasting experience she has ever had. Her passion more than comes across so if you haven’t listened already then do so because that alone is worth hearing.
Early in the film, Raleigh loses his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) during a mission to bring down a Kaiju and his reaction to that loss is to turn his back on everything and everyone. He is next seen working on the ill advised Coastal Wall project where a big wall is built designed to keep the Kaiju out of major population centres. Spoiler alert; it doesn’t work and was never going to work. Raleigh’s reaction to losing his brother is especially relatable because for many people the instinctive reaction to such a loss is to retreat, isolate and try to cope independent of others. This doesn’t just apply to loss as that instinct is common among many emotional issues. When dealing with my own grief there was a heavy desire to be alone even though it was unproductive and unhealthy for me to do so. My current range of emotional issues often lead me to conclude that stepping away from others is for the best when it factually isn’t. Feeling like a constant burden supports that conclusion and perpetuates that unhealthy cycle. Fortunately I have people in my life that don’t let me do that but the impulse is strong so Raleigh’s desire to isolate himself is completely understandable.
He is brought back to the thing that caused him to retreat in the first place when his old commanding officer, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) tracks him down to recruit him for a Hail Mary mission intended to end the Kaiju threat and save the world. In short, he wants to cancel the Apocalypse. They have a brief conversation where Raleigh outlines his concerns about returning to the thing that cost him his brother. Specifically he says he can’t have anyone in his head again and Charlie Hunnam’s line delivery outlines that reluctance nicely. Stacker’s counter argument is brief yet entirely convincing. All he says is “Haven’t you heard, Mr. Beckett? The world is coming to an end. So where would you rather die? Here? Or in a Jaeger?”. Put simply he is telling Raleigh that his emotions are insignificant when Armageddon is on the horizon. Arguably it’s a harsh way to put it but considering the stakes he has a point. Raleigh has skills that can be useful so any emotional hang-ups are secondary to achieving the goal of saving the world. Stacker is more complex than being a cold authoritarian as the rest of the film highlights but he also tasks himself with keeping everyone on mission and his commanding presence more than accomplishes that.
Raleigh’s concerns do end up forming a part of the narrative. For one thing he ends up connecting to his copilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) through that loss though that isn’t apparent at first. The Pacific Rim universe has a really interesting concept that goes under a few names but for the purposes of this I’ll refer to it as “The Drift”. Basically, pilots connect to the giant robots -or Jaegers- by interfacing directly with them using their brains. Due to the sheer size of the Jaegers it’s incredibly damaging for one pilot to connect in this way so a two pilot system is implemented where the pilots connect to the Jaeger and, more importantly, each other. This puts them in the head of the other pilot which gives them access to their thoughts, feelings and memories. In the film it’s highlighted that pilots are trained to ignore all of that in order to focus on piloting the Jaeger. Raleigh puts it most eloquently when he says “the drift is silence”. To fight effectively the pilots have to be disciplined and not bring any of their emotional baggage into The Drift. Raleigh understands that even if he does have a slight wobble when he thinks back to the last time he stood in a Jaeger cockpit. Mako understands that intellectually but not emotionally.
Earlier in the film Raleigh recognises Drift Compatibility between them when they are in sync during the testing exercise but it isn’t understood why that is until Raleigh’s momentary lapse in concentration prompts Mako to fully embrace her baggage. She relives the experience of losing her family in a Kaiju attack as Raleigh bears witness while encouraging her to snap out of it. This connects them through unresolved grief and suggests that may be the underlying reason for them being Drift Compatible. This isn’t something the film explores in explicit detail but the strong implication is there and it says a lot about how loss burrows inside you ready to reappear at any point to negatively impact your life.
Raleigh’s desire for isolation, running away from his emotional baggage and refusal to properly deal with it prompted a strong reaction from me on this viewing because of what The Drift represents in that context. The film is literally saying that in order to heal you need to willingly connect with others. There is even a scene where Mako and Raleigh have a conversation while maintenance is being done on their Jaeger, Gypsy Danger. Mako specifically asks when the last time Raleigh saw her heart was. Gypsy Danger is opening her heart to them which encourages both of them to do the same. Raleigh is opening himself up completely to Mako by entering The Drift and giving her access to everything that he is. Isolating himself didn’t work as shown through the brief depiction of him practically sleepwalking through life. By getting back in the cockpit of a Jaeger he gave himself purpose and the opportunity to confront those emotional issues he has been running from. He confronts those with Mako’s help. His change in attitude is exemplified through an admittedly cheesy line “All these years, I’ve been living in the past, never really thought about the future until now.”.
In essence he’s admitting to Mako that he has taken control of an aspect of his life, made some strides towards healing and is now thinking about what comes next for him. It’s a very positive message about the importance of connection in dealing with emotional issues and marks the end of this stage of Raleigh’s journey towards emotional well-being. Is it the end of that journey? Definitely not. Is there ever an end to that journey? I don’t know but Raleigh realised his mistake and took steps towards correcting that. Stacker practically forces him back into the fold and through his engaging connection to Mako he learns that he needs other people in order to get better. The line indirectly calls back to earlier dialogue where Raleigh narrates to the audience that being in a Jaeger makes him feel powerful and unstoppable. He had to find his way back to that feeling and he’s starting to get there. Being in a Jaeger allows him to literally fight monsters and later it allows him to figuratively fight internal monsters. It’s truly inspiring! Mako’s emotional journey is about dealing with her own loss though she has never been isolated in the same way so her particular experience is the subject for another article that I’m not all that equipped to write.
For anyone dealing with similar or different issues to the ones I’ve described here, the best I can say is to try to cut yourself some slack, keep challenging your thinking as feeling a certain way about something doesn’t make it true, try to listen to what others say, accept help and keep fighting. I personally find that advice incredibly difficult to follow at the best of times but I’m aware that it’s what I need to do. I know I’m not alone in the way I feel, I know I didn’t invent suffering and I know that others have come out the other side of similar things. Another thing I know is understanding that can lead to the conclusion that my feelings aren’t valid because many others experience similar or worse but they are important and need to be recognised.
Don’t be ashamed of how you feel. Shame is part of what has resulted in the stigma around discussing Mental Health that still exists. I’m guilty of this as well to a large extent. A common response to “How are you?” from me is “Same as always”. I say that because it’s open to interpretation. Anyone who knows what I’m going through will understand that there has been no change and anyone who doesn’t will likely read that as “fine”. It’s my way of being honest about my feelings without going into detail about what those are. It all goes back to my concerns around being a burden on people, especially those I don’t know quite as well. It may or may not be worth nothing that Luke Skywalker responds with “Same as always” when Han Solo asks him how he is in Return of the Jedi. Does that mean Luke is doing the same thing considering what he recently learned about his own family history? Maybe that’s another article.
Did rewatching Pacific Rim fix me? No it didn’t but also, I’m not broken. I’m just having a hard time. What it did do to me was allow me to escape for a little while and unexpectedly gave me something to think about. It also allowed me to experience moments of pure joy. The moment where the Jaeger Gypsy Danger uses a ship as a club to beat a Kaiju never fails to make me smile and that happened this time. Things that make me smile at this point in my life are rare so each of them is to be cherished. Thank you Pacific Rim and thank you Guillermo Del Toro for giving it to me. The film means a lot to me and inspired this piece. Is it worth reading? Who’s to say but it was worth writing.