Pacific Rim: Guillermo del Toro’s Fractal Shoes

By Wai Chee DimockJuly 27, 2013

Pacific Rim: Guillermo del Toro’s Fractal Shoes

“WHERE’S MY GODDAMN SHOE?” The last words of Pacific Rim are a post-credits punch line delivered by Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) with the cool swagger we’ve come to expect from him. Hannibal has just slit his way out of the Kaiju that swallowed him whole, but lucky for him it’s only a newborn Kaiju, not in the same league as those full-grown, skyscraper-size monsters that emerged from a breach on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, decimating cities like San Francisco, Manila, and Cabo San Lucas. The baby monster is by now already dead, strangled by its own umbilical cord. So there’s no danger to speak of, although there is some genuine annoyance on Hannibal’s part, a genuine desire to find what’s missing. A shoe without its mate, for most of us, is like a low-grade fever — not a major disaster, but definitely a pain. In a movie intent on matching and pairing everything, it’s a sign that something is afoot.

What is afoot, though, is simply a deferred happy ending, a reunion of shoes outside the frame of the movie that’s almost guaranteed to happen. After all, we know exactly where the missing shoe is: spewed out by the baby Kaiju, it’s all that remains of Hannibal when he’s swallowed up and presumed dead. Newton Geiszler, the film’s tattoo-sporting scientist, has been on hand to pick it up and convey it to safety. So it’s reasonable to think that the pair will be seen together again; they were certainly stunning when seen for the first time. Sleek, super-sized, gold-tipped, dangerously angled, these shoes look like they could be lethal. The camera lavishes its attention on them.

Of course, footwear as a visual fulcrum is nothing new. Genre painters from Jan Steen on (and probably earlier) have routinely put preposterous-looking Dutch shoes in the foreground of their messy households. Van Gogh has painted several pairs of peasants’ shoes that have seen better days, saturated with the weariness of hard labor, but still functional and not to be discarded. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger speaks of these shoes as reflexive “equipment,” instrumentalized forms that mirror the starkly enduring lives of those who wear them:

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stares forth. In the stiffly rugged heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field swept by a raw wind […] This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining worry as to the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death.

Van Gogh’s shoes, beat up but not used up, have in turn been invoked by Fredric Jameson, who pits them against the ghostly glitter of Andy Warhol’s Diamond Dust Shoes, weightless and depthless in their X-ray elegance. Overexposed and illusory, Warhol’s shoes are negatives of Van Gogh’s: an inversion of the latter’s utopian promise. Hannibal’s shoes probably fall somewhere between these two: glittering like Warhol’s but in the end durable, like Van Gogh’s. As equipment — as instrumentalized forms that re-express the forms of their users — all three are on the same page. Just as the hollowed-out, phosphorescent shoes speak to the simulacrum world of late capitalism, and just as the well-worn but still serviceable shoes speak to the life of peasants, Hannibal’s footwear reprises the high-risk but surprisingly low-casualty life he leads as a black-market dealer in Kaiju parts. His opening bravura, his seeming downfall, his post-credits comeback — all of this is externalized and objectified by the fate of his shoes. What is remarkable here is the deep resemblance between the equipment and its user, the fidelity with which one tracks the other and amplifies the other, thanks to the infinite reproducibility of form across an infinity of scale.

Neither Heidegger nor Jameson uses the term “fractal recursion,” but that’s what is at play here — the nesting of self-replicating geometric forms, as posited by Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975, when he coined the word “fractal.” Shoes are a familiar instance of this: a slightly enlarged re-expression of us, copying both the physical anatomy of the feet encased in them and the emotional contours of the person walking on those feet. Hannibal’s shoes are not alone here. Mako Mori’s red shoes, the other star players in the footwear department, also copy her in just the same way. Mako has initially seemed too overwrought, too stuck in her traumatic past, to be trusted with a Jaeger, one of the giant robots that stand between mankind and the Kaijus. In her backstory, as a child wandering alone through the rubbles of Japan (a scene in turn framed by the large shadow of Hiroshima), she comes across as unhinged, wearing one shoe and carrying the other in her hand. But she’s always had both in her possession, just as she’s always had her wits in her possession. She is a together person, as the togetherness of her shoes could have told us all along.

This is the utopian dream driving all the robots, all the pilots, and everyone else on-site in Hong Kong’s Shatterdome, the only remaining Jaeger base from which mankind can put up a last-ditch battle against the Kaiju. The dream is that puny humans like us could be “together” — not only in the specific neural melding that must take place between the two Jaeger co-pilots but also, more generally speaking, in a fractal web of resemblance, filling the world with copies of ourselves at varying orders of magnitude and with varying degrees of re-expression, beginning with the shoes on our feet. It is not for nothing that the Jaegers are humanoid mecha, mobile exoskeletons that reproduce our bodily form and magnify our bodily motions a thousandfold. Martial art, the test of physical strength on a human scale, is still crucial for just that reason. It is only when humans maximize the mechanical capabilities of their own bodies that the robots can maximize theirs.

Resemblance is key. For all its high-tech contraptions and CGI geekery, Pacific Rim remains firmly rooted in a primitive, resemblance-based, analog world, honoring the iterative sameness of the embodied form, rather than the numerical abstraction of the digital universe. Gipsy Danger, rhw  , the Jaeger that saves the day under the guiding hands of Mako and her co-pilot, Raleigh Becket, is in fact an older model, an analog, which is why it can swing into action when the digital ones are grounded during a massive computer glitch. And that too is why Hermann Gottlieb — the digital guy, the scientist who thinks that “numbers are the closest we can get to the handwriting of God” — must sign on with his rival, Newton Geiszler, the champion of analog if ever there was one. From the tattoo of Knifehead (a Category 3 Kaiju) on his arm to his theory that the only way to deal with the enemy is to merge with their brains and think like them, Newton’s faith in analog is borne out by the plot of the movie. The neural melding almost kills him, but it gives him a crucial bit of information: namely, that the Kaiju-manned portal on the ocean floor would admit a Jaeger if it could only make itself out to be a Kaiju, if it could only turn itself into a passable copy. Not surprisingly, it’s the analog Jaeger, Gipsy Danger, that’s able to do this, trailing a Kaiju corpse to complete the disguise.

There’s something familiar about all of these, of course. Replication and resemblance are a dime a dozen when it comes to action movies. From The Terminator quadrilogy to the X-Men franchise’s Mystique to the iterated success of Iron Man 1, 2, and 3, replication is as integral to the standard operating systems of action movies as body armors and intelligent machines. What we are witnessing here is probably less auteur-specific than industry-wide, a tried and tested formula for the summer blockbuster. The bracketing of the analog/digital divide, so graphically enacted by the new Geiszler/Gottlieb team, is probably a chief ingredient in the genre’s recipe for success, the secret of its market mass appeal. Itself repeated over and over, this return to a resemblance-based world speaks to a powerful nostalgia in all of us, a yearning for a time when our eyes were all we needed, when all the information to be processed was visually accessible and demonstrable, the same as the evidence of our senses.

There’s nothing especially new about Pacific Rim on that front. Still, there’s something distinctive about this movie, about its desire to meld everything, to wrest togetherness out of the deadly breaches in the world. The movie ends, of course, with the resealing of the breach at the bottom of the Pacific, a feat accomplished by Gipsy Danger detonating its nuclear reactor, and heralded by this rallying cry: “Today, at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we are canceling the Apocalypse!” Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the commander-in-chief who intones these lines, does not live to see this outcome. But it’s fitting that, with a name like his, he should be the mind behind the Jaegers, these life-saving copies of ourselves, stacking them up, fending off the Apocalypse and replacing it with the Pentecost: an old story about puny humans encased in “cloven tongues like as of fire,” speaking the languages of all nations, a miracle that makes “your young men see visions” and your old men “dream dreams,” according to Acts. Not a bad analog for a movie that opens with Japanese words and German words and ends with the teamwork of four Jaegers from China, Russia, Australia, and the United States, a movie that dreams that what re-expresses us will also shield us, that what harms a human collectivity will unite that collectivity. A fantasy, no doubt, perhaps delusional; but a necessary hope, especially if the Kaiju happens to be another name for the methane gas perchance released from the ocean floor by global warming, an event projected to cause far greater damage than the carbon dioxide in the air. There’s this much, and much more, to think about. But meanwhile, the shoes also merit some consideration.


Wai Chee Dimock is the William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University.

LARB Contributor

Wai Chee Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University. She has published widely on American literature of every period, and is best known for Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (2007). Editor of PMLA, her essays have also appeared in Critical Inquiry, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Yorker, and The New York TimesHer team-edited American Literature in the World: An Anthology from Anne Bradstreet to Octavia Butler (2017) was published by Columbia University Press in January.


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