There’s no denying that it’s been a brutal summer movie season for women. Only nine wide-release films out this summer feature an actress in a starring role (instead of a less-important co-starring role), and only two of those — two! — have thus far been released: The Heat and Pacific Rim. The former was quietly revolutionary in the way it reinvented a buddy-cop genre with two women, and I had high hopes that Pacific Rim would be just as progressive; after all, director Guillermo del Toro has given us strong female protagonists before in films like Pan’s Labyrinth and Mimic, and the premise of Pacific Rim — two pilots (Charlie Hunnam and Oscar-nominated actress Rinko Kikuchi) each control one half of a monster-fighting giant robot — seemed to inherently promise the sort of gender equality you don’t always get from a giant action movie. So why did I walk away from Pacific Rim feeling disappointed?
I started to feel a twinge when the first twenty minutes of the movie had unspooled, and though we’d met several characters — some important, some gone in the blink of an eye — we’d yet to even see a single woman. At that point in the film, Kikuchi’s character Mako Mori is introduced, and over the space of the next ten minutes, she delivers a mere three lines … which means that only three lines are spoken by a woman in the entire first half-hour of Pacific Rim. And this is one chatty movie — characters are constantly rattling off exposition to one another, and hundreds upon hundreds of sentences are spoken in those first 30 minutes — but still, we only see a woman delivering three of those more-than-plentiful lines.
It all felt a little odd, so I started to wonder: At what point would we get to see another woman besides Mako talking in this movie? So I waited another half-hour … and not one did. That’s right: An hour goes by in Pacific Rim and only Mako gets to deliver lines onscreen, meanwhile, we’re meeting dozens of new male characters in almost every scene. In fact, Mako is the only female character who is even named in the first hour of this movie; we do catch a glimpse of a blonde female pilot at one point, but at least in the first half of the movie, she’s completely mute. If you flipped the script and asked a summer movie director to craft a film where dozens of women talk in the first hour but only one man is allowed to, and that man can’t even appear in the first twenty minutes of the movie, no one would bite: That’s a formula that’s too restrictive for even most chick flicks! And yet when it’s women who are marginalized in that way, audiences hardly notice because it’s become so sadly commonplace.
Don’t expect to see many more women after that first hour, either. The other female pilot finally speaks, but she’s out of the movie after a handful of lines. Later, a woman in a crowd scene briefly harangues Charlie Day. And that’s it. That is the full extent of female speaking roles we see over the 131 minutes of Pacific Rim: Rinko Kikuchi, and two women who get no more than five lines each. Once again, this is a movie where 56 actors appear in the end credits crawl. Only three of those are women we see talking onscreen.
Why couldn’t more of those supporting roles in Pacific Rim have been filled by women? Yes, this is a blockbuster aimed primarily at young boys, but humor me for a minute: Instead of the anonymous Diego Klattenhoff as Hunnam’s pilot brother, wouldn’t Battlestar Galactica badass Katee Sackhoff have made a more forceful impression? (If you even remember what Klattenhoff looks like after the movie is over — even though his act-one death is supposed to be Hunnam’s primary motivation — then you are Diego Klattenhoff’s mother.) Throughout the movie, we meet plenty of aides, assistants, pilots, and scientists … wouldn’t women have been suitable for any of those speaking roles? And while I’d be hard-pressed to suggest that Del Toro ever replace his muse Ron Perlman — the Hellboy star’s performance as a black-market goods dealer is the film’s principal pleasure — a lateral move could be made to Tilda Swinton and the role would have been every bit as cool. Any of those gender substitutions would have fit easily into the film and perhaps even improved it; instead, it’s just wall-to-wall men.
To make matters worse, out of all the characters in this movie, Kikuchi’s character surely speaks the least. She interacts only with Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh and Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost and gets no lines with any other character (suffice it to say that the men all talk freely with plenty of other characters). In many of Kikuchi’s scenes, Mako stands in the background saying nothing, and even when she suits up for battle, entire sequences go by where she utters no lines. Raleigh and Mako are supposed to have an enviable neural connection that makes them two formidable halves of the same jaeger, so why is he the only one talking when they fight monsters? In the very first battle they have against a monster, for example, Raleigh never shuts up; Mako says only one word, and it’s a less-than-scintillating “Okay” after Raleigh orders her to do something. In the second battle scene, Mako finally comes up with a useful suggestion of her own — and it’s about time — but in the film’s finale, she’s once again a silent nonentity. I don’t recall her delivering a single line in the final battle; meanwhile, the other jaeger pilots in the sequence keep up a stream of steady patter and strategy that Mako has nothing to add to.
It got to the point where I started wondering if all of this was an intentional choice: Even in the crowd scenes, male extras appear to outnumber women five to one! Had the monsters eaten all the women, a plot point yet to be revealed? Had Del Toro minimized one half of the population in order to make Kikuchi pop more? There had to be a reason for all this, right?
Ultimately, I don’t think there is. I think Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham genuinely believed that they were making a movie that celebrates women; I bet they’d even tout the fact that it’s Hunnam who constantly gets the skin-baring scenes, though summer movie beefcake is hardly something new. But can a movie really be pro-woman if it blithely minimizes the gender to this degree? You may have heard of the Bechdel Test; it’s a movie-measuring formula that a film only passes if it includes two female characters who talk to each other about something other than a man. Sounds like a simple requirement, and yet it’s astounding how many films don’t pass, including Pacific Rim. The robots-versus-monsters movie is in many ways a work of unfettered imagination, but when it comes to its lack of female faces, maybe it could use a reality check.