Hollywood Keeps Nuking Aliens

The pilots’ smaller stories actually make a bigger point, which is that we’re all together in the same robot [in life]… Either we get along or we die. I didn’t want this to be a recruitment ad or anything jingoistic. The idea of the movie is just for us to trust each other, to cross over barriers of color, sex, beliefs, whatever, and just stick together.

Del Toro on Pacific Rim

It’s a nice sentiment, and undoubtedly one Del Toro believes in. But it’s slightly at odds with what happens within the film itself, because the protagonists heroically drop a nuke on their alien invaders, failing to cross over the barriers of species. A similar event is depicted at the end of Joss Whedon’s The Avengers when Iron Man redirects a nuke aimed at NYC (god) and sends it off into space instead, assumedly totally eradicating the Chatauri fleet and their culture as well.

Now, full disclosure: in the recent political climate and as a person living within the blast radius of a nuke dropped on Midtown (I’ve looked it up many times, but if you want to see your own fate here you go) I’m a bit nuke crazy. The fact that the world is essentially set up as Dr. Strangelove depicts it is not a huge plus to me. I can tell you my theories and hopes about what would happen if anyone nuked anyone (theory: we’d all die, hope: the political leader getting nuked would allow it to happen without retaliation because though their country is being destroyed they decide to allow humanity to live and they go down as a noble hero forever and ever). But that’s not exactly what this article is about.

It goes without saying America probably has the strangest relationship with nukes. Many Americans have claimed for years we are the only nation responsible enough to have nukes, which stands drastically at odds with our actual status as the only nation to have ever dropped a nuke. Though the decision is discussed only a fraction of the amount it probably should be it still has a heavy effect on the way Americans see the world. There are two interesting points to bring up: the debate over the morality of it (would island hopping have seriously cost more lives on both sides) and the fact that we didn’t fear retaliation when we dropped the bombs. Both of these feature heavily within the two movies considered above.

I’m not a military man, and I’m hardly a historian, so I don’t have a concrete answer when it comes to the question of island hopping. I know I find nuclear war repugnant, but I don’t know how I would feel if we hadn’t dropped bombs and had island hopped and the cost of life had been higher. What would I say then? Would I be arguing right now that we should have dropped nukes and saved lives? Is it in some way better that a nuke was dropped before retaliation was an option, so the world could live with that shame and fear of dropping another? If the first one had been dropped when retaliation was an option, would the world have ended then? What if we entered an age of mutually assured destruction without fully comprehending what a nuke meant?

When facing both the alien invaders of Pacific Rim and The Avengers normal techniques of war are ineffective. Even with mecha suits and even with a Hulk, the world is losing and losing fast. In each case, the decision to send a nuke is not taken lightly, but is instead regarded as the only way to stop further death. In both cases, the aliens are unable to retaliate.

What do these parallels mean? I don’t know. If there was a second Death Star, would Darth Vader still have destroyed Alderaan? Why do aliens always come to destroy us, and why don’t we ever try to understand why they’re doing it? Why is the invasion always sudden? Why do these liberal pacifist film makers both seem to advocate the use of nuclear weapons? Why are the aliens always defenseless against the nuclear devices? Are we supposed to believe that Iron Man was right? Does he feel a moral responsibility for the civilization he eradicated, even though they were trying to eradicate the Earth?

I realize these are heady discussions for sci-fi action movies, and I realize The Avengers probably couldn’t have ended with Thor and the Chatauri sitting down to discuss the best way to make peace. But in an age where nukes are once more be a real topic of discussion as far as global politics go, we need to face our past and have a conversation about what these underlying questions mean for us as a nation and a world.

The ending of Pacific Rim offers us more nuance when it comes to nuclear war. Charlie Hunman rides his Jaeger down into the world of the Kaiju, and we the audience get a brief glimpse of them watching the falling machine. There is a whole Kaiju civilization down there, totally undiscovered and unseen, totally foreign, a culture that has (according to Charlie Day) thought about and justified a relentless war. But we don’t have time to discover it, because the nuclear reactor goes off and this whole mystical realm is obliterated. It was a last ditch effort for the humans, and if it didn’t work, the cost of life may have been greater. But Pacific Rim still takes a moment to look the destruction it is causing in the eye, and details the high cost of self-preservation.

Both of the films end with varying degrees of addressing the destruction we’ve brought to the table, but neither of them allow any retaliation from the enemy forces. Not so today. So perhaps the nukes in blockbusters need to be even more horrific, or even more complex. Maybe the heroes shouldn’t get to walk away with a heavy heart but a sense of inevitability. Maybe there shouldn’t be a “us or them” mentality, or maybe it should be more investigated. It’s a heavy call for blockbusters, sure. But nukes are pretty damn heavy to begin with.

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