Gavia Baker-Whitelaw writes for Bleeding Cool.
Pacific Rim may come across as a live-action anime, but the costumes are relatively down-to-earth. Set a little over a decade in the future, Guillermo del Toro ignored futuristic styles in favour of a mid-20th century aesthetic.
As an outspoken pacifist, del Toro was keen to remove any militaristic overtones from the movie. Hence the Jaeger crews all having ranks like “Marshall” and “Ranger”, and the general lack of a military aesthetic. The overall look of the movie is more wartime than warlike, with people bustling around either in civilian clothing or the grubby overalls of an airport hangar. Any uniforms we see are generally more like those worn by the crew of the Nostromo in Alien, rather than a military uniform with obvious ranks and a dress code.
Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost (great name) is the only one who really comes close to being a military character. He starts off the movie in an actual uniform, which is later replaced by a plain blue suit that from the back, basically looks like his old uniform anyway. He almost certainly wears it every day — like a uniform — and it’s even supplemented by shelves of identical blue shirts. As he explains to Raleigh, his strength lies in his ability to remain a fixed point. (And in the fact that he’s played by Idris Elba, meaning that he’s 6’3” and has shoulders broad enough to carry both of his costars at once like a circus strongman.)
The explanation for the lack of military references is that early in the movie, the Jaeger program’s funding gets cut in favour of a Titanic-esque plan to build “unbreachable” walls around major Pacific cities. After that, Stacker Pentecost and the remainder of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps retreat to a Thunderbirds-esque bunker in Hong Kong, and Pentecost’s right hand man Tendo Choi (Clifton Collins Jr.) transforms from clean-cut soldier into a bow tie-wearing rockabilly hipster. In the Resistance, no one cares about appearances any more, just results.
Raleigh himself wears nothing but beat-up old sailor sweaters: shades of all that trashed knitwear everyone wore in The Matrix, as well as a nod to him spending the last five years in Alaska. There’s something about the apocalypse that makes some people want to dress in rags, even if it’s not absolutely necessary.
The Hong Kong Shatterdome is full of references to WWII-era styles. Rather than using the kind of iPod-like interiors popular among most futuristic sci-fi movies at the moment, del Toro went for a gigantic hangar full of steam and tarnished metal, and populated by Rosie The Riveter types. Even the fabric choices hark back to an earlier time, with Mako Mori, Tendo Choi and numerous background extras wearing soft woollen shirts and tough, high-waisted trousers. No artificial fibres here: everything seems grounded and weighty, much like the grimy appearance of the Jaegers.
The most obvious ‘40s reference is the fashion for Ranger bomber jackets, which have each Jaeger’s symbol on the back. It’s not precisely clear if they’re a uniform or just a status symbol that sets the Rangers apart from the rest of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps. Either way, Jaeger Rangers are the hero pilots of the 2020s, and they need callsigns to match. So we get cheesy Americana for Raleigh and his brother in Gipsy Danger, and gangster-style red jackets for Crimson Typhoon’s Chinese crew. In the latter half of the film, Australian beefcake Chuck Hansen gets to play the role jockish bully, complete with 1950s-style leather aviator jacket.
Mako Mori, at approximately half the size of all the other main characters, immediately stands out in a crowd. Dressed in grey and black, her first outfit mixes military toughness (combat boots and cargo trousers) with the kind of quiet, loosely-tailored silhouette associated with Japanese designers like Yohji Yamamoto. Later on, she joins the 1940s aesthetic with an old grey cardigan and wide-legged trousers, and matches her stepfather Stacker Pentecost with a blue-grey woollen shirt.
Always neat as a pin, she’s the polar opposite of Raleigh Becket’s messy, unwashed appearance. In fact, she and Raleigh are the only Jaeger team who don’t look and dress alike. All the rest are family partnerships (even Cherno Alpha’s married couple use the same hair dye, and could be mistaken for brother and sister), but Raleigh and Mako remain resolutely dissimilar. They don’t even have time to get matching bomber jackets made up. (Hopefully they’re saving that for the sequel.)
Another vintage-inspired costume belongs to Dr Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman, sporting a truly terrible haircut to complement his bizarrely elastic face). If Stacker Pentecost is the archetype of every anime patriarch ever, Gottlieb is the ultimate Hammer Horror mad scientist. And he’s dressed to match. You have to make a serious effort to look like that much of a twitchy old professor, particularly when your character was probably born in the 1990s. Not only does he wear Charlie Chaplin trousers, but he buttons his shirts up to the collar and wears a sweater-vest over the top. The one modern touch is a fur-hooded parka, which looks so out of place with his other outfit that he may well have borrowed it from one of the other characters.
At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Gottlieb’s partner and constant antagonist, Dr Newton Geizler. Newt clearly decided at a young age that if he was going to be a professional nerd, he was going to be the least nerdy nerd ever. A product of 21st century geek chic, he wears a skinny tie, even skinnier jeans, and when he takes off his leather jacket, you can see his Kaiju tattoos stretching up past the elbow.
After Star Trek, Prometheus, Iron Man and countless others, audiences are used to seeing sci-fi armour. Mako and Raleigh’s Jaeger outfits are pretty run-of-the mill, if you’re already blasé about that kind of thing. Smooth carbon-fibre shielding over a skin-tight bodysuit, and a shiny helmet: cool to look at, and thoroughly uncomfortable for the actors to wear. The end result is that all the Jaeger teams look like Daft Punk duking it out over a cross between Dance Dance Revolution and a cross-trainer.
It’s interesting to see how the Rangers’ under-armour provides a link with their Jaegers. The Crimson Typhoon crew arguably have the most stylish suits, red to match their three-armed Jaeger, and with a Chinese dragon emblazoned across the chest. Mako and Raleigh’s suits are shiny black, all the better to reflect some of that Kaiju Blue light (more on that later), and the tough Australian father-son duo wear battered, workmanlike armour in khaki green. Meanwhile, the pilots of Cherno Alpha provide an entertainingly dated Russian stereotype.
Dressed in unnecessarily padded and fur-lined coats during their off hours (despite the fact that the Hong Kong Shatterdome looks decidedly sweaty), they’re a throwback to the early Soviet era. Which is only fitting, since their clunky old Jaeger is pure dieselpunk, and is probably the most del Toro-ish robot in the entire movie.
Of course, that grimy, rivet-covered aesthetic doesn’t make a huge amount of sense when you remember that the supposedly “old” Cherno Alpha was still built in the 21st century, but whatever. Their weighty cosmonaut armour gives them a retro-futuristic edge that gels perfectly with the wartime atmosphere of the Shatterdome, and their one-eyed helmets wouldn’t look look out of place in one of del Toro’s Hellboy movies.
Aside from all the mid-20th century influences, the most obvious motif is all that Kaiju Blue. The Kaiju’s poisonous blood stains everything, and when you see people rooting through the remains of a downed monster, they’re dressed in blue from head to toe. Costume designer Kate Hawley purposefully injected some of that colour into the main costumes, most noticeably with Mako Mori.
Mako is the character with the most personal connection to the Kaiju, and so that Kaiju blue is there throughout. In adulthood, it’s in her hair, and during the flashback sequences we see her in a cute, child-sized coat that looks like something from Alice in Wonderland rather than 21st century Japan. This provides a startling contrast with her red shoes, arguably one of the most important props in the movie. Del Toro likened that broken red shoe to Mako’s heart, kept safe by Stacker Pentecost for all those years until he could symbolically return it to her, and she could complete her own journey.
Finally, the prize for most stylish character has got to go to Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau. Dressed like a 19th century pimp, he’s gone to the trouble of procuring an entire suit made from red and gold brocade, and then dressed his gang of black market Kaiju dealers to match. Best of all are his gold shoes, which are not only an A+ Rich Eccentric Criminal accessory, but are used as their own little callback to the red shoes of Mako’s childhood.
While the young Mako clutches onto her broken shoe for comfort as she runs from a Kaiju, Hannibal Chau’s climactic scene also revolves around a shoe.
Mako is important enough that her shoe is kept by Stacker Pentecost as a reminder of her survival, and her Batman-like quest to avenge her parents. But we don’t really care if the gangsterish Hannibal Chau lives or dies, so the reappearance of one of his shoes is nothing more than a comic beat.
We already know that the creators of Pacific Rim put a great deal of thought into worldbuilding, and costumes are a significant part of that. Mako (blue) and Raleigh (amber) are dressed and lit in complimentary colours: not identical, but opposites that click as soon as you see them together. There are multiple del Toro-ish touches (Hannibal Chau; the Russian cosmonaut suits), but not so many as to be overpowering, as occasionally happens with design-led directors such as Tim Burton. Above all, Pacific Rim looks like a movie whose director has collaborated closely with his costume designers, not just on a character level, but to assist with worldbuilding as well.
You can read more from Gavia at her blog, Hello Tailor.