Most have greeted the new sci-fi action movie “Pacific Rim” as mindless entertainment, and it certainly is that. But the movie is about much more than just computer generated action sequences and campy dialogue. In fact, it’s an allegory about the effects of globalization on manufacturing employment.
First, some important spoilers. “Pacific Rim” is a film about giant robots fighting giant sea monsters. For reasons that are not clear to begin with, these lizard-like creatures begin to emerge from an inter-dimensional breach deep in the Pacific Ocean, whereupon they attack various port cities. Emerging from the heart of the region most closely associated with globalization anxiety, these monsters represent the forces of creative destruction unleashed: they are unthinking, mysterious, and utterly disruptive.
Today there is growing anxiety about globalization and what it means for many individuals. The ratio of global imports to world GDP has risen from 14 percent in 1970 to just under 30 percent in 2008. At the same time, American manufacturing employment as a percentage of total employment has steadily fallen from 26.5 percent to 9.25 percent over roughly the same time period. Even in absolute terms, manufacturing employment has fallen by more than two million since 2000.
While some of this decline is no doubt due to increases in the productivity of American manufacturing, the recent events in Detroit illustrate the fraught consequences of increased global competition. It’s only natural that these anxieties—like the anxieties of previous times and places—should find expression in seemingly unrelated works of popular culture.
When traditional military forces prove less than adequate against the rising tide of monsters, nations naturally respond by building 250-foot tall robots, controlled by a pair of pilots using a kind of next generation Wii system. As the film explicitly notes, these robots were initially developed using DARPA funding, and represent a kind of industrial policy, each nation deploying its own robot champions. There is a Russian robot team, a Chinese team, an Australian team, and of course an American one, each protecting its home country.
But while the robots are initially successful, the monsters keep growing and invading at an ever-faster pace, overwhelming the efforts of the local industries. In response, the world’s leaders decide to abandon their industrial robot program in favor of literally building giant walls around all of their ports. It is explicitly mentioned that this has cut off trade and forced rationing and other hardships on the population—though it does seem to create a fair number of short-term blue collar jobs actually building the wall. The one city that doesn’t succumb to protectionism is Hong Kong (which happens to be an oft-cited example of free trade success in real life), where the remaining robots all relocate.
Along with the robot teams are two scientists who hope to solve the monster problem. The first, representing the neoclassical school of economics, believes that the behavior of the monsters can be explained and predicted based on mathematical models that he developed (when the models initially appear inaccurate, he gives the standard explanation that his theory was right but the timing was wrong). The second scientist is more of a behavioralist, who thinks that to understand the monsters you have to examine them, how they are, rather than working from deductive theories about them.
Combining their wisdoms, the scientists are able to discover that what appear to be unthinking “market forces” are actually being controlled and manipulated by a race of lizard-like aliens who hope to take over the planet. These lizard-aliens represent an amalgamation of multinational corporations, international finance, and so forth. The rise of trans-national corporations and magnates seemingly detached from any loyalties save global commercial conquest has long been decried, and giant lizards have long been used as a symbol for international bankers (conspiracist David Ickies  imagines an international plot of actual shapeshifting lizard aliens). The most recent controversies over multinational misdeeds include accusations of Apple hiding  international profits , Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin renouncing his American citizenship  to move to Singapore (and avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes), and massive global price-fixing conspiracies .
While I won’t give away the ending, unfortunately the heroes eventually defeat the aliens in a way that doesn’t offer much guidance for today’s macroeconomic situation.
Searching for deeper meaning in a Hollywood movie about giant lizards may seem a stretch, but it certainly isn’t unprecedented. The original “Godzilla” movie was a clear allegory for the atomic bombing of Japan, while “Cloverfield” dealt with post-9/11 psychic traumas. Today there is growing anxiety about globalization as a huge, destructive force beyond the control of individuals, and so it’s only natural that this should find expression is popular culture.
Plus, watching giant robots fight is pretty cool.
Josiah Neeley is a Policy Analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin, Texas. His views on giant lizards are not necessarily those of his employer.