Two years ago, a little (or big, depending on how you look at it) film called Pacific Rim emerged from the pop culture depths and left a monster-sized footprint on modern geek culture. The film is one of our favorites: A combination of two niche genres (giant robot movies and monster movies), Pacific Rim showcased breathtaking action sequences, beautiful world-building, and a diverse, international cast. (And brought kaiju and jaeger into the modern moviegoer’s vocabulary.)
It also introduced a concept that’s stuck with us for years now — “Drift Compatibility,” used in the film as a way to show how two people’s brains could communicate through a deep, psychic connection. Sure, its intended use was to control two halves of a giant monster-battling robot, but it’s also an interesting reworking of the idea of soul mates, or “the red string.”
Because of our great love for this film, we’re going to deep dive into the idea of Drift Compatibility — or rather, how it applies as a psychological concept. Do the best relationships come from the people who light up the same nerves in our brains as family members? Does Drift Compatibility transcend or reinforce romantic relationships? What can somebody who’s never watched the film learn about love and attraction via the idea of Drift Compatibility? Let’s get into it.
LM: Drift Compatibility is not just vibing with someone else: It’s about knowing another person so completely that you can trust them with yourself in turn, and communicate openly and earnestly with each other about what to do together, for each other. It’s surrender, it’s security, and it’s survival.
The best part of Pacific Rim, to me, was the way main characters Mako and Raleigh just *got* each other so instantly in a way that was both organic and explained in the film. They clicked, but the connection was so much more than a surface-level attraction. That scene where they fight each other? Stunning: And, packed with more sexual tension than any action movie coupling since ever. BUT, they didn’t even necessarily end up together, which was both cathartic and frustrating, but mostly the former.
SM: Yeah I notice quite a few Pacific Rim fans like how ambiguous the relationship is — like we still ship it but we like that the movie doesn’t take it anywhere. Because the main thing is that being Drift Compatible is like having good chemistry — it doesn’t mean something will or should happen, and it doesn’t mean it’ll work out. But it’s a good starting point for a relationship, because everyone wants chemistry.
And I think Drift Compatibility defines what chemistry is and why it’s so important — it’s that you connect so well you don’t have to explain yourself all the time to each other. Unfortunately that sometimes means less communication, which they reference in Pacific Rim! Herc talks to Chuck about how the Drift kind of makes you feel like you don’t need to talk about stuff, but you do. Chemistry makes the communication easier, especially when it comes to small micro-expressions and body language. That’s how the fight scene between Mako and Raleigh works, but even before it happens, Raleigh can sense Mako’s sniffing disapproval of his moves.
LM: It’s almost hilarious watching those scenes in hindsight, because they don’t even know. Like when you have two friends who are clearly going to be in a relationship with each other, or are going to then become besties without you as the friend mediator, and they’re kind of sussing each other out. “Who is this person? Are they cool enough to hang out with X? Why does X trust them so much?” And then it’s like, oh, okay, they actually know what they’re doing and hey, they’re super cool, and that’s super cool, and now we really get along too.
That kind of relationship is sadly often sidelined in movies. You mentioned before in a conversation we’ve had how movies usually have an “A” romance and then a “B” romance.
SM: Yeah I feel like the “A” couple has a lot of obstacles tied up with the plot and the “B” or beta couple is the fun, more realistic one that has a lot of chemistry. I mean, another fan might say that Newt and Gottleib had that, but the “A” couple tend to be communicative at this level that can be kind of boring. There is “A”-couple chemistry in a lot of movies but it’s usually sexual or belligerent chemistry instead of the characters being able to get along very well. Before Sunset series is the only one I can think of right now where that’s not the case. But that’s why I liked that last movie, Before Midnight, because it shows how a couple with good chemistry still needs to communicate openly.
I also like that Drift Compatibility isn’t just romantic relationships — it can be any kind of bond, like the married couple, but also not always a good bond, like with Chuck and his dad. By saying that a Drift partner can be family or ambiguous or romantic, it’s staying that the bond is the most important element. Also, Raleigh and his brother were Drift Compatible and Raleigh’s depressed about his brother until he meets Mako, with whom he instantly clicks. It kind of makes me think of how good chemistry is supposed to come from people who are similar to your family members (if you have a caring family). You’re making a new family with your partner but your values and expectations of that family come from your previous family.
LM: Ugh that’s such an interesting, vital take on the idea of what a meaningful relationship is. It’s basically the core of defining mutual understanding: Do you understand where I’m coming from? Even if you don’t know the details, are you open enough to the things I carry with me, and will you temper them and help me work through them? That’s something that’s not necessarily guaranteed with family or friends or loved ones, but if it’s there, then you can do and say and think everything and anything with and toward each other. It’s the power that allows you to transcend the bad stuff you both bring to the table, and also forge a relationship that’s inherently more powerful in its “togetherness” than in its separated forms.
Drift Compatibility is probably the best expression of that sentiment: Even the word “drift” implies an almost passivity in how the connection happens. Because you’re so right and so ready for them from the get go, the relationship falls into place. It’s the natural camaraderie found within the construct of family, but divorced from the actual mess that sometimes accompanies family relationships (and basically every other kind of relationship). You can have long term, meaningful relationships without Drifting with each other (like with Mako and her father), but the connection, the possibility, is still there. You don’t have to act on the Drift to be able to Drift, but when you do, the connection slides on like a second skin. It’s not something you can create out of nothing, but instead a natural way to be with somebody.
To loop back to our starting point of reference, this is soulmate theory in action, but in a way that’s applicable to more than just a love interest.
SM: Right, especially the idea that it isn’t work. It’s not work to have that chemistry with the people who are close to you. People say that relationships are “work” — a worrisome phrase because the problem is that this “work” idea tends to keep people in bad relationships, especially since the onus is usually put on one partner, which is usually the woman if it’s a heterosexual relationship. But Drift Compatibility, or good chemistry, prevents you from doing that kind of work. You do have to do a kind of “work,” but on top of a good foundation — like when you have to do the “work” of cooking a meal, but you’ve got all the right ingredients and tools to do so. Or, you know, when you’ve got a jaeger but you need a partner to pilot it.