Why Pacific Rim means everything for mechs in the movies

Pacific Rim (2013)

Before you see Pacific Rim, there are two things you need to know about giant robots in the movies:

  1. They make for some damn good animated entertainment, and
  2. Hollywood won’t touch them with a 10-foot pole

(What’s a mech…? If you’re new to this, click here, then come back)

Whether it’s the ‘super robot’ style of shows like The Big O, the (relatively) realistic mobile suits of the Gundam series, or the more mystical mechanical monsters and steampunk mechs of Escaflowne and the like, giant robots have been a recipe for success in the anime world for over 40 years.

Yet somehow, with Hollywood running on fumes in the ideas department, and special effects technology improving by leaps and bounds every year, the whole genre is still treated like box office cyanide.

Until now, anyway.

July 12, 2013 sees the release Pacific Rim, the first full-on balls to the wall blockbuster (we’re talking a $200 M budget) attempt at giant robots for the masses on the silver screen. With the basic premise of cosmically huge alien monsters suddenly appearing on Earth to rip it apart, and with pilots needing to psychically ‘sync’ with their machines, it looks to be a kind of barrel-chested American take on Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Evangelion vs Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim’s Gypsy Danger mech vs Evangelion’s Eva Unit 01

Speculation abounds about just how much Pacific Rim will draw on the classic mech anime for source material, and how faithfully it will pay homage to it. It’s impossible not to draw comparisons between it and the Evangelion series, but from just a few trailers, we can infer other influences too. The robots themselves could be described as a pastiche of Amored Core style mechs, Eva units, and Michael Bay’s Transformers, with the monsters looking like a marriage between Lovecraft and Godzilla Kiaju.

Pacific Rim vs Evangelion

Pacific Rim’s Gypsy Danger, and Eva Unit 00

The film will not doubt bring its own uniquely American, uniquely del Toro contributions to the mech mythos as well. Pacific Rim’s bold and brash adult pilots are a real departure from the anime template of orphaned 14-year-old boy who accidentally discovers he’s really really good at operating giant robots.

But whether they love or hate what they’re seeing in the trailers, mech fans around the world wait with baited breath.

If Pacific Rim’s a hit, we could be entering a whole new era of giant robots on screen.

But should it crash and burn (ahem), how many years will we have to wait until the accountants in Hollywood decide to give mecha movies another chance?

The film’s tagline is “Go big or go extinct,” and that just about says it all.

Giant Robots on screen- a timeline

        What’s a “mech”?

  1. (anime, manga) A large armoured robot on legs, typically controlled by a pilot seated inside.1

If Pacific Rim is your first experience with the storied tradition of mechs, this might all feel a little confusing. To get you up to speed, we’ve created a quick and dirty summer school crash-course in all the robots that came before.

1950s and ’60s – Rubber suits and spandex

This is the era of cheese-ball Japanese Tokusatsu film and TV series. We’re talking brightly coloured robo-warriors fist-fighting the likes of Godzilla and other rubber suit baddies – you know, real Mystery Science Theater 3000 stuff.

Characters like Jet Jaguar, Ultraman, and Kamen Rider were the live-action robots du jour.

Some of these classics have continued on (or have been revived) by a younger generation of fans, making characters like Ultraman and Godzilla cultural constants of modern Japan.

1970s – Enter the super robots

In the early ’70s,  animated shows like Mazinger Z and Getter Robo defined the super robot style – flashy super-powered mechs that saved the Earth from a new monster each and every week. With these early forays into human-piloted robots, heroics and high drama trumped realism or science, and you could rest assured that by the end of the episode, the bad guys always lost.

Late in the decade, Mobile Suit Gundam took the idea of giant, human-piloted mechanized warriors and transplanted it over to a melodramatic space opera backdrop. Goodbye bright, seizure-inducing colours and goofy monster battles; hello gloom, doom, and the horror of war.

Gundam did away with the cartoonish fun and simplicity of Getter Robo and Mazinger, and replaced it with a world where good and evil are nearly interchangeable shades of grey, and no one ever ends up happy in the end (or alive, for that matter).

1980s – Mechs go west

The ’80s saw the first real examples of mech anime appearing on American TV screens. Shows like Macross/Robotech and Voltron introduced giant robots to a whole generation of young people in the West.

The Gundam series marched on, adding new titles and side stories to its main narrative, while a new subgenre of mech anime, which mixed heavy mystical and magical elements with the technological nature of robots, began to emerge.

Back to live-action, 1989′s Gunhed became the first (and arguably, still the only) respectable real life attempt at mechs in the movies.

1990s – Live-action failures, and Evangelion

Enter the first Western attempt at live action giant robots: Robot Jox. This early ’90s budget flick, and its spiritual sequels Robot Wars and Crash and Burn, could be considered a low point in the genre. Well, more like subterranean.

Big Budget movies like Robocop, Terminator, and Judge Dredd took their own shots at man-sized robots, but nothing on the scale that a true mech would be defined by.

Back to anime, Neon Genesis Evangelion took things to a whole new level with psychologically disfigured characters, and a tremendously bleak outlook on human life. Peppered with oedipal complexes, religious symbolism, and a fatalistic view of the human race, Evangelion’s tone and themes were so hopeless, it made Gundam feel like ray of optimistic sunshine by comparison.

We’re assuming Pacific Rim won’t be quite as heavy as it’s animated forefather, but a little angst and mythological ambiguity couldn’t hurt either.

2000s and beyond

Giant robots are as popular as ever, with animated series like Gundam and Evangelion continuing on with new installments and re-releases, and new productions like Gurren Lagann and Eureka Seven combining and twisting the various mecha subgenres together.

Aside from Pacific Rim itself, we haven’t heard much on the live-action front since the ’90s. Which is really no surprise, since they last time they tried giant robot combat in real life, we got this.


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