“Pacific Rim” will hit theaters on July 12. In keeping with most of this summer’s blockbusters, “Pacific Rim” packages an old concept with the firepower of modern cinema. An alien threat is about to fall hard on Earth, but giant human-piloted robots are deployed to save the day. This action-packed summer adventure, which is directed by Guillermo del Toro, features a few favorite television actors, including Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, and Burn Gorman.
“Pacific Rim” doesn’t rely on fan-favorite characters such as Superman or Iron Man to draw a crowd; instead, the movie pits robots against monsters, which is a conflict that has intrigued big-screen fans since the golden age of science-fiction movies. Perhaps the first franchise viewers think of when they hear the words monster versus robot is Godzilla. In 1974’s “Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla,” the giant lizard protects Japan from a robotic version of himself. In this movie, the robot is created by aliens to destroy humankind, a plot that’s completely reversed in “Pacific Rim.”
Not every monster-fighting robot is larger than life, though. Bishop, the android from “Aliens,” could pass for a human man. Played by Lance Henriksen, Bishop isn’t the first robot to grace the movies in the well-known franchise. In the first movie of the series, science officer Ash is also an android. He sets the stage for distrust between Ripley and Bishop in the second movie, although the robot proves to be trustworthy when push comes to shove.
Many times, robots serve as sidekicks to human heroes when fighting monsters. Often, this leads to a bit of show stealing, because most viewers can’t resist a cute, sarcastic, or loyal can of tin. One of the earliest robot sidekicks might be Robby the Robot from “Forbidden Planet.” Together with a young Leslie Nielsen, Robby takes on the not-so-scary Id monster in this 1956 science-fiction classic. You can’t make mention of robot sidekicks without one of the all-time favorites: R2D2. Viewers don’t automatically picture the round robot as a monster slayer, but without the loyalty of this stubborn droid, it’s unlikely Luke and the gang would have made it past that trash monster with all their limbs attached.
Sometimes, the monsters turn out to be robots too. The Transformers franchise has capitalized on this setup since the 1980s cartoon series and movies. Michael Bay’s recent success with live-action movies only confirms that the audience is willing to buy into the fact that some robots are monsters while other robots are the good guys. Audiences are even willing to accept when the robots look human. “Terminator” saw two humans fighting it out with a robot, but in “Terminator 2,” Arnold Schwarzenegger’s robot character returns as the good guy. He wages an epic cross-city battle with the T-1000, which many viewers would agree is terrible enough to be labeled as a monster.
Robots aren’t the only entities that can go both ways; sometimes, it’s a human or group of humans on the monster side of the equation. This is true whether the protagonist is metal-formed tech or flesh-and-blood monster. In 1987, Peter Weller hit the screen as RoboCop, a crime fighter who is part man and part machine. Over the last three decades, RoboCop has battled human monsters in feature films and animations, and he’s even due for a comeback in 2014. When humans go monstrous, there are also darker things that show up for the battle. From Marvel’s Hellboy to an entire range of vampires, werewolves, and demons, monsters often join the struggle on the side of the white hats.
It’s clear from a quick look at the history of monsters and robots that both have entertainment roots that stretch into television, movies, comics, and more. From the Cybermen and Daleks of “Doctor Who” to the far-flung aliens and androids of science fiction cinema, robots and monsters bring something adventurous and terrifying to any story. They also bring out some of the deepest themes of humanity. When faced with horrors that go bump in the night, there’s always the hope that mankind can beat the monsters back with innovation and invention. If the darkest of characters can be positioned in a positive light, then there’s hope for the most shadowed of people.
“Pacific Rim” will likely draw a large audience of summer moviegoers. Summer crowds tend to like their movies big, and this monster-versus-robot flick is poised to deliver. Without a cast of big stars, the movie is banking on the timeless appeal of robots and monsters to get the box-office job done.
Watch an interview with “Pacific Rim” director Guillermo del Toro