Pan’s Labyrinth. Cronos. The Devil’s Backbone. Blade 2. Even if you’re unacquainted with the work of lauded Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, you’ve probably heard of Pacific Rim, his upcoming giant monsters versus giant robots opus. Whether you’re a true-blue fan of del Toro’s brand of cinema magic, a general aficionado of mecha stories and kaiju pictures, or both, you probably don’t need to be sold on the film’s merits at all; you’re just counting down the days until release.
So what better way to prepare for the film’s imminent rampage through American multiplexes than by having a monster/robot movie marathon? Del Toro and his crew may not have directly referenced movies or shows in either category with Pacific Rim, but they’ve definitely hitched their film to the kaiju and mecha genres; seems like a good opportunity to brush up on the the titles you’ve missed, or just to rewatch your favorites!
Here’s our list of 10 movies and anime worth catching up on before Pacific Rim.
Okay, so maybe Frank Darabont’s adaptation of Stephen King’s horror novella doesn’t really fit under the “kaiju” banner, but monsters are monsters, and The Mist boasts a huge collection of otherworldly creatures that come in all shapes and sizes. Big spiders, mini pterodactyls, enormous praying mantises, colossal, indescribable beasts…there’s a critter in here for everyone, with a huge emphasis placed on practical FX work over CGI.
But it’s the basic conceit of The Mist that really makes it a good aperitif for Pacific Rim. After a lot of talk about dimensional portals, it’s clear that the various creepy crawlies attacking the small Maine town in which The Mist is set come from a whole other sphere of existence from our own. They’re not man-made; they’re natural-born aberrations brought to Earth by a rift in space, just like the interloping kaiju in del Toro’s own story.
On the other hand, the giant octopus that serves as the big bad in Robert Gordon’s It Came From Beneath the Sea can trace its origins directly to human, scientific meddling. Hydrogen bomb testing over the Philippine Trench, one of the third deepest points in the world, forces the voracious cephalopod out of its natural habitat and mutates it to gargantuan proportions; like any super-sized carnivore, it quickly begins sinking ships and devouring swimmers, leaving it up to the US Navy to save the day.
It Came From Beneath the Sea is every bit as cheesy as anyone could expect to be, and maybe even cheesier, but it’s a ton of fun thanks to its hopelessly dated and relentlessly (unintentionally?) suggestive dialogue. Of course, what really makes the film worth seeing is the stop-motion effects work of the legendary Ray Harryhausen. While this is no Clash of the Titans or Jason and the Argonauts, it’s still a wonderful showcase for his brilliance as a visual effects artist.
Among the offerings in del Toro’s body of work, it’s Hellboy 2 that best shows off his gift for design and the limitlessness of his imagination. One scene in the film perfectly encapsulates both of these qualities: the infamous Troll Market sequence. In a movie peppered with awesome design work, it’s the BPRD’s jaunt through this crowded bazaar of the bizarre that takes the crown.
In fact, there’s so much neat stuff on display here that watching it once simply isn’t enough. From the moment Hellboy and the BPRD enter the Troll Market, del Toro stuffs the frame with all kinds of oddities, curiosities, grotesqueries, and gonzo beauty; your eyes will dart this way and that, trying to capture the visual feast in its entirety. Fortunately, DVD players have rewind buttons, so monster connoisseurs can watch the scene over and over to their hearts’ content.
The first anime entry on this list, Genesis of Aquarion employs a fairly standard plot blueprint: in the distant future, humanity faces extinction at the hands of a powerful alien race known as the Shadow Angels, who besiege the planet using their monstrous Cherubim warriors. Hope for the world lies in three technologically advanced fighter planes called vectors, which can merge together to form a giant robot named Aquarion. (Shoji Kawamori isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here.)
Perhaps playing into stereotypes about anime as a genre, Aquarion is really, really weird and frequently over-the-top; creepy sibling dynamics and gender politics exist side-by-side with big-scale action brought to life with fluid, sterling animation, making for a fun but often wacky slice of mecha-romance. And just like Pacific Rim, Aquarion‘s pilots merge consciousness – to an extent – when assembling the titular robot, and must work in tandem to fight their enemies as a unified force.
Again we have a film that doesn’t technically qualify as a kaiju picture, but in a cinema landscape where men in rubber suits have become almost obsolete, The Host – not the YA Saoirse Ronan vehicle from this year, but Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 creature feature – stands out as one of the very best monster movies to be released in the new millennium. If that sounds like a shaky claim, here’s a shakier one: The Host may well be the modern heir apparent to Godzilla.
The basic set-up may sound familiar; reckless pollution in the name of science leads to the birth of an aquatic beast that rises from the watery depths and starts wreaking havoc on the mainland. It’s the details that give The Host its distinction, with all of the political subtext brought directly to the surface and every shred of humanity invested in one family just trying to survive the resultant mayhem. Despite being smaller in scale, The Host faithfully follows the classic kaiju template to a “T.”
There’s one flaw with Destroy All Monsters that almost kept it off of this list: it’s unbelievably boring. Who knew that a film with a climax that features pretty much every major kaiju in monster iconography – including but not limited to Rodan, Mothra, Manda, Baragon, Varan, King Ghidorah, and the big man himself, Godzilla – could be so unrelentingly dull? But that’s what happens when you ship all of these characters off to Monsterland and focus most of the plot on flat human characters.
So why does Destroy All Monsters rank so high on this list? As yawn-inducing as the human stuff is, the monster stuff drills right down to the core of why we love kaiju in the first place. Watching Ghidorah take on Toho’s whole stable of beloved behemoths is a reminder of how much fun it is to see these towering creatures go at it and incur astronomical collateral damage at the same time.
Think of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms as a much, much better version of It Came From Beneath the Sea; predating Gordon’s film (as well as Ishiro Honda’s 1954 masterclass in giant monster cinema, Godzilla), nuclear testing ends up thawing a hibernating dinosaur and stirring it from its prehistoric slumber. As expected, the thunder lizard wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and rages up and down the East coast, making stops in Maine, Massachusetts – and eventually Coney Island for a fiery finale.
Where The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms differs from It Came Beneath the Sea is in spectacle. The latter happens to be lighter on havoc, while the former levels entire city streets and burns seaside amusement parks to the ground. If the monster (yet another Harryhausen creation) isn’t knocking buildings down and burying bystanders in rubble, it’s infecting them with its contagious, virulent blood. Maybe the king of all monsters did this sort of thing better, but Eugene Lourie’s Rhedeosaurus did it first.
A Pacific Rim pre-gaming list wouldn’t be compete without Stuart Gordon’s Robot Jox, a 1990 film that’s heavy on the mecha violence. Here, the entire planet has been divided into two factions: the US-themed Market and the Russia-inspired Confederation. Rather than meet in open war to settle their disputes, the opposing nations pit their champions against one another in massive robots, armed to the teeth with an array of nasty tricks and weapons. The film narrows down on the aftermath of a fight between Market champion Achilles and Confederate champion Alexander.
Robot Jox is noteworthy for its backstage drama alone; Gordon butted heads with his screenwriter, sci-fi author Joe Haldeman, over their different ideas about the film’s tone, direction, and even its title. But none of that says anything about Robot Jox as B-movie joyride. It’s a quintessential bit of ’90s cheese, boasting hammy performances and excellent stop-motion work. (Plus, this.) Crash and burn!
If only two major reference points exist for Pacific Rim to riff on, Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of them, and that’s why it’s standing at #2 on our list. Like Genesis of Aquarion, Neon Genesis Evangelion – by far the more influential of the two – depicts a world under siege by a monstrous alien race known as Angels. The planet’s survival rest on the shoulders of Shinji, a fourteen year old boy tasked by his military father to fight the angels by piloting a gigantic cyborg called an Evangelion.
What happens when you put that weight on a teenager? Neon Genesis Evangelion primarily concerns itself with the psychological toll controlling a war machine takes; the show inherently understands that the excitement of watching Evas battle Angels is intensified the more that viewers care about the human characters. Don’t let the occasional screwball gag fool you into thinking that this is light-hearted fare; the further that the series progresses, the darker it becomes.
Who better to take the top spot than Godzilla himself? Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla is the real deal, one of the single most important films ever made in this niche cinema genre, and simply one of the greatest films of all time. While credit has to go to King Kong for being the progenitor of the entire “giant monster movie” tradition, Godzilla deserves all the laurels it gets for electing to put a stuntman in a rubber suit over using stop-motion animation, giving its central monster a new vitality.
Plus, Ishiro Honda’s film still hits like a hammer even today. Forget that you’re watching a grown man in a monster costume stomping on crude miniature cities; this is a picture crafted to reflect a nation’s grief and fear over the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki nine years prior. Honda’s film is intentionally modeled to echo the horror of that joint event, and yet it blends that allegory with pure spectacle and entertainment to create something awe-inspiring and even artful.
Of course, there are many, many more movies that could have made this list, from Godzilla‘s ancillary titles, to movies that have nothing to do with Godzilla such as War of the Gargantuas and Daimajin, to modern entries in the kaiju genre like the aptly named Monsters and popular anime titles like Gunbuster. (And let’s not forget Mighty Morphin Power Rangers!) As narrow as the kaiju and mecha genres are, they’re chock-full of great titles worth watching; these are just our ten favorites. So what are yours? Sound off in the comments section!
Pacific Rim hits theaters Friday, July 12th; tide yourself over in the meantime by checking out some of the films mentioned here, and by taking a look at the numerous featurettes about del Toro’s latest here on Screen Rant. (Also, don’t forget to keep an eye out for our impending Pacific Rim review.)