It’s been five long years since Guillermo del Toro unleashed the mythic magnificence of Pacific Rim, a grand scale sci-fi epic which pitted colossal creatures against giant mecha warriors controlled by human pilots. Since then, giant monsters have been running rampant again on a regular basis and we now find ourselves living in an era where it’s exciting to be a fan of the genre.
Part of the first film’s appeal is that it proudly wears its influences on its sleeves. This is a common characteristic in all of del Toro’s movies and one of the main reasons why we gravitate towards them. Pacific Rim was his love letter to Japanese pop culture, wrapped in the bow of an unabashed action-packed crowd-pleaser. It struck a chord with the masses and geeks alike, and it’s about damn time the follow-up arrived.
For a while, though, it didn’t seem like a sequel was in the cards. But that’s all irrelevant as it’s finally upon us, reminding the world that good things happen sometimes. More importantly, however, it’s given new director Steven S. DeKnight the opportunity to let his inner monster kid loose.
To celebrate the big occasion, I’ve compiled a list of movies and shows to get you in the mood for some mecha/monster action this weekend. Enjoy, and be sure to share your recommendations as well.
Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot (1967 – 1968)
In a bid to appeal to a younger audience, Pacific Rim Uprising has introduced a youthful cast of characters to aid in the fight against monsters. The story features a special kids’ program designed to foster future generations of Jaeger pilots, and its products get to see some action. But if fans want to see youngsters helm robots against monsters before then, they should check out this tokusatsu series of yesteryear.
Originally titled Giant Robo in its native Japan, Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot is about a young lad who fights against intergalactic terrorists and an assortment of strange beasts, all the while aided by the titular machine which he controls. The American version contains some minor changes and voice dubbing, but the basic premise of a child and a robot saving the world remains intact.
The series was notable for its violence — at least for a children’s show released at the tail-end of the 1960s. Most episodes had shootouts, due in no small part to the heroic robot packing an arsenal of weaponry that included everything from missiles to flamethrower mechanics. They don’t make them like this anymore.
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Most of us are going to see Uprising because we want to see giant monsters and equally-as-impressive mecha smash the holy hell out of each other on a big ass screen. Watching these types of cinematic feats of carnage is one of life’s simplest pleasures after all. But before we throw our ticket money at theater patrons for the latest mecha versus kaiju opus, we should take some time to celebrate one of the trendsetters.
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla might not have been the first movie to feature a giant monster going up against a robot replica (that honor goes to King Kong Escapes), but it is the gold standard. Here, some ape-like aliens set out to destroy the world and they think a mechanized Godzilla is the best way to go about it. Of course, our titular hero has a problem with his imposter, and with the help of monster pal King Caesar, he decides to handle business.
Mechagodzilla has cropped up several times in the Godzilla franchise since his mighty introduction back in the 70’s, and every movie featuring the metallic hunk is worth your time. Still, the original deserves the utmost respect for helping to propel cinema that features super-sized beasts and robots, and it’s still the most entertaining of a quality bunch.
Ultraman (1966 – 1967)
Perhaps the most recognizable pop culture icon to emerge from the East, Ultraman has been a permanent fixture in television, movies, and other mediums of entertainment for over half a century. As such, the concept has appeared in multiple iterations throughout the years and trying to make sense of it all is somewhat dizzying. For a comprehensive history, Den of Geek is a great starting point. For the purposes of this piece, though, I’m going to recommend the original series.
The inaugural series focuses on a giant alien superhero who arrives on earth in a ball of light to capture Bemular, a reptile creature that’s escaped from its imprisonment in the Monster Graveyard. Upon arriving on our planet, the gigantic hero forms a bond with a human, and together they tussle with monsters and other extraterrestrial nemeses.
Ultraman was one of the key influences behind the first Pacific Rim movie, and the cast and crew have brought his name up more than once while doing the press rounds for the latest installment. On a sort of unrelated note, the 27th series of the show, Ultraman X, paid homage to Pacific Rim by naming a planet after Guillermo del Toro.
Robot Jox (1990)
Pacific Rim isn’t the first movie to adopt the concept of humans piloting giant robots for battle. In 1990, cult director Stuart Gordon teamed up with legendary B movie producer Charles Band and his Empire Pictures studio to unleash this inexpensive sci-fi treat.
The story takes place years after a nuclear war has devastated the planet. As a result, war has been outlawed, but the disputes between nations still exist. Fortunately, they’ve come up with a mature way to handle their disagreements like civilized adults — gladiatorial combat between giant robots controlled by jockeys.
Given that Robot Jox was working with the equivalent of 1/15 of Uprising’s budget, it doesn’t come close in terms of scale. But if we’re measuring in terms of pure enjoyment, Robot Jox can compete with any modern blockbuster — cheap stop-motion special effects and all. Gordon is one of the most consistently enjoyable directors in the game, and he’s a master when it comes to low-budget genre fare. In less capable hands this would have been destined for the scrap heap, but under Gordon’s guidance, it became a cult classic.
The Heisei Gamera Trilogy (1995 – 1999)
DeKnight has stated in several interviews that he wanted to do Pacific Rim Uprising because he grew up loving Japanese monster movies. He also cited a particular fondness for the Gamera series, which makes him a good guy in my book.
Gamera is essentially a giant turtle who was introduced by Daiei Film’s in 1965 to compete with Toho’s Godzilla movies. Since the series’ inception, 12 films in total have been released, the last of which hit theaters in 2006. Much like Godzilla, Gamera started out as a gargantuan force of terror hell-bent on destroying Japan after nuclear forces awaken the creature from its slumber. However, just like the King of the Monsters, the overgrown turtle ultimately became a heroic character and a protector of humankind, especially children.
With so many movies to choose from, we’re spoiled for choice, but thankfully we don’t need to watch them in chronological order to understand what’s going on. That said, in this writer’s humble opinion, Shusuke Kaneko’s 90’s trilogy — Defender of the Universe, Attack of Legion, The Revenge of Iris — represent the series at its very best and rank among some of the Land of the Rising Sun’s finest monster movie exports. Compared to other movies, this series is darker in tone, but they still embrace the fun factor that comes with big monster extravaganzas.