In a summer of tentpole fantasy flicks that range from disappointing to polarizing, the no-pedigree Pacific Rim is the film generating the hardest nerd-mahogany. (It opens Friday at the Cinerama and other theaters.) Seriously: Star Trek Into Darkness so disrespected its source material that it seemed more like riffing on Star Trek. Man of Steel earned enough to green-light a sequel, but small details—having Superman kill; super-punch fights that dwarf 9-11 in destruction—alienated fans. The scariest thing about World War Z was Brad Pitt’s behind-the-ears bobbed hairdo. And as of this writing, The Lone Ranger scores a wretched 23 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.
The unifying factor: Audiences went more berserk for the Pacific Rim trailer than anything in the above movies. What’s it about? Giant, 250-foot robots fighting giant Godzilla-like monsters. What’s the big deal? If there were a geek Louis Armstrong, he’d say, “If you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know. And no spoilers, dude.”
No major stars. Not derived from a comic book or video game. Not a sequel. It’s giant fucking robots fighting huge fucking monsters. Using a ship as a bludgeon to whack one of them, no less. In fact, that was probably the entirety of director Guillermo del Toro’s pitch meeting.
Another reason for the widely held high hopes is that del Toro is no Zack Snyder. Snyder didn’t just perpetrate a Man of Steel that donkey-punched the most fundamental traits of the world’s best-known superhero. Enduring his geek-culture movies is like meeting a beautiful woman, then finding out she doesn’t read and has her TiVo programmed for FOX News. Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake was slick and well-acted, but empty calories compared to George A. Romero’s transgressive, commentary-laden masterpiece. The mention of Snyder’s Watchmen adaptation makes comic people’s forehead veins pulse. Sucker Punch was just embarrassingly creepy. And 300 hasn’t aged well, but it works fine for Pride Weekend kitsch value.
In contrast, Del Toro is the genuine article. His geek-genre resume vibes depth and smarts. You never hear arguments about whether or not he’s a hack. When it comes to material that we basement-dwelling freaks know and love, he’s One of Us . . . One of Us . . . The right nerd for the job.
Del Toro’s impressive credits include Cronos (it’s in the Criterion Collection, for Godsakes), Mimic, The Devil’s Backbone, the underrated Blade II, a fun couple of Hellboy s, and Pan’s Labyrinth (which even people who’ve never owned an action figure consider beautifully macabre).
He’s not a mainstream director slumming. Or even a Romero or Carpenter struggling to get financing. He’s the poster child for geek ascendancy, and he’s got the genre-lovers’ good will that Snyder—or J.J. Abrams—will never have, no matter how much dough they bring in.
But let me digress. For a different subspecies of fanboy, it’s a crushing disappointment that, to make Pacific Rim, del Toro dropped a planned adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness—reportedly because he wanted an R rating and the studio didn’t. And after suffering through the pathetic off-camera biting of the PG-13 World War Z, I’m starting to think del Toro had a point.
Adding to the Mountains disappointment is the fact that there’s never been a satisfying, serious big-studio adaptation of Lovecraft’s work, and del Toro would have killed it. Stuart Gordon cranked out some admittedly fun Lovecraft titles, including Re-Animator and Dagon, but he could just never play ’em straight. They’re wacky, campy, full of Dutch angles and winks.
But instead, it seems del Toro abandoned Lovecraft in order to do for giant robots fighting giant monsters what Spielberg and Lucas did with movie serials and sci-fi and what Tarantino did with ’60s and ’ 70s cult trash: make a big-budget (reportedly $180 million), beautiful, and wish-fulfilling amalgam of the old, cheap stuff that he loved as a kid. In live-action, with special effects that finally look realistic and don’t involve dudes in rubber suits stomping model cities. (Which are still perfectly legit for cosplay at furry conventions.)
What if you don’t speak geek? Here’s a taxonomy of where Pacific Rim comes from:
kaiju A giant monster, often previously played by a Japanese guy in a rubber suit with a visible zipper in the back, stomping on model cities. Literally means “strange beast.” See: Godzilla, Gamera, Rodan, King Kong.
mecha Giant robot, especially with a human pilot. Common in manga and anime. See: Neon Genesis Evangelion, Voltron, Transformers. They’re called “Jaegers” (German for “hunter”) in Pacific Rim. Ahead of the screening, I cannot confirm that their pilots are called Jaegermeisters.
Note: Mechagodzilla is a sort of massive transgender, both kaiju and mecha.
A little history. Live-action mecha fans have especially suffered privations as special effects (and budgets) have evolved. One of Pacific Rim’s most notorious progenitors is Robot Jox, a 1990 howler by Gordon (the wacky Lovecraft guy). Made for a reported $6.5 million, it features giant-robot fighting in stop-motion, plenty of hacky green-screen, hilariously cheap sets, and acting just slightly above what you might call Ed Woodian. (As of this writing, you can still see the whole thing on YouTube. Unless I just ruined that for everyone.)
And even though Pacific Rim is about giant fucking robots fighting huge fucking monsters, it doesn’t appear to be overly childish or dumb. One plot point involves the Jaegers’ two co-pilots having to share all their intimate memories. (Insert your own awkward Vulcan mind-meld joke here.)
Hey, it may tank or have a surprise Will Smith cameo. But Pacific Rim already has enough word-of-mouth to generate a straight-to-DVD knockoff called Atlantic Rim. And I guarantee—in a Men’s Wearhouse George Zimmer voice—that there’ll be a porn version: Pacific . . . eh, you know.
Mark Rahner is a journalist, comic-book writer, and podcaster. His weekly “Special Ops” episode of BJ Shea’s Geek Nation is each Thursday. Visit markrahner.com.