Robots v Robots v Monsters

“...In the cinema tonight we sit and watch the robots fight,
The human beings don’t have much to say..”
-Joe Jackson - Instant Mash

Movie history is full of giant fighting robots. Starting with a few Japanese monster movies and kids' shows, the genre has grown and evolved to produce everything from b-movies, to plastic toys, to giant Hollywood blockbusters.  We love to see big screen robots smashing stuff up…but where did these robots come from?

Giant monsters (or “Kaiju”) began in Japan in 1954 with Godzilla—a metaphor for the destruction of Hiroshima during the aftermath of World War II. These early Kaiju films started coming to the US as pure entertainment, which fueled more and more Japanese Kaiju movies.

Godzilla, the original and most famous Kaiju

Soon the genre introduced “Mechas” or giant robots, which started appearing in TV and film to battle the giant monsters. Early Mechas include Mechani-Kong (a robot version of King Kong), Mechagodzilla (a robot created by aliens to battle Godzilla and conquer the Earth), and Mecha-King Ghidorah (a three-headed robot based on King Ghidorah, created by scientists to battle Godzilla).

Godzille v Mechagodzilla
Godzilla v Mechagodzilla
Mechaghidora (even the second-rate Kaiju got Mecha-versions)

Since these early fighting Mechas, the genre (both in Japan and the US) has dreamed up Ultraman, Voltron, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, Transformers, modern Transformers, Pacific Rim, Colossal, and even a cinematic take on the kids’ game Rock ‘em Sock ‘em Robots (seriously, that became the 2011 movie Real Steel), and more!

Voltron (Five robots combined into a larger robot--boy, it must have been harder to be in the feet than the head! )
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers' Megazord (a knock-off Voltron)
Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots
Real Steel (Rock’em Sock’Em Robots)


Transformers began as an adver-tainment animated series to sell the American version of a Japanese toy line of transforming robots, but nostalgia and computer generated effects have, um, transformed them into a multi-billion dollar movie franchise (which has sold even more toys). 

Hazbro Transformer cartoon

The Transformers movies are visually stunning with enough high speed computer-generated action that the complete lack of plot isn’t as annoying as you’d think…just turn down your critical thinking skills and enjoy the spectacle!

GMC Transformers
New Transformers selling bigger toys

The Iron Giant and Colossal have a little more plot and meaning behind the action. The Iron Giant taught us "You are what you choose to be"--you can choose to be Superman, and not a gun. Colossal showed us the dangers of not facing your inner monsters and repressed memories all while inadvertently destroying a city.

Iron Giant
Not a gun
Watch where you step

Pacific Rim and its sequel are attempting to bring back more of the feel of the original Robots v Monsters films, and even use the term “Kaiju.” Plots involve young headstrong heroes saving the world while defying the command structure, and stylistically use deadly serious acting in midst of incredibly far-fetched storylines. These films bring up some questions like, “why would pugilistic robots with chainsaws, or bullwhips, or maces for hands do better against monsters than conventional missiles and bombs?” And, “we watch entire populated cities being destroyed, but why are we even more sad about one robot pilot dying?” 

Pacific Rim

Jaegers (giant robots developed in Pacific Rim) fighting Kaiju 

What do these robots…well…mean? Are they metaphors for our relationship with technology? Are they cautionary tales?  Maybe they’re just cinematic junk food. (But we all love junk food, don’t we?)

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