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Why aren’t there more giant robot movies?


Since things are much larger than they normally would be, this is the basis of entire genres of entertainment, but their size communicates different things depending on the context. The venerable genre of the giant robot, or mecha, is featured heavily in cartoons, video games, comics, and cartoons, but has a much smaller footprint in the film world.

Anime is the medium of choice for stories about titanic automatons or huge armored vehicles in the shape of a man. Giant machines driven by humans like long-running Gundam franchise to sapient but still huge constructions like the underrated Gargantia on the Verdant Planet, the anime seems to have a virtual monopoly on the genre.


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The Transwering machines franchise, Power Rangers, both Pacific Rim movies, Jox robot and that’s about all for thirty years of giant robots in the cinema. Some attempts were made and never fully succeeded, such as the resumption of the unfinished Weta workshop Neon Genesis Evangelion, but even a name as big as Eva can’t always bring a movie to the screen. The overwhelming majority of these entries are adaptations, with only a few entirely original mecha films ever made to hit the big screen. Oddly, the giant monster genre is portrayed much better in theaters than its mechanical counterpart, with the hugely successful Monsterverse wrapping up last year. Among the small subgenre there has been a wide variety of successes and failures. Even with the small sample size, the filmmakers managed to pull together several interesting stories, but what is the movie industry’s move away from this idea?


The first and most obvious stumbling block is price, big bots mean big CGI and a hugely inflated effects budget. Hollywood is notoriously risk averse, so a big budget spent on anything other than a sure thing is a huge stumbling block from the get-go. Adaptation is an easy way to solve this problem, a big name attached to the project often alleviates the inherent fear and brings some comfort to producers. Alternatively, a big name, like del Toro in the director’s seat of Pacific Rim, can perform the same function. Not a ton of movies have either of these easy passes in production, so securing producers for the price may be the most glaring stop in the giant robot genre. But budget is far from the only stumbling block a mecha movie will face before it can even reach production.

The entire giant robot action movie subgenre has been largely dominated by an extremely popular, but heavily criticized franchise, Michael Bay’s Transformers. Based on the toy empire and the beloved ’80s cartoon, this franchise had no trouble making its way to the big screen, but presented a huge problem once it got there. the Transformers the movies are largely horrible, but have managed to make so much money that they have created audience expectations for blockbusters. The franchise doesn’t do much with its central vanity, its robots are framed as people who use guns and melee weapons in dull, washed-out action scenes, like any human pissed off by CGI. could do it. Even their central vanity, turning into vehicles, might as well be accomplished by anyone with access to a similar vehicle. Filmmakers never sell the scale of robots, or their unique abilities, or even the alien nature of their design. the Transformers films are much more concerned with “disguised” than “robots”. This genre has suffered greatly from the fact that its best-known example is also the least concerned with all that is worth its attributes.


So the genre is prohibitive and the standard bearer is bad, both as an example and in general, but is this genre worth pursuing? Pacific Rim is, without argument, the pinnacle of the cinematic mecha experience. A brilliant visual design that draws inspiration from previous works while remaining entirely original, taken to new heights by its emphasis on scale. Perhaps no movie before or since has made audiences count with both the Lovecraftian-level monster and machine of incomprehensible size. Guillermo del Toro was born to bring monsters to film screens, and his machines are just as majestic, and often just as gruesome. Pacific Rim is perhaps the only blockbuster movie with the vision of making the mecha genre work on medium and on budget to give it the presentation it deserves. Even its own sequel failed to carry on its legacy, losing most of what made the original special. This film alone demonstrates the greatness that could be brought to cinema if more directors were willing to embrace this genre more often.

The anime appears to have done some truly magical things within the engaging confines of giant robot stories, but logistics and audience issues have kept cinema away from that possibility. Mecha deserves his chance on the big screen, and if done right, audiences will never tire of a big screen filled with city-sized robots.

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