Action! Terror! Horror! Monster fight! Yes, my friends, it’s the film battle we’ve all been waiting for, in which we pit monsters fighting monsters against monsters fighting robots in the greatest clash since the beast known as Marlon Brando fought a giant space bug—and swallowed it whole!
Our two contestants are Guillermo del Toro’s new and shiny, loud and nerdy summer spectacular, Pacific Rim, and the classic Toho Studios monster flick directed by the monster-master himself, Ishiro Honda, Invasion of Astro-Monster AKA Monster Zero AKA Godzilla vs. Monster Zero AKA The Great Monster War AKA Invasion of The Astros!
And the first victory goes to—Invasion of Astro-Monster! For what, you ask? For having so very many awesome alternate names, each and every one of which is more compelling than Pacific Rim, which for a movie about monsters fighting robots could not possibly be more boring. What’s the deal, Guillermo? Your love of monster movies doesn’t extend to their fantastic names?
A brief aside. I loved sci-fi and monster flicks as a kid, but was never a true Japanese kaiju, i.e. big-ass-monster, obsessive. Truth be told, I’d never even heard the word “kaiju” until the promos for Pacific Rim started rolling out. I enjoyed me some Godzilla, some Mothra, some three-headed Ghidorah, some Ultra-Man, but my viewing was limited—this was the late ‘70s—to whatever aired on UHF channels 44 and 20 on Saturday afternoons. By the time VHS took over in the early ‘80s, my interests had moved on to John Carpenter and John Landis flicks, among others.
Which is to say, I have no axe to grind with respect to respecting or disrespecting this fabled genre of men in rubber monster suits stomping cities. Until two days ago, I’d seen neither Pacific Rim nor Invasion of Astro-Monster. This is a fair fight, by gum. So let’s get it on!
Round 1: Plot
Unlike every other summer spectacular in these modern times, Pacific Rim has a surprisingly non-convoluted plot. It is, granted, a typically stupid plot, but so it goes. It starts with a quickly told set-up. Seems one day a giant monster appeared in the Pacific Ocean outside San Francisco, having crawled up through a portal to an alternate universe in the ocean floor, wreaked havoc, and was eventually killed. Six months later, another one showed up outside some other city, etc. and so on. The monsters kept on coming. So humankind joined hands and bank accounts and did the only sensible thing: they built giant robots to fight the mysterious beasts.
Why not build, say, large bombs? And blow up the monsters? That’s a very good question, junior. Now eat your ice cream and go to bed.
Anyway, these giant robots—called Jaegers (the German word for hunter is Jäger, and robots are, um, German? So they used the German word? Didn’t a Czech playwright invent the word “robot”? So shouldn’t the robots be called lovec? Am I overthinking this?)—these jaegers must be piloted by two people at once, because, um, I guess the robots are really big? And you have to connect your brain to them? Which is hard?
Okay, so two pilots link their brains together, this is called “drifting”, and fight the monsters. Which worked out fine until it didn’t, because the monsters began winning.
We meet Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother, who pilot a jaeger together. They get whupped by a lizard-thing, the brother dies, Raleigh puts on a sad face and helps build walls for five years, but oh noes! The monsters who destroy cities aren’t stopped by walls! If only someone had seen that coming! And then, for example, built very large bombs instead (I said go to bed, junior!).
Raleigh is told by Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, insisting that his character’s name be at least as unlikely as his own) that he must return to the jaeger program or all will be lost. Stacker has a plan. They’re going to put a very large bomb (good idea!) into the underwater portal. Even though actually they’ve tried that before and it never worked. This time it will, because something mumble mumble. Raleigh’s going to be paired with a new buddy–a woman! A very cute Japanese woman, no less, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi). I hope they fall in love.
Later we learn what’s going on. The kaiju are only the first wave of monsters. They’re here to wipe out all the people so the ruling-class monsters can terraform the planet and take over.
Invasion of Astro-Monster also tells a simple story. A new planet—Planet X*—has been discovered hiding behind Jupiter, as new planets are wont to do. Two astronauts, Glenn and Fuji, fly off to explore it. They find a race of stylishly dressed humanoids, the Xians, living underground in fear of King Ghidorah, the three headed monster who flies around shooting lightning beams from its mouths (which monster they call Monster Zero). They have a simple request: if Earth allows them the use of Godzilla and Rodan to fight Ghidorah, they’ll provide Earth with the cure for cancer. Not a bad deal.
But when the astronauts leave, the aliens chuckle menacingly. Uh oh.
Flying saucers appear out of a lake on Earth. Seems the Xians were already on Earth. More suspicious still. Using super-duper transporto-rays, they carry Godzilla and Rodan through space to Planet X, where they successfully chase off Ghidorah. The Xians give Glenn and Fuji a box with the cancer cure and send them back to Earth.
But the box contains a tape recording—which announces that the Xians intend to make Earth their colony! If the Earthlings resist, all three monsters, which the Xians now control with magnetic waves, will attack!
You’re with me so far? Good.
Earth resists, and the three monsters go monster-crazy all over Japan.
There we have it, two stories of aliens trying to take over the earth, and using monsters to do it. Basically, these movies are identical. But there’s one difference: everything that happens in Pacific Rim is utterly predictable. There isn’t a single surprise. Whereas Invasion of Astro-Monster’s story is so batshit weird you never have a clue what’s coming next.
Winner: Invasion of Astro-Monster.
Round 2: Acting
Are you kidding? There’s no acting in a monster fight movie!
Winner: tie. All actors in both movies could be outperformed by a well-sanded two-by-four, with the exception of Pacific Rim star Charle Hunnam, who actually is a two-by-four.
Round 3: Monster Fights
This is what we’re here for. Pacific Rim features the latest in CGI monsters and robots and cities and oceans. You can’t fault the fancy-pantsness of the visuals. What you can fault are the monsters themselves. I’m led to believe that they’re all unique, the monsters, but that’s from what I’ve read. Watching the movie I couldn’t tell one from another. They’re all of the slithery lizard variety. None have personality.
The other issue is that the monsters only appear at night and the fights are all shot in close-up. There’s not a single wide-shot showing a monster rampaging, at least not one lasting more than a quarter of a second. Even the opening, when a monster breaks through the Golden Gate Bridge, is shot in excrutiating close-up. Why not pull back? Why not show what it would look like to someone actually in San Francisco watching this thing emerge and break down the bridge? That would look amazing.
The fights aren’t incomprehensible. So there’s that. Instead they’re boring. The robots all start out by punching the monsters. This has no effect at all. Only late in the fights do the robots launch bombs and missiles at the monsters. Why not start out doing that? In one fight, as our heroes are about to get their asses kicked, they whip out a giant robot sword and cut the monster in two. Um, guys? Why not use the sword to begin with? For that matter, why not break out the bombs to begin with?
The monsters in Invasion of Astro-Monster need no introduction. They’re famous. They’re guys in rubber suits and still they’ve got ten times the personality of any beast in Pacific Rim. Godzilla, Rodan, Ghidorah. They are unique. They are weird. They are of course laughably absurd. And so what? They have character. They are characters. When you’re a kid you love them to death. What’s to love about the monsters in Pacific Rim? Other than their “reality”? The animators are so worried about their beasties looking “real” they forget to imbue them with anything else. If you’ve ever seen a Godzilla movie you know the sound of his roar. He has a voice! Why? Because he’s an individual.
And yes, we learn that the monsters in Pacific Rim are all essentially interchangeable because they have the same DNA. They were built, not born. Or something. So what? That makes them boring. Giving them ridiculous names doesn’t help.
Are the fights in Invasion of Astro-Monster hilariously low-tech? They are. There’s no competing with today’s visuals. But there is of course a problem with weilding an infinite palette: the choice of how to use it. Pacific Rim often looks good—the saturated colors used throughout glow vibrantly—but its monsters are characterless and the fights, during which we constantly cut to the interiors of the jaegers, as if we needed reminding that they’re operated by people, are boring.
Winner: Invasion of Astro-Monster.
Round 4: Comic Relief
A monster flick would be nothing without comic relief. Invasion of Astro-Monster features the inventor Tetsuo, who comes up with a noise-making device woman can use to ward off attackers. But alas! No one will buy it! Until one company agrees to. It’s headed by Miss Namikawa, who is both astronaut Glenn’s girlfriend—and a Xian! Yipes! She’s going to buy the invention to destroy it. For it turns out that the sound it makes is deadly to Xians. What are the odds? In the end, it is this little device that defeats the Xians.
In Pacific Rim, there are two scientists, Newt (Charlie Day) and Hermann (Burn Gorman), who were clearly teleported in from a different movie. A movie like Invasion of Astro-Monster. They’re the nutty comic duo, fighting like Laurel and Hardy. Hermann figures out a formula for how many monsters will be coming out of the portal, which theory plays no part whatsoever in the movie, and Newt figures out how to “drift” with the still-living brain of a kaiju. By doing so, he joins his mind with the kaiju hive-mind, thus revealing to him how to make the whole dropping-a-bomb-into-the-portal plan work. Also, when a kaiju attacks Hong Kong, it doesn’t kill him, because his brain linked up that one time.
Newt also gets to interact with Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), who joyfully eats the scenery as a black-market kaiju organ harvester with shiny shoes.
Winner: Pacific Rim. Because the goopy alien bits look neat, and Ron Perlman is Ron Perlman. If the movie had been about him and the two wacky scientists, it might have been a grand old stupid time at the movies.
Round 5: The Look, Artistically Speaking
Pacific Rim is all bright colors and shiny robots and slithery monsters. It’s all CGI, all the time. It is, in a sense, an animated movie. As such, parts of it look very good. The colors, as I noted above, are at times gloriously garish and oversaturated in a way that if anything calls to mind Blade Runner and Tron. Unfortunately, this doesn’t hold through the whole movie. Many scenes look about as bland as any other CGI spectacular. Still and all, it’s got something unique going on.
Ishiro Honda, who directed the orignal Godzilla along with many other classic monster movies, has no budget and no tech to work with, but what he creates in Invasion of Astro-Monster is something wholly original and cool. It’s shot in wide-screen, with carefully staged scenes and weird effects. The flying saucers glow radioactively. The monsters stomp around rubberly. The Xians look like extras from a biker flick shot in space. It reminded me of the ’65 Italian flick Planet of The Vampires for its ’60s sci-fi-ishness (which movie, by the way, may have inspired Alien).
Winner: Invasion of Astro-Monster. Why? Because I said so.
Round 6: The 10-Year-Old Factor
Let’s face it. None of these movies are made for adults. They’re made for 10 year old boys (and monster-loving 10 year old girls). What would my 10 year old self think of our competitors?
I loved anything with monsters as a kid. I thrilled to Godzilla movies, even though monster movies of those bygone days were chock full of boring talky scenes between brief moments of monsters laying waste to cities and beating each other up. I thought Invaders From Mars was the best thing ever, and my god, try watching that today, I guarantee you’ll fall asleep (not me! I still love it!).
So no question: Invasion of Astro-Monster is a perfect monster movie for ten year olds. It’s even got spooky, stylish aliens wearing sunglasses. I don’t know how I missed it. I blame poor programming on the part of my local VHF stations.
As for Pacific Rim, I’m guessing that it, too, will play big with the ten year old set. The boring scenes, plywood acting, moronic dialogue, and bland predictability of the action won’t matter a bit. Ten year olds haven’t seen enough movies to see how by-the-numbers Pacific Rim’s plot is. They will thrill to the monster/robot fights, and dream of piloting their own jaeger. Or, if they were like me, they’ll dream of being a monster, and kicking jaeger ass.
Overall Winner: Invasion of Astro-Monster.
It may be old, it may be cheap, it may be silly, it may be boring, but it’s weird and imaginative, its monsters are true characters, and you won’t have a damn clue what’s going to happen next.
Pacific Rim, on the plus side, isn’t a depressing slog like Man of Steel or Star Trek; it aims to be uplifting, and to present a more colorful kind of future robot-world. Alas, it is, in the end, unconscionably boring for a monster fight movie.
Rumor has it that del Toro is eyeing a possible remake of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, with Charlie Kaufman scripting. Now that’s something I can get behind. That, or del Toro’s dream project, H. P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness. As for the inevitable Pacific Rim sequel? I can do without it.
* for more information on the fabled Planet X, watch this: