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Beasts and bots: The history before 'Pacific Rim'

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Published:   |   Updated: July 12, 2013 at 07:56 AM

A giant robot picks up a cargo ship like a baseball bat and smashes the head of a towering beast. The robot then uses what looks like a fist propelled by rockets to punch another skyscraper-sized monstrosity in the face.

You've seen the trailers, but for the uninitiated, it probably doesn't make a lick of sense.

This is director Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim," opening today, which fuses the Japanese genres of mecha and kaiju and gives it a 21st century spin. Mecha is science fiction that centers around big robots. Kaiju means "strange beast," but here's a more apt description: Giant monsters invade, lay cities to waste and trample the populace.

Splicing together the DNA from two sci-fi genres has the potential for a summer blockbuster, something del Toro has flirted with in the past with films such as "Blade II" and the "Hellboy" series. Heck, he's even garnered some critical acclaim with "Pan's Labyrinth." But he's never had a bona fide, "Iron Man"-type smash launching him into the mainstream. "Pacific Rim," opening today, could be his best shot.

Here's a primer on what influenced the movie and why mecha and kaiju fans can't wait to see a humongous robot body-slam a behemoth from the depths of the Earth.

King Kong: The grandaddy of all kaiju films was actually made by Americans before the Japanese took, then expanded on, every motif of the genre. The 1933 and 2005 versions of "King Kong" feature the gigantic ape pummeling dinosaurs all over Skull Island then wreaking havoc in New York City. Kaiju, which is what the monsters in "Pacific Rim" are called, started here.

Godzilla: The original 1954 film, brimming with a subtext of anxiety about nuclear weapons, is iconic for its images of the overgrown lizard curb-stomping Tokyo. No giant, human-piloted robots faced off with the King of Monsters in this film, but Godzilla's first appearance kicked off a string of 28 movies, all featuring some gargantuan antagonist for our reptilian anti-hero to focus its breathtaking anger-management issues on. Godzilla has battled massive moths, three-headed space dragons and an evil robotic version of itself named, obviously, Mechagodzilla.

Ultraman: Another Japanese series, this one featuring monsters from space invading Earth - a concept that "Pacific Rim" flips 180 degrees - and the only weapon that could stop them: a giant super-humanoid named Ultraman. The television series ran from 1966-67 and the highlight of each episode was Ultraman using special karate moves like the Ultra Slash and the Ultra Air Catch to defeat his foes. "Ultraman" was basically Ralph Macchio in "The Karate Kid" crane-kicking William Zabka in the face for 39 episodes.

Gundam: An animated space opera from Japan, the "Gundam" series tells the tale of human pilots controlling large, bipedal, mechanical suits during a worldwide war. "Pacific Rim" tweaks this concept by having two human pilots control each giant robot, dubbed Jaegers. And it should be noted that the Jaegers have Japanese-influenced names, such as "Striker Eureka" and "Gipsy Danger."

Shogun Warriors: A popular animated series in Japan which later became a Marvel comic book, the title characters are three giant robots - Raydeen, Dangard Ace and Combattra (again with the awesome robot names!) - and their pilots who save the world from otherworldly threats. Raydeen fights with buzz saws attached to its forearms. Dangard Ace has a giant spear and shoots missiles from its shoulders. And Combattra has the best weapon of all: rocket fists. Yes, fists that shoot out like rockets to clobber monsters. In "Pacific Rim," one of the Jaegers gets outfitted with this weapon.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: An anime, comic book and veritable media juggernaut in its home country of Japan, "Evangelion" single-handedly re-energized and re-imagined mecha and kaiju, updating the genres' well-worn tropes and turning them on its ears. The human pilots were traumatized teenagers; the robots weren't lumbering and blocky, they were nimble, built like Olympic swimmers and partially organic; and pilots used psychic links to control their "Evas." And nearly every battle with the series' baddies known as Angels took on - no joke - religious overtones.

H.P. Lovecraft: Although the legendary science fiction author looks out of place on this list, Lovecraft's works have influenced every film del Toro has directed. Lovecraft's concepts of ancient, unfathomable evils lurking in alternate dimensions fuel "Hellboy." In "Pacific Rim," the kaiju supposedly appear out of a dimensional rift at the bottom of the ocean. Del Toro is such a fan of Lovecraft that he even wanted to adapt the classic story "At The Mountains of Madness" for the silver screen. But del Toro canceled the project, saying it was too similar to last summer's "Prometheus." C'mon, Guillermo. You just made a movie about colossal robots putting the smack-down on immense deep-sea creatures. Anything else you do automatically tops the nonsensical "Prometheus."

rreyes@tampatrib.com

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