‘Pacific Rim’ and the Evolution of the Monster Movie

‘Pacific Rim’ and the Evolution of the Monster Movie

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

When cinephile Guillermo del Toro set out to make Pacific Rim, the passion that fueled his quest was born from a great fondness for the long, varied history of monster movies. One of Hollywood’s staples since the earliest days of motion pictures, these flicks haven proven to be a sub-genre with more versatility than anyone might have anticipated.

Silent era monster movies had to rely on well-timed tension, grotesque visuals, and a suggestion of doom to scare audiences (some of this era’s entries rank still as among the scariest films to date):

Frankenstein (1910)

The Golem (1920)

With the entry of talkies, monsters were able to develop personalities and motives. A more three-dimensional adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic novel derived its sense of fright by executing themes of the monstrosity of man himself:

Frankenstein (1933)

A similar theme carried forth in the famous The Wolf Man, benefactor of one of the most horrifying montages in cinema history (a man’s transformation into werewolf form):

The Wolf Man (1941)

With new advances in special effects and budget, the ’50s brought forth the monster movies from which Pacific Rim adopts its species. These large scale disaster flicks, with monstrous creatures chasing innocents all throughout their hometowns, are nearly synonymous with 1950s and early ’60s cinema:

Godzilla (1954)

The Blob (1958)

Mothra (1961)

The 1970s saw a big shift in the sort of films Hollywood was producing in general, with a gritty and grounded sincerity overtaking the mass of the movie industry’s output. Some of the finest dramas in film history came out of the decade and the same down-to-Earth, earnest sensibility that invigorated the works of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Milos Forman, and Sidney Lumet sept into the monster flicks of the era. For instance, Jaws, a film that took the large scale idea of a “monster” and turned it into something very real, thus amping up the horror all the more:

Jaws (1975)

On the same token, we have Alien, a science-fiction staple whose true horror comes not from the bloodlust of the vicious monster, but from the claustrophobia of its systematically shrinking setting. The true monster, in fact, is the vicious dread building within, and tearing apart, each of the crew members aboard the Nostromo:

Alien (1979)

But of course, when things get too serious, you need some comic relief. And that, in essence, is what the ’80s were. A good plenty of the decade’s horror features were campy, crude, and provocative, returning the genre to its “just for fun” sensibility:

Gremlins (1984)

After the genre itself had gone through so many transformations, the 1990s ushered in the nostalgia phase (which present day moviegoers know all too well) with a series of monster remakes. A chance to explore the untapped possibilities of old favorites? Highlight the amended role they might play in a new dawn? Or just make a few bucks with a familiar title? Eh, whatever works.

An American Werewolf in Paris (1997)

Godzilla (1998)

Mighty Joe Young (1998)

And now, we have Pacific Rim, a true love letter to the genre itself. Although the film quite definitely pays most of its gratitude to the Godzilla-style, big scale thrashings of the ’50s, there is no doubt a genuine love for all things monstrous in the heart and mind of the auteur del Toro. If you have any doubt, just check out his film Pan’s Labyrinth… it’ll creep, and charm, the hell out of you.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Follow Michael Arbeiter on Twitter @MichaelArbeiter | Follow hollywood.com on Twitter @hollywood_com

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