Say what you will about its other flaws — and there’s plenty to say — but Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (out today in wide release) delivers what it promises: giant goddamn robots fighting giant monsters in the ocean. Gazing upon the magnificence of the film’s enormous machines, it’s easy to marvel at how far moviemakers have come in their onscreen portrayals of mechanical beings. A brief history:
Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking 1927 classic is, most agree, the first feature-length science fiction film. So it only seems appropriate that a robot — or Machine-Human, aka maschinenmensch — should play so prominent a role. The technology used to create the character was, unsurprisingly, a bit rudimentary: a costume for actress Brigette Helm, constructed out of a plastic-like wood substitute, drawn from a plaster casting taken from the actress’s entire body.
This 1956 science fiction film, loosely inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, featured one of the earliest and most iconic of movie robots: Robby, the sophisticated, intelligent machine that marked one of the first examples of a robot character with a distinct personality. The basic principle of conception remained the same — prolific character actor Frankie Darro was the man inside the machine. But the MGM prop department worked overtime to give him a look more mechanized, sophisticated, and futuristic than his contemporaries (even if that look now seems quaint and old-fashioned comparatively).
The Day the Earth Stood Still
To play the role of Gort, the vaporizing alien robot in this 1951 sci-fi classic, director Robert Wise hired Lock Martin, an usher-turned-actor who stood over seven feet tall. The character stood even taller than he did; lifts were placed in his boots, and he looked through the visor via prisms. Two foam-rubber suits were created, fastening from opposite sides depending on the angle of the camera. The result was an imposing and menacing figure — yet still within the realm of “actor in a robot suit.”
And that was still the standard 16 years later, when 5’9” Anthony Daniels and 3’8” Kenny Baker suited up to play the two most famous “droids” in modern pop culture. The gap in production between the original trilogy and the prequels show the technical advances made in that period — for example, the original films had only two R2D2s, one rolling, remote controlled model, the other worn by Baker. By the time they made the prequels, there were eight radio-control models and additional stunt robots, manipulated via CGI and wire-work so that Baker was used far less. C3PO was a standard costume with Daniels inside, though some of the prequel scenes were done with a puppeteer (removed in post-production).
Rocky IV/Deadly Friend/The Muppets
In the 1980s, the idea that science was on the cusp of finally creating real, honest-to-God robots led to some mighty goofy moviemaking. Recall 1987’s Rocky IV, in which the title character gives brother-in-law Paulie, as his birthday gift, a robot — one which, as Roger Ebert noted, “can understand statements and respond spontaneously, suggesting that Rocky’s suppliers have licked the problem of artificial intelligence.” But the movie robot was, for once, not a guy in a robot suit; it was a real robot, created by a company called International Robotics Inc. (and voiced by their CEO). But in the fictional universe, Rocky may well have got the robot from Paul, the hero of Wes Craven’s 1986 thriller Deadly Friend, a teenage whiz-kid who developed and built a pet robot that’s also fully intelligent, and no one seems to think it’s a big deal. This strange mini-trend is probably the best explanation for The Muppets’ brilliant, Tab-toting “80’s Robot.”
Or it may have been inspired by Johnny Five (or Number Five, or Number Johnny Five), the wise-cracking robot brought to “life” by a lightning strike. The robot itself was a combination of puppetry and remote control. Short Circuit begat not only a sequel, but (some said) the inspiration for Pixar’s 2008 film WALL-E, in which a lovable robot roams the earth, cleaning up our mess. The robot sported a similar design, but the animated format made it a helluva lot easier to execute.
Blade Runner/The Terminator/Robocop
The other way to go with robot characters is to embrace the human factor; rather than wrapping actors in robot costumes or dealing with hard-to-control technology, just make a half-human, half-robot and call it a day. Thus we have the “replicants” of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, the Austrian bodybuilder robot model of Cameron’s original Terminator, and the cop-turned-robot of Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop. All three films featured plenty of impressive special effects to convince us that these characters were more than mere mortals, of course, but they presumably had an easier time than those starting from scratch.
And then came the computers. The giant, city-smashing, vehicle/robots in Michael Bay’s 2007 smash (and its inexplicably overlong sequels) weren’t bound by practical considerations, so they could pretty much do whatever Bay and his CG geniuses wanted. The result is slick but soulless: the effects are undeniably dazzling, but there’s no sense of weight or heft to these giant mechanical beings. You’re always aware that you’re looking at 1s and 0s, and that robs the picture of the wonder you get from something as comparatively lo-fi as Robby or C3PO.
Moon/Robot & Frank
And that may be why the proudly practical “GERTY” of Duncan Jones’s Moon and “Robot” of Jake Schreier’s Robot & Frank feel so comparatively “real” — they’re right there in the scenes for the actors to interact with (instead of a floating tennis ball on a green screen), and thus their relationships with the humans at their films’ centers have the credibility the narratives require.
Effects grow by leaps and bounds, and while it’s hard to forget that we’re looking at CGI in the big battle sequences, the lived-in feel of these enormous (seriously, they’re really huge) robots goes a long way — as does the energy of del Toro’s giddy, little-boys-and-their-toys direction, which helps set these beasts apart from the grim pyrotechnics of a Transformers.