This weekend, director Guillermo del Toro delivers the biggest movie of his career so far. Literally. "Pacific Rim" tosses giant robots against giant monsters with the kind of excitement usually reserved for the minds of sugar-rushed teenage boys washing down the morning's fifth bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch with a two liter of Mountain Dew.
To celebrate the arrival of "Pacific Rim," I figured I would name off five of my favorite giant monster movies. I didn’t include any of the classic Godzilla movies because I’m saving those for a list when the upcoming "Godzilla" remake hits theatres next year (I also didn’t include Roland Emmerich’s 1998 "Godzilla" because it’s tripe). Other than that, the only rules are that the movie has to be good, and the monsters have to be big.
With the ground rules set, here are five giant monster movies that certainly left an impact on my movie-loving brain, as well as the various cities they menaced.
No, not the movie based on the Stephenie Meyer novel from a couple months back that only five people saw. "The Host" is a 2006 Korean monster movie directed by Bong Joon-ho, one of the stars of the current Korean cinema movement whose English language debut, "Snowpiercer" starring Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton, is set to come out sometime this year.
The movie is a bizarre mix of tones, switching crazily between lead actor Kang-ho Song’s amusing slapstick slacker routine and serious, weighty drama. Somehow, Bong manages to balance these elements brilliantly, making a monster movie that’s as thrillingly fun and entertainingly goofy as a classic giant monster flick while also providing some actually stirring family drama and political overtones.
Who cares about political blah-di-blah, though? The most important part: How’s the monster? He’s great. The creature looks like a mutated fish, trampling around on its two oversized legs and snatching people up with either his nasty tail or his nastier mouth. His opening attack on some lounging riverside citizens is a total rush, and while it’s a hard moment to top, the rest of "The Host" does a damn fine job.
I think we can all pretty much agree that the found footage genre needs to make like most fads and disappear forever. It won’t (it’s way too profitable, since you can spend a million dollars on a dopey horror movie that’ll earn $30 million its opening weekend), but a boy can dream.
One of the few movies to do it right, however, was the 2008 monster flick and marketing masterwork "Cloverfield." While most found footage movies lately use the gimmick to simply cover up laziness and stylistic/budgetary shortcomings, director Matt Reeves really uses the visual style to give the film a new, exciting sense of urgency and immediacy. It may look cheap, but it’s actually quite carefully crafted, capturing memorable visuals and building sneakily intense, creepy set piece moments.
In a way, "Cloverfield" is simply a perfect storm of a smart marketing idea mixed with a clever gimmick (before it became just a gimmick) and some equally clever filmmakers. The result is a standard monster movie story told with a freshness that certainly left its mark, for better or worse. Considering what followed ("The Devil Inside," Apollo 18," the unending "Paranormal Activity" series, etc.), I’m going to go with worse.
"Jurassic Park" is such a part of our cultural experience that it’s kind of hard to see the modern classic for what it is at its core: a monster movie. After all, the opening sequence involving Muldoon and the murderous raptors plays just like a classic monster movie. It’s the perfect tease for what’s about to come.
The raptors are awesome (back during my childhood dinosaur phase, I loved them), but the rules say the monster needs to be big. That’s where the T-rex comes in. If we’re talking in action movie terms, the T-rex is the heavy, and the raptors are the main villain (or vice versa). Spielberg sets up the giant meat-eater for as long as humanly possible, eventually revealing it and all of its glorious ferocity during that all-time great breakout sequence in the rain. Everything about the giant beast seems right, from the special effects and models that bring him to life to the sound design of his shiver-inducing roar.
He’s one of the great movie monsters, and worst of all, he was real. I thank the heavens every day for dropping a meteor on that monster, keeping him on screen, in textbooks and far away from me.
While we’re on the topic of Spielberg, let’s talk about the best Spielberg movie the man never directed (okay, "Poltergeist," but obviously this isn’t the list for that). "Super 8" is an overt homage to the kind of sentimental adventures Spielberg threw his name on all the time back in the ’80s. And under the eye of director J.J. Abrams, the film gets most of the stuff that made them memorable right.
It has a great cast of young actors, including Joel Courtney and the terrific Elle Fanning. It has several intense set piece moments, from the bombastic opening train crash to the monster’s attack on the bus late in the film. Being an Abrams film, it has a dash of mystery and intrigue. Most importantly, the film’s heart is delivered with just the right touch.
Many called "Super 8" simply a copy when it came out two summers ago, and I think that’s selling it short. There’s enough originality with the story and genuine heart, especially with the filmmaking storyline, that helps it stand on its own (as opposed to, say, "Star Trek Into Darkness," whose emotions relied almost entirely on another film). You can say it’s ripping off Spielberg’s tone and feel, but considering how few other movies give audiences any characters to care about, maybe summer blockbusters should copy Spielberg more often.
I wasn’t sure whether I would put "King Kong" or my favorite Norwegian found footage movie "Trollhunter" on this list. However, I think I’ve slathered "Trollhunter" with enough of my verbal drool to last it a few years, so let’s talk about something new (well, maybe not new per say since the original "King Kong" came out back in 1933).
The original film isn’t a particularly complex story with particularly complex characters, but despite being 80 years old, "King Kong" is still a thrill to watch. Some of the effects are a little dopey, but many of them are ingenious for the time, and it’s still just a fun monster movie. Watching it is homework in a way because half of the enjoyment is seeing how far Hollywood has come in terms of spectacle, but it’s the best kind of homework.
In case you’re asking about the 2005 edition directed by Peter Jackson, that version is a lot of epic fun as long as you can get through the seemingly endless running time. And in case you’re asking about the 1976 version starring Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, don’t make me laugh.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.