You take a walk on Santa Monica beach in California one foggy morning. You see the outline of the pier and its empty amusement park looming in the distance. If you stare long enough, the 90-foot ferris wheel and the 55-foot roller coaster might look like two giants ready to battle each other over the slate-gray ocean.
While most beach-goers see the Santa Monica Pier as a quiet place where you can enjoy summer ice cream and cotton candy, the foggy silhouettes of the amusement park rides inspired screenwriter Travis Beacham to team up with Guillermo del Toro in a script for the upcoming July blockbuster Pacific Rim—a science fiction monster film where giant pilot-driven robots defend the planet against Godzilla-like creatures.
Pacific Rim is not the first larger-than-life story that has been inspired by the Santa Monica shore. Popeye, the square jaw cartoon sailor with his character-defining corncob pipe, was based on Olaf "Cap" Olsen, a Norwegian who ran a small fleet of fishing barges from the pier. But, if you think that Popeye and Pacific Rim are just fantasy-filled stories that overindulge in superhuman strength and colossal battles, these Hulkish characters compel you to dig deeper to unearth their humanity.
"People… are what makes the best mythology feel truly sprawling and alive," wrote Beacham in the introduction to the Pacific Rim prequel graphic novel, released on June 5. "You'd think a bird's eye view paints the picture, but the truth is that the world tends to look smaller and toyish from 30,000 feet. However, when you're on the ground, with the people, invested in their personal issues, their world feels bigger as a result."
Beacham explained in an interview with Fusion that both the graphic novel and the film aim to show readers and viewers that behind every robot and monster is a very human face. "The two pilots driving each robot became the device that allowed us to talk about humanity," he said. "All of a sudden the relationships between the pilots became important to make the robots work."
This human theme is also present in the monsters. Beacham said that Guillermo del Toro wanted each Kaiju, or beast, to evoke the 1970s monsters that were played by "men in suits." And the design of each creature, the way that it looks and moves, could remind viewers that while monsters on film seem very inhuman on the outside, some of them could have actors bringing them to life from the inside.
The idea that science fiction and fantasy could be metaphors for much more complex realities is not new. The Spanish poet Federico García Lorca explained how people used giants to describe nature. "The human imagination invented giants in order to attribute to them the construction of great grottoes…" he said in a lecture 85 years ago. But, if we push beyond that fantasy, Lorca emphasized, reality will teach us that those caves were made by tiny drops of water.