July 11, 2013— -- 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.
Similarly, the Pacific Rim prequel encourages readers to go beyond fantasy to discover a deeper truth about the characters and ourselves. The graphic novel follows the journalist Naomi Sokolov, who weaves together the testimonies of a survivor from the first Kaiju attack, a scientist who helped develop the technology for the Jaeger robots, and the pilot instructor Stacker Pentecost—played by Idris Elba in the film—who saves the Jaeger program. But while the interviews are very different, together they reveal a core of community values—the importance of family, love, and friendship—which are essential for our own survival, rebuilding and victory against everyday monsters like unemployment, inequality and war.
This solidarity also helps readers reinterpret technology in a positive way. "The presence in your mind. The power at your fingertips. It all becomes so much of who you are," reflected Pentecost in the prequel about being locked in mentally with his copilot through a neural bridge.
While other stories like Battlestar Galactica and the Terminator film series see technology as a potential menace to society—alienating people from each other and even threatening them with extinction—both Beacham and Del Toro present technology as a solution, the ultimate expression of human invention.
This perspective is now more important than ever. At a time when NASA has cancelled all piloted expeditions to outer space, and when city mayors have confined themselves to fight climate change by building oceanfront walls, a renewed faith in science and technology can push us to go beyond our limits, remind us why we fight, and shift our focus from the past to the future.
Pacific Rim opens in movie theaters on July 12.