There are a lot of reasons to love Pacific Rim. The top-notch visual wizardry of director Guillermo del Toro. The epic, ambitious script by del Toro and Travis Beacham, packed to the gills with love for its inspirations and knowing exactly the movie it wants to be. The eclectic but across-the-board awesome cast, from Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi as a wounded but unbowed pair of Jaeger pilots, to Idris Elba’s stoic badassery, to Charlie Day’s surprisingly effective comic relief (and that’s not even addressing Ron Perlman and those shoes). But there’s one talent involved with bringing Pacific Rim to the big screen — the bigger, the better — that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves. The movie’s monstrous Kaiju were designed by the legendary Wayne Barlowe, who has contributed to films such as John Carter, Avatar, and Galaxy Quest.
Barlowe served as the head creature designer on Pacific Rim, continuing a partnership with the director that has stretched across both Hellboy movies, Blade II, and del Toro’s sadly-in-limbo adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. The folks at io9 nabbed an interview with Barlowe and Pacific Rim VFX supervisor John Knoll, which is definitely worth a read, and posted some amazing concept art of the enormous beasts. If you’re familiar with Barlowe’s work and style, it’s easy to see his DNA in the Kaiju, to such a degree that it made me wonder how I hadn’t picked up on his involvement right away.
Barlowe says del Toro was keen to “redefine the genre” with Pacific Rim’s epic creature designs, and wanted to steer clear of directly cribbing from familiar Earth creatures. The goal was to make them look unique and intimidating. As opposed to the monsters he helped design for the Hellboy movies, the Kaiju aren’t intended to evoke much “personality” that suggests an alien culture or background. They are instead pure, hateful engines of “apocalyptic destruction” — living WMDs armed with tooth and claw rather than splitting atoms.
Of course, the nitpickers of the world are already hemming and hawing about the fact that physics and biology would work against the possibility of monsters the size of Pacific Rim’s Kaiju. Barlowe says he took that into consideration while designing the creatures, but filed it under the suspension of disbelief necessary for some aspect of pretty much every science fiction film:
A while back, when I was working briefly in the paleo-art world, I read a book that delved into this very subject. The conclusion was that, of course there are structural limits to the size animals can grow to on our planet given its gravity. As you have suggested, the biomechanics simply would not allow for a creature to reach the sizes that are depicted in PACRIM. The bone proportions would be ridiculous. It’s a bit like the depiction of angels – to lift a mass the size of a human, wings would have to be roughly 30-40 feet from tip to tip or thereabouts. Not practical to show in movies. In this case, the kaiju are not born of this world and so, we can willfully suspend disbelief and sit back and enjoy the ride.
SPOILERS FOR PACIFIC RIM BELOW!
Monster junkies and Pacific Rim fans alike will also want to check out this outstanding write-up over at Monster Legacy, which delves extensively into the designs of each of the Kaiju. It also gives us a better look at an element that’s only briefly seen in Pacific Rim: the mysterious other-dimensional masters of the Kaiju — referred to during pre-production as the “Precursors” — who create the beasts and send them through the breach to wreck up our neighborhood. Barlowe and artist Keith Thompson collaborated on the Precursors’ final design, which incorporated elements cribbed from sharks (the eyes), aquatic insects, and even “ecclesiastical royalty, dividing them into cardinals and bishops.”
You can see Precursor designs by Barlowe and Thompson below — the top left and right designs are Barlowe’s while the rest came from Thompson.
I remember the first time I discovered Barlowe, courtesy of a dog-eared copy of Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials I raided from my dad’s closet. The book has Barlowe presenting his vision of iconic alien beings ranging from Lovecraft’s Old Ones, to Larry Niven’s Puppeteers, to Arthur C. Clarke’s Overlords. It’s a book that should have a place in every single science fiction fan’s collection, and it’s definitely worth tracking down a copy.
If all this has just made you want to dig into the world of Pacific Rim and its Kaiju, you might want to dive into David S. Cohen’s making-of book, Pacific Rim: Man, Machine, and Monsters. Or just go see Pacific Rim again.