If you were to look up the definition of “awesome” in the dictionary, you’d find a picture of Optimus Prime punching Megatron in his metallic jaw. Such is the power that giant robots hold over our collective sense of wonder. In honour of this sentiment, our contributors have joined forces to recommend four oeuvres about towering, anthropomorphised engines of cybernetic ass-kicking.
UFO Robo Grendizer (1975-1977)
As a French Canadian kid growing up in the late seventies, I felt the steady influx of anime TV series offered a welcome break from American-produced Saturday morning cartoon fare. First broadcast in France, landmark shows such as Albator (a.k.a. Captain Harlock) and Capitaine Flam (a.k.a. Captain Future) garnered strong followings with their edgier storylines, mature themes and stylish animation. However, all were eclipsed in popularity by Goldorak (a.k.a. UFO Robo Grendizer), Japan’s masterpiece of the nineteen-seventies’ mecha genre.
Unlike its predecessor, Mazinger Z, this show featured a larger cast and compelling character arcs. The futuristic technology improved as well: the titular mecha is far more versatile and brings a dazzling array of weapons whose names apparently had to be shouted by the pilot before they could be properly unleashed on the enemy. By today’s standards, it’s quite dated. Over the course of the eighties and nineties, anime culture grew more sophisticated, expanding the range of its audience. Still, Goldorak, or UFO Robo Grendizer, was a crucial step on that ladder, and it harkens back to a time when anime was still fresh and new, when it challenged young audiences with gripping drama and mature subject matter, never forgetting the important business of defending Earth from an armada of giant alien robots.
Mega Man 2 (1988)
For this contributor pick, I will recommend Capcom’s 1989 classic Mega Man 2. For a monstrously successful franchise like this one, I’d normally prescribe the original, and let the experience entice you into trying out the sequels. However, in this case, the gameplay, graphics, and musical score make for such an improvement over the first game that you really ought to skip it and move straight to part two. I wish I could say the same about the box art though. Seriously, Mega Man uses an arm cannon, not a gun. Also, why is Dr Light, your closest ally, ordering Crash Man to attack you?
Seeing as I’m advising that you skip the first instalment of the series, I should probably explain the plot: in order to gain access to Dr Wily’s lair and stop his plans for world domination, Mega Man must kill eight of the villain’s toughest robots. You play as the titular hero, of course, and, as you maneuver through each stage, you’ll find yourself fighting hordes of minions, solving challenging platform puzzles, and bopping to an awesome soundtrack, one of the best of the eight-bit era. In fact, the music in this game is so memorable the Super Smash Bros franchise used a remixed version to reveal Mega Man as the next playable character. You owe it to yourself to give Mega Man 2 a shot. Come for the fighting robots; stay for the symphony.
The Iron Giant (1999)
In 1999, before moving on to CGI with his next triumph, The Incredibles (2004), Brad Bird gave us The Iron Giant, his first feature-length project and, in my opinion, one of the last great hand-drawn 2D animation projects. Granted, the titular giant robot was actually computer generated, but it’s the bright, visual pop of the colours and the energetic execution of the movements that sell the movie. Part King Kong (1933) knock-off, part coming-of-age tale about the unlikely friendship between a boy and his giant alien space robot, the plot was inspired by a somewhat obscure children’s story written by one-time British poet (and erstwhile husband to Sylvia Plath) Ted Hughes. In fact, it still bears the touch of Hughes’ talent and unexpected humor.
Nineties darlings Jennifer Aniston and Harry Connick Jr voice the main characters. That is, except for the titular iron giant, whose monosyllabic grunts and exclamations are provided by Vin Diesel. In Diesel’s own estimation, “cinema” owes much to his contribution. Not least among his noble and ever so humble achievements is dueling onscreen with the Rock in Fast Five (2011) so as to provide us with the greatest mash-up we didn’t know we wanted between the two biggest bald heads in Hollywood. Be that as it may, in The Iron Giant, the big lug delivers something for which we can all be thankful: possibly his last performance wherein the character he plays casts a longer shadow than his ego.
The Uncanny X-Men: Days of Future Past (1981)
Anyone familiar with The Transformers understands the poetry inherent to watching giant robots duke it out, and, as expected, the other contributors have all opted to recommend a work that celebrates the notion of a towering cybernetic juggernaut. However, those of us with mutant powers (I can guess the answer to “true or false” questions with fifty percent accuracy) know the danger even one such machine can present in a world where small-minded public servants still use their political might to feed their fear and hatred.
The X-Men’s mutant-hunting Sentinels were dreamt up by Stan Lee in 1965, but, as with most things related to the franchise, it wasn’t until writer Chris Claremont put his stamp on the concept that it became part of our pop culture tapestry. Originally published in The Uncanny X-Men issues 141 and 142, Days of Future Past tells of a dystopian future in which the giant purple mechas have taken over our government and subjugated the mutant race, forcing a middle-aged Kitty Pryde to travel back to the eighties and try to prevent the Mutant Registration Act. Full of romance, tragedy, and socially minded idealism, the graphic novel reminds us of the cost of hasty, bigoted legislation, not to mention what could happen if we keep letting Michael Bay make Transformers movies.