Pacific Rim: Why Giant Robots Are (Usually) Silly

I’ll start this off by saying I really like Guillermo del Toro’s body of work, and that his characteristic blend of physical effects and CGI really shows in the quality visuals I’ve come to expect from his films. These two trailers for the upcoming Pacific Rim indicate that it will not be an exception to this rule.

I think the best aspect of the giant robot imagery we’ve seen so far is the feeling of heft associated with their movement. The ponderous stride and slowly accelerating limbs of these “Jaegers” (German for “hunter”) compare favorably with the balletic, weightless motion of the robots from Transformers, for instance. I haven’t seen giant robots with this kind of visual gravitas since 1989’s flop Robot Jox:

Hopefully Pacific Rim will fare better at the box office.

In general though, I’m less sanguine about giant robots  (also referred to as “mechs”) than most of my geeky peers. The main issue is that they make just about no sense at all, at least as weapons of war. Weapons meant for war, for survival, are generally no-frills, at least insofar as their primary functions are concerned. The name of the game is efficiency and function rules over form. Robot Jox had a fig leaf in that its giant robot combat was gladiatorial in nature but Pacific Rim cannot take advantage of that rationale.

Weapons are as varied as what they are made to destroy but, from a sword piercing flesh to a fusion-bomb obliterating a powerplant, the guiding principle is the same: fatally disrupt the target as quickly and easily, with as little risk to the user, as possible. The proper question is not “what can a mech do” but “what can it do better than other weapons systems that can be produced with the same resources.”

Leaving aside the fact that, as in many Hollywood productions, fighter pilots in Pacific Rim ignore their powerful long-range missiles in favor of “whites-of-their-eyes” Red Baron-style strafing runs, what can the Jaegers do to the “Kaiju” that salvos of armor-piercing missiles or a tactical nuclear weapon can’t? If these creatures can be injured by a rocket-assisted right hook or an oil tanker to the face, then you cannot argue they would be unharmed by a weapon that easily penetrates 6 meters of reinforced concrete before it explodes.

Even if they are so supernaturally tough that conventional weapons are useless, no material object can resist the million-degree plasma at the heart of a nuclear detonation. And before you argue that using nukes on something that’s attacking a city is impractical, remember that nuclear weapons come in all shapes and sizes, including ones whose “radius of total destruction” is smaller than a pharmacy parking lot. Also, contrary to popular belief, the radiation from nuclear initiations dissipates quite rapidly, especially if you are using few, relatively low-yield bombs. If we decide we are totally allergic to radiation and collateral damage then there are more exotic devices like bomb-pumped lasers and enhanced radiation weapons.

Who’s up for a Kaiju Barbecue? (Very) well-done and only slightly radioactive!

In addition to the “substitution” problem outlined above, mechs suffer a number of inherent engineering weaknesses that make them generally impractical when compared with a larger number of more conventional weapons platforms or even a single large machine of a more conventional design. The first is the enormous complexity and vulnerability arising from all those joints. The second is that building an upright, erect weapons platform doesn’t gain you much in the age of indirect-fire weapons (e.g. artillery, missiles, etc.); it mostly just makes you a bigger target. Thirdly, most of the mech is taken up by the parasitic volume and mass of all those limbs and joints. Finally, their expansive shape means that for a given weight they cannot be armored as heavily as a more compact vehicle (say, a tank).

There are also enormous difficulties with powering such a beastie as well as getting rid of the waste heat from that power supply. Steven Den Beste covers these issues well in his post on Anime mechs. Suffice to say that a mech’s exhaust might make an effective short-range anti-infantry weapon and no, all in all that probably isn’t a good thing.

Pretty much the only setting I’ve seen with reasonable battlefield mechs of large size (not just glorified power-armor, which is a whole different ball of wax) is Warhammer 40K. These machines, referred to as “Titans” make sense only because of some very specific assumptions:

  1. There are “force fields” that provide effective protection from most weapons, but they have a minimum size and power requirement: Big.
  2. Direct-fire weapons exist that are on par with the most powerful indirect-fire weapons (so increasing height to increase range makes sense).
  3. There are materials available to industry that greatly exceed the strength and resiliency of anything currently in use.

Other than the “gladiatorial combat” assumption of Robot Jox, this is the only setup I’ve seen where large walking war machines make any kind of sense. Even then, titans are relatively rare, specialized weapons.

Imperial “Warhound” Titan from Warhammer 40K

This rant should in no way discourage you from seeing Pacific Rim; I’m sure it will be a fun movie even for someone as afflicted with “engineer’s disease” as I am. Who knows, they might even come up with a good rationale for why punching the monsters with giant billion-dollar robots is more sensible than dropping a large lead weight on their heads from a few hundred feet up.

2 responses to “Pacific Rim: Why Giant Robots Are (Usually) Silly

  1. Pacific Rim: Why Giant Robots Are (Usually) Silly | Scipio Americanus

  2. “Who knows, they might even come up with a good rationale for why punching the monsters with giant billion-dollar robots is more sensible than dropping a large lead weight on their heads from a few hundred feet up.”

    Nope, they didn’t. A Tomahawk, or a bunker piercing missile still makes more sense.

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