Why Asians are gaga over giant robots in the movies

Transformers: Age Of Extinction (left) comes from a long line of science-fiction action shows with robots that include (from top) Mobile Suit Gundam, Real Steel and Pacific Rim.
Transformers: Age Of Extinction (left) comes from a long line of science-fiction action shows with robots that include (from top) Mobile Suit Gundam, Real Steel and Pacific Rim.PHOTOS: UIP, WARNER BROS, STARHUB
Transformers: Age Of Extinction (left) comes from a long line of science-fiction action shows with robots that include (from top) Mobile Suit Gundam, Real Steel and Pacific Rim.
Transformers: Age Of Extinction (left) comes from a long line of science-fiction action shows with robots that include (from top) Mobile Suit Gundam, Real Steel and Pacific Rim.PHOTOS: UIP, WARNER BROS, STARHUB
Transformers: Age Of Extinction (left) comes from a long line of science-fiction action shows with robots that include (from top) Mobile Suit Gundam, Real Steel and Pacific Rim.
Transformers: Age Of Extinction (left) comes from a long line of science-fiction action shows with robots that include (from top) Mobile Suit Gundam, Real Steel and Pacific Rim.PHOTOS: UIP, WARNER BROS, STARHUB
Transformers: Age Of Extinction (left) comes from a long line of science-fiction action shows with robots that include (from top) Mobile Suit Gundam, Real Steel and Pacific Rim.
Transformers: Age Of Extinction (left) comes from a long line of science-fiction action shows with robots that include (from top) Mobile Suit Gundam, Real Steel and Pacific Rim.PHOTOS: UIP, WARNER BROS, STARHUB

The latest instalment of Transformers is expected to make a big bang, as did many mecha movies

From Pacific Rim, Real Steel and the Transformers franchise, we know that Americans and Europeans like movies with big robots whacking the daylights out of one another.

But here in Asia, we really, really like these large mechanical men with violent tendencies, whether they are sentient or piloted by humans.

In Singapore, trailers and promos for Transformers: Age Of Extinction have blanketed MRT stations and TV screens, as things gear up for a repeat of 2011. That was the year Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, the third instalment, took over an unprecedented 126 screens on the island, rising to become the year's top-grossing movie here with earnings of more than $11 million. The others in the top 3 - Kung Fu Panda 2 and the final film in the Harry Potter series (Deathly Hallows Part 2) - trailed it by millions of dollars.

Even more cinemas here are expected to screen the new instalment this week. And the other film distributors know it will be folly to challenge the franchise's supremacy, so none of them are releasing a major movie until next week.

In China, Transformers: Age Of Extinction is expected to be the most lucrative film of all time in the country. Industry paper The Hollywood Reporter estimates that the science-fiction action flick will pull in 1.5 billion yuan (S$299 million), beating the previous record of $277 million held by Avatar (2009).

These spectacular numbers are based on 2011's Transformers: Dark Of The Moon sales figures, and how there are now twice as many (about 20,000) screens in China as there were when it was released.

The huge box-office potential is why, says the report, the big machines will get to destroy a few famous Hong Kong landmarks. It also explains the casting of Chinese actress Li Bingbing and pop idol Han Geng. American stars Mark Wahlberg and Nicola Peltz went so far as to shoot Internet videos wishing students good luck during their college entrance examinations.

Why are Asians gaga over giant metal men? Perhaps it is because the entire warring robot sub-genre of science- fiction has its roots in Asia, and in Japan in particular.

In Japan, the genre came into its own in the 1950s, when the terms Super Robot or Real Robots became accepted terms. Supers are sentient machines possessing outlandish weapons and abilities, while Reals are more realistic military tools, usually piloted by humans. The latter category would give birth to the "mecha" sub-genre of sci-fi war movie.

Movies featuring both kinds of machines and its cross-breeds have been staples of action and sci-fi for decades. In the 1970s, for example, kids here were fascinated by the dubbed Japanese television show Giant Robot.

Since the 1980s, the mecha war- machine genre has found a following here, in particular for products based on the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise as well as super-real hybrids such as Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Many think that American company Hasbro invented the Transformers toys in the 1980s, a move that would create the animated television series and lead to the movie juggernaut of today. But Hasbro did not create that line of toys, they just rebranded a product first made by Japan's Takara Tomy and Bandai.

Away from Japan, the following for robo-fiction has not been as strong, nor has the genre become as strictly categorised.

In Aliens (1986), Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) pilots a mecha to fight. An entire battalion of human-operated war mechas battles invading hordes in The Matrix Revolutions (2003). Avatar (2009) would feature massed ranks of them.

In the family movie Real Steel (2011), a father (Hugh Jackman) and son (Dakota Goyo) operate boxing robots. In that movie, Hollywood came close to what Japanese sci-fi has been doing for decades: seeing mechas as characters instead of just cool props.

Hollywood's flirtation with mecha would come full circle with last year's Pacific Rim, directed and co-written by manga and anime fan Guillermo del Toro.

He did all he could to make the robots seem heroic and serious in the old-school Japanese style. But audiences around the world, including in Japan, reacted the way they do now to old-school anime - with yawns. At last count, the film's takings put it at break-even point.

The more artistically pure del Toro failed to break mecha out into the mainstream. He had made a homage to the mecha genre, for its true fans. But fans alone cannot generate enough sales to cover a movie that cost $250 million. General audiences were likely not ready for a movie about stoicism, sacrifice and honour, themes that hark back to the genre's Asian roots.

As Transformers: Age Of Extinction will show, what gets the masses out to a giant robot movie is sheer scale - big machines, big explosions, and big, stereotyped characters. Michael Bay makes mecha movies for the overwhelming majority of people who have no affinity for mecha movies.

In the best tradition of Hollywood (or worst, depending on your point of view), Bay has taken a genre with non-American roots, given it Hollywood razzle-dazzle, and made a fortune selling it around the world.

Critics may moan about his relentless and heavy-handed use of special effects and corny emotions, but his style, as crude as it may be, has cross-cultural appeal.

And as the box-office millions roll in from California to Guangdong, it will be Bay, not del Toro, who will be seen as the defining artist of the mecha genre circa early 21st century.

johnlui@sph.com.sg

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