By Darren Franich
Updated January 31, 2014 at 02:00 PM EST
  • Movie

Just about every year, brilliant movies are utterly ignored by the Oscars. The Searchers, Groundhog Day, Breathless, King Kong, Casino Royale, Touch of Evil, Caddyshack, Mean Streets, The Big Lebowski, Shame – the Academy has a long history of overlooking comedies, action movies, horror flicks, hard-boiled genre pics, artsy foreign films, and documentaries that aren’t about World War II. This year, we’ll be taking a closer look at films that were too small, too weird, or perhaps simply too awesome for the Academy Awards. These are the Non-Nominees.

The Film: Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro’s movie about giant robots that fight giant monsters.

Why it Wasn’t Nominated: The prospect of an Oscar-nominated filmmaker delivering a mega-budgeted action movie could have resulted in the rare blockbuster that earns Academy attention. (See: Christopher Nolan, Inception.) But Del Toro is not your typical Oscar-nominated filmmaker. The man who made the multiple Oscar-winning Pan’s Labyrinth also made two of the best superhero-movie sequels ever, and Pacific Rim finds Del Toro indulging all his geekiest fascinations. Even some die-hard Del Toro fans felt like Pacific Rim was a departure for the director, with Del Toro shedding much of the outré weirdness of the Hellboy movies for a story filled with stalwart heroes and wacky sidekicks.

Still, even if Pacific Rim never had a chance at any of the top prizes, it theoretically should have had a decent shot at some of the technical awards. Even the Transformers movies get nominated for Oscars — and they just have giant robots!

But Best Production Design nominations went to three period pieces (12 Years a Slave, American Hustle, and The Great Gatsby), the near-future hipstopia of Her, and the realist space capsules of Gravity. None of those movies build a slum inside the rotting carcass of an alien creature. Likewise, Best Sound Editing — which focuses on original audio effects created for the movie — went to three real-ish movies about people adrift in water or space (All is Lost, Captain Phillips, and Gravity), one movie where most of the soundtrack is gunshots (Lone Survivor), and the latest Hobbit. None of those movies create an entire audio language for a world filled with giant machines and monsters not played by Benedict Cumberbatch.

But the greatest oversight is, without a doubt, the Visual Effects race. Leave aside the genuinely groundbreaking technical innovations of Gravity, and here’s what we’re left with in the actual race: The Hobbit 2, Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, and The Lone Ranger.

Set aside that last one on the assumption that Academy voters really love poorly-animated trains, and you’re left with three movies that essentially recycle effects from older movies and then quadruple them. (Smaug looks cool, but Gollum looked cooler.) Love it or hate it, Pacific Rim tried something different, taking the old Kaiju man-in-a-rubber-suit effect and blowing it up to absurd digital proportions. The truth is, Pacific Rim was just much weirder than those movies. And although it grossed close to $200 million domestically and over $400 million globally, there’s a faint whiff of “flop” around Pacific Rim, and a sense that only China really seems to get it. (The Lone Ranger was a bigger flop, but by god, it was American.)

Why History Will Remember It Better Than Philomena: Pacific Rim feels like a movie that fell between the cracks of the moviegoing public. A fan of Inception expecting a brainy thriller instead got a movie filled with wacky accents and Charlie Day and that scene where a giant robot crushes a giant monster’s head with shipping containers. Likewise, a fan of Transformers expecting a super-cool fight-thrill ride got a curiously sincere and openly goofy movie with a relatively action-free Act 2.

But culty weirdness always ages better than straightforward franchise curation. And although it might sound inaccurate to ascribe the word “culty” to a movie that made so many millions of dollars, Pacific Rim feels like a love letter to a certain kind of hyper-engaged fan. It introduces a whole fantasy world, complete with nifty lingo (“Kaiju,” “Jaeger”) and sidelong glances at the post-invasion world (the idea that Kaiju organs are sold as drugs feels spinoff-ready in itself.)

There has been some noise about a potential Pacific Rim sequel — and given Del Toro’s unique success with sequels, Pacific Rim 2 might be even better than its predecessor. But the film’s so-so box office make it seem even more likely that it will remain the only one of its kind. And what a kind! Sure, this year’s Best Original Score race features old reliables like John Williams and Thomas Newman — but it’s noticeably lacking in swaggery Tom Morello guitar riffs. It seems unlikely that Pacific Rim will ever be a populist sensation, but perhaps it’s only appropriate that a movie assembled out of spare parts of deep fanboy love becomes itself an object of nerd adoration, greatly loved by a happy few.

Pacific Rim

  • Movie
  • PG-13
  • 131 minutes
  • Guillermo del Toro