LOS ANGELES — Guillermo del Toro had just come from a darkened Burbank auditorium when he arrived at the Warner Bros. lot to lead a conference call of visual-effects technicians finalizing the extensive CG sequences for his new film Pacific Rim. He’d spent the first hour of a winter afternoon using a red laser pointer to indicate precisely where he’d like the 3-D effects to be amplified in specific scenes as towering robots known as Jaegers soldiered silently across the ocean floor on the big screen.
Now, seated in front of a computer monitor, it was time to perfect some of the hand-to-hand combat sequences between the movie’s lumbering giants and the alien beasties known as kaiju that serve as the bad guys in the ambitious, $180-million film. In one shot, he requested that the otherworldly creature adopt more of a boxer’s stance; in another, he wanted the monster to convulse as it shot a death ray out of its maw. “Can we have him coughing up like acid reflux?” Del Toro asked.
Clad in a faded black hoodie, Del Toro provided his own sound effects as the heroic Jaeger Gipsy Danger smashed a kaiju’s head with two metal fists — monosyllables straight out of the old Adam West Batman TV show, “Bam. Boosh. Oof” — seeming far more like a gleeful 10-year-old boy playing an expensive game of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots than a 48-year-old bilingual Oscar nominee labouring over a project that could propel him to an entirely new level of success.
Opening Friday, Pacific Rim is set in a near future in which a shifting of tectonic plates has unlocked the portal to another world. Kaiju — the name and the genre come from the strain of Japanese B-movie cinema sired by Toho’s original Godzilla — pour through the rift, and before long, coastal cities have been destroyed. To fight back, the military creates the Jaeger program, which entails the construction of 25-storey robots operated by two pilots who control the machine through a psychic bond. It’s the closest thing to live-action anime Hollywood has produced.
“I really wanted to make a movie that had an incredibly airy and light feel,” Del Toro said, reflecting on the film he had just finished. “This is not a super-brooding, super-dark, cynical summer movie. I wanted very much to do a movie that is aiming for a young audience. Adults can be, God willing, entertained by the big, beautiful, sophisticated visuals and the action and all that, but my real hope is that this movie allows for a new generation of kaiju and robot kids that fall in love with giant monsters.”
Pacific Rim might be many things — the most expensive movie Del Toro has ever made, a glorious homage to the Japanese pop culture he adored as a child in Guadalajara, Mexico, the first film in what Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. are hoping will be an outsized franchise. What it isn’t, though, is a sure thing.
At a time when the major studios continue to rely on sequels and superheroes, Pacific Rim thunders into a crowded season as a wholly original big-budget sci-fi spectacle movie. If it works, the movie holds the potential to chart a new career path for Del Toro, who in the last two decades has cultivated an ardent following making uncompromising movies in English and Spanish that embrace genre strictures and simultaneously rise above them. He’s probably one of the few people working in cinema today who can hold forth with equal authority on comic books and Kierkegaard.
“He’s got this unbelievable facility to have really, really big ideas pouring out of him at all times,” said actor Ron Perlman, who first worked with Del Toro on his 1993 debut Cronos. “He’s an incredibly special man.”
Written by Del Toro and Travis Beacham, Pacific Rim features an ensemble cast led by Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Rinko Kikuchi, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini and Burn Gorman, with Perlman showing up in a smaller turn as the outrageously monikered Hannibal Chau, a black-market dealer of kaiju anatomy who resembles a futuristic glam-rock pimp.
Yet it’s Pacific Rim’s concept and director that stand out as its biggest stars.
“Guillermo absolutely lives and breathes this stuff,” Hunnam said. “I knew that it was going to be so much more than just giant robots and monsters — what he’s interested in is the world they inhabit. That’s what excited me, the prospect of this multi-dimensional, gritty, nuanced world that he was going to create around this very large premise.”
Moviegoers familiar with Del Toro’s body of work know that it does exist in a world of its own, with the 2006 fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth perhaps best exemplifying his wild and devious imagination. The film, which won three of the six Academy Awards it was nominated for, centres on a young girl in Fascist Spain who escapes from everyday life with her mother and her brutal stepfather into a fantastic but dangerous realm populated by unusual-looking monsters and rendered in moody blue and gold tones.
It’s one of three Spanish-language movies Del Toro has made: Cronos located the classic vampire mythology to a modern middle-class home in Mexico, and The Devil’s Backbone set a ghost story in a remote orphanage in rural Spain. His English-language resumé includes 1997’s giant insect movie Mimic — a famously fraught production — and three comic-book adaptations: the vampire sequel Blade II, Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
What the films share is an affection for idiosyncrasy often expressed with humour and a singular, painterly palette. Even in his most commercial projects, there’s always a trace of the art house (Del Toro has long-standing relationships with such auteurs as Pedro Almodovar, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu).
“I always love to take things that are very popular and treat them in a way that is very different than they are treated normally,” Del Toro said. “Like Hellboy. Say what you may, but it’s a very, very strange superhero movie. Not every superhero movie has a fish guy and a demon guy drinking a six-pack and singing Barry Manilow. In the same way, I think Pacific Rim brings a stable of characters — the scientist, the leader, the pilot, the black-market guy — but gives it its own slightly deranged twist.”
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