[With Guillermo del Toro’s new movie Crimson Peak opening Friday, I decided to take a look back at the director’s filmography.]
In Raleigh Becket’s (Charlie Hunnam) limp opening narration for Pacific Rim, he says that “in order to fight monsters, we created monsters of our own.” Guillermo del Toro literally put humans inside of man-made “monsters”, and yet figuratively, Pacific Rim never explores if that has any cost or if our enemy is anything more than a force of nature. Del Toro has always seemed fascinated with creatures, but for a movie that tried to put “kaiju” and “jaeger” into the lexicon, it’s a film that would be surprisingly cold if the director’s passion for the concept didn’t ignite the entire enterprise.
That genuine passion and creative flare is why del Toro gets a pass on giant robots smashing things where Michael Bay does not. It’s not the size of the robot; it’s how you use it, and while neither film is particularly deep, del Toro isn’t outright nihilistic. For del Toro, you can tell that there’s some personal relationship to what he’s bearing out. You can spot all the influences, but you know those influences are important to him. It’s pageantry as much as anything else, and I deeply admire how del Toro puts on a show with Pacific Rim. In the Transformers movies, it’s a cold, distant product designed to shut kids up for three hours, cram in product placement, and sell as many toys as possible. If pressed, I believe Michael Bay would say that he loves his job, but he doesn’t “love” Transformers.
There’s never a second of doubt that del Toro loves Pacific Rim, and yet on my recent re-watch, it’s a movie where you can feel that del Toro loves filmmaking, period, especially when it was denied twice in such a massive and public way. He signed away years of his life to try and adapt The Hobbit, and it was stuck in limbo. There was a long profile in The New Yorker about the pre-production on At the Mountains of Madness, but he refused to compromise down from an R-rating to a PG-13, and the movie never got a green light. To bring it back to Mimic, del Toro learned that he needed to have a movie made on his terms or he wouldn’t make it at all.
Pacific Rim was a movie everyone seemed to agree on. Yes, it committed the cardinal studio sin of not being directly based on any pre-existing property, but “giant monsters fighting giant robots” was an easy pitch for the start of a blockbuster franchise, and del Toro had everything clearly mapped out in terms of creating an enthusiastic action film, and if you see it on the big screen, that action comes across wonderfully. I saw Pacific Rim twice in theaters, and it’s a thrilling film that shows del Toro’s mastery of action has grown with every picture.
But on the smaller screen where the bombastic action loses its emphasis and you focus more on the character interactions, Pacific Rim really begins to suffer, and I’m not sure why it had to. It’s not necessarily a film I would qualify as “shallow” and yet it seems oddly disinterested in matters that other del Toro movies would have heartily embraced, namely, what exactly is going on with the kaiju and their masters?
Perhaps if Pacific Rim 2 ever happens we’ll understand our “enemy” because without motive, they’re more of a force of nature, and any subtext is basically on the level of equating the kaiju with global warming. While I’m glad to see social consciousness in del Toro’s filmmaking, and taking on a real world issue, it lacks the thematic heft of his previous endeavors. The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth are both set during the Spanish Civil War, but neither one is about that war or any other specific war. Del Toro doesn’t really do commentary.
His movies reach for something larger and timeless, and while Pacific Rim will always have the glee of its smash-em-up brawls, it feels largely empty. It’s a movie stocked with archetypes spouting off about being drift compatible and chasing the rabbit, and there comes a point where the film is almost divided into the studio-pleasing action movie and Newt’s (Charlie Day) more lively and engaging subplot that takes us into the unique, post-kaiju world where there’s something interesting around every corner.
One would think that Newt would be del Toro’s surrogate, the “kaiju groupie” (as he’s mockingly called by fellow scientist Herman (Burn Gorman)), but for all of his excitement, there’s no compassion. The emotional connection del Toro forged with his monsters in previous movies is largely absent in Pacific Rim, and the emotional connections between the characters are mostly perfunctory. “Love” isn’t something that’s felt; it’s something that’s used to show drift compatibility.
And while I like that the jaegers are ultimately powered by love and understanding, it’s done is a fairly surface fashion. Love is presented as types whether it be Raleigh and his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff), a parent and child like Herc (Max Martini) and Chuck Hansen (Rob Kazinsky), or a burgeoning romance like Raleigh and Mako. Love saves the world because love powers giant robots, and that’s a nice sentiment if you can bring audiences into those relationships.
But the characters feel secondary in Pacific Rim. Hunnam is a painfully bland leading man (it’s telling that he excels playing a critique of the “White Knight” in Crimson Peak), and while the rest of the cast is affable enough, almost all of them get lost in del Toro’s world building. For example, I like Idris Elba in Pacific Rim, but his character Stacker Pentecost is a leader who no one obeys. Stacker gets a great speech near the end, but Raleigh and Yancy ignore his orders at the beginning of the film, and in the middle the Hansen men ignore similar orders to stay at their post and protect large cities. Form doesn’t follow function in Pacific Rim, and it leads to a movie that feels like style over substance.
Which is disappointing because, as I’ve pointed out in these retrospective articles, del Toro’s style almost always carries substance. He’s a thoughtful director who latches onto particular themes and ideas, and has the knowledge to back up his approach. He’s someone who when I see links to “nightmare fuel”, I can imagine del Toro clicks through for inspiration. He’s not afraid of monsters; they fascinate him, and his films have created not only a shared fascination, but a shared empathy as well. They are unabashedly emotional and earnest, and as long as del Toro continues to make movies that appeal to his interests, and as long as he encourages us to face his monsters, he’ll be an enduring filmmaker.
- Mimic: The Director’s Cut
- The Devil’s Backbone
- Blade II
- Pan’s Labyrinth
- Hellboy II: The Golden Army
Click here for my spoiler-free review of del Toro’s newest film, Crimson Peak.