In his characteristically engaging way, director Guillermo del Toro is adamant that we understand something about his new movie, the $180 million monsters-versus-robots spectacle “Pacific Rim”: He’s not just here collecting a paycheck. This is a project as personal as any the genre-minded filmmaker has made to date, be they comic book adaptations such as his “Hellboy” movies, or dreamlike arthouse impression-makers such as “Pan’s Labyrinth.” “The love I have for the pageantry of a monster movie is as genuine as the love I have for smaller fables or more unsettling, idea-driven material,” says del Toro, speaking by phone from a promotional event in San Francisco. (Consider the stop his makeup gesture for digitally laying waste to the Bay Area in the movie’s mayhem-filled opener.)
“People tend to look at my movies and think I do one for [the studios], then one for me,” del Toro says. Laughing, he adds, “Sadly, I must confess, they’re all for me. The creation of these worlds is as much a real part of who I am as the other more profound pursuits, if you will.”
“Pacific Rim,” which opens Friday, imagines a near-future Earth in which giant, quasi-reptilian monsters begin rising from the ocean, in proudest Godzilla tradition. Or, more accurately, from a mysterious interdimensional portal on the ocean floor. Regardless, it’s a fast-escalating threat that prompts society to build enormous, human-piloted combat robots in a desperate bid to stop the creatures. (This being del Toro’s handiwork, the movie eagerly educates neophytes that the monsters are called Kaiju — Japanese for “giant beast,” as Godzilla, Mothra, and Gamera diehards know well. The robots, meanwhile, are called Jaegers — German for hunters.) Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”) and Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”) play featured, overmatched pilots, Idris Elba is their stoic commander, and Charlie Day (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) is an eccentric scientist and “Kaiju groupie” scrambling to help the good guys somehow gain an edge.
There’s been some buzz about this being “the thinking man’s ‘Transformers’ ” – which, surely, makes the “Amour” crowd howl. But stop to consider a few production particulars open-mindedly, and you get the point. Take the movie’s visuals. One approach might have been simply to give the whole Kaiju aesthetic the gloss that it had in our childhood memory of cheesefests like “Destroy All Monsters,” but never in reality. Del Toro was careful not to polish things to excess, ever mindful that this is cinema built, after all, on guys in rubber costumes trashing model cityscapes — a suspension-of-disbelief tradition beloved by many. (Maybe you’ve heard tell of Boston-based performance troupe Studio Kaiju’s ongoing cult salute, “Kaiju Big Battel.”)
Yes, “Pacific Rim” is an ILM digital-effects extravaganza, but still. “I didn’t want this to feel like a blockbuster car commercial,” del Toro says. “As a kid, I loved adventure movies that had fantastical art direction and color, things like Zoltan Korda’s [1942 adaptation of] ‘Jungle Book.’ One of my first impulses with this movie was to have that crazy feel, like a living comic book.”
What could ultimately make an even more distinctive impression on audiences is the story’s drama. Rather than tossing human-scale trials into the bigger action in some typically perfunctory way, del Toro tries something more organic, and certainly novel. The movie dubs it “Drifting” — a sci-fi concept positing that two pilots have to be psychically linked before jacking into a robot, because the machine’s neural load is too much for either to handle alone. “I really wanted to have this melodrama happening in the cockpit,” says del Toro, who teamed on the script with writer Travis Beacham (“Clash of the Titans”). “I thought, What if there were two pilots, and they had to get to know each other really quick? When you Drift with someone, you know a lot about them in a few seconds — their virtues, their fears, their defects. And yet you have no choice but to accept them. I thought it was a compelling idea.”
Del Toro hopes the empathy metaphors run deep. “The pilots’ smaller stories actually make a bigger point, which is that we’re all together in the same robot [in life],” he says, chuckling a bit at the sound of this. “Either we get along or we die. I didn’t want this to be a recruitment ad or anything jingoistic. The idea of the movie is just for us to trust each other, to cross over barriers of color, sex, beliefs, whatever, and just stick together. Fundamentally, it’s a very simple message. But it’s one that I would have liked to have seen in an adventure movie when I was a 12-year-old.”
Born and raised in Mexico, del Toro, 48, grew up with a consuming affinity for dark fantasy and cinema in general. He fondly remembers the formative influence of Japanese pop imports like “Frankenstein Conquers the World” (giant neo-Shelley creature versus giant lizard!); its sequel, “The War of the Gargantuas”; and the giant-robot TV series “Ultraman.” (“Pacific Rim” is dedicated to the memory of “Godzilla” and Kaiju-Frankenstein director Ishiro Honda, as well as to Hollywood stop-motion effects legend Ray Harryhausen.)
Del Toro broke into film working on effects makeup and eventually made the leap to feature directing with the 1993 Spanish-language vampire tale “Cronos.” He crossed over to Hollywood with the grungy creature feature “Mimic” (1997), and in the years that followed, built a reputation as a filmmaker after a fanboy’s own heart, knowledgably holding court at conventions and in DVD supplements. He has a following that cheers every new addition to his impossibly ambitious slate of projects — Yes, a revisionist “Pinocchio”! — and feels each of his disappointments, including scrapped plans to direct “The Hobbit” for Peter Jackson a few years back.
At the same time, del Toro also has something rare among geek gods: bona fide art-house credibility. When Steven Spielberg shifts gears between, say, Indiana Jones and “Lincoln,” his target is still the multiplex. And James Cameron wasn’t exactly eyeing the festival circuit with “Titanic.” By contrast, del Toro’s 2001 effort “The Devil’s Backbone” is a subtitled, Almodóvar-produced ghost story set in a remote Spanish orphanage — and a critical success that’s being spotlighted later this month by the Criterion Collection, a cineaste DVD label. Then there’s “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006), about a young girl in fascist Spain who retreats from her troubled home life to an eerie fantasy realm. The film earned three Academy Awards for its visuals, and was a nominee for best foreign language film.
Del Toro, who also received an Oscar nod for the script, sums up his career dichotomy with an erudite flair. “I was raised at different ages by different cinematic fathers,” he says. “Yes, I was raised by Bergman. But I was also raised by Ray Harryhausen, and Robert Wise, and [Hammer Films horror director] Terence Fisher, and [“Frankenstein” director] James Whale. I honor the images they created at least as much as the ones created by Fellini, David Lynch, you name it.” (Suddenly, it completely stands to reason that discussion of the casting on “Pacific Rim” would turn to, yep, the late Burt Lancaster. Del Toro notes that he scripted a hustling Kaiju-remains dealer expressly for longtime pal and “Hellboy” star Ron Perlman because of their shared love for Lancaster’s “Elmer Gantry.” “I thought, I’m going to write Ron a charlatan like that someday.”)
Del Toro will be pulling a pretty neat trick himself if he can deliver on what’s easily the costliest and highest-profile project he’s made. (No doubt the Hollywood execs behind next year’s “Godzilla” remake, from “Monsters” director Gareth Edwards, are watching this one very closely.) But even if we end up seeing a “Pacific Rim” franchise, you can bet that it’s going to be competing for del Toro’s attention with all manner of things that stoke his fanboy fires. In September, he’s shooting the pilot for FX’s vampire-virus series “The Strain,” adapted from the book trilogy he co-authored with “The Town” source novelist Chuck Hogan. And in January, he starts production on “Crimson Peak,” a gothic ghost tale starring Hunnam, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, and Benedict Cumberbatch.
All of which, again, is equally valid to del Toro. “After the age of 35, I think time becomes a filmmaker’s most valuable commodity,” he says. “You can make a little more money here or there, but you can’t make more time anywhere. And to dedicate three years of your life to a movie, as I did with this one, that’s not dating something, it’s marrying it. You need to be crazy in love with it.
“So if you ask me, would I sacrifice pieces of my life or my well-being as much for ‘Pacific Rim’ as I would for ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’? My answer would be: Absolutely. A hundred percent.”Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.