There are few cinematic fantasists as fascinating or beloved as Guillermo del Toro. This is a man whose unparalleled imagination could probably power whole city blocks, someone who dreams not in colors or smells but in entire universes and species. And in the handful of features he's directed, he's let us into these new worlds, which are almost always darkly macabre and tinged, either subtly or explicitly with elements of the supernatural.
This weekend his latest marvel, "Pacific Rim," a cutting-edge 3D adventure film about the epic clash between giant robots and huge monsters, opens in theaters nationwide. It's his biggest and perhaps riskiest venture to date, an expensive (his highest budget yet) monster movie with robots, global peril and giant things smashing the hell out of each other. It both embraces high tech filmmaking while also doubling as a nostalgic piece of splashy pop art. It's melding of sensibilities and passions, all within the framework of Hollywood moviemaking, traits he's mostly shown throughout his filmography.
So with "Pacific Rim" stomping into theaters this weekend, we take a look back at del Toro's works, from worst to best. Get ready: there be monsters.
While perhaps not deserving of the ferocity of the dislike held toward it in some quarters (though critics were largely kind even to this outing from the filmmaker), there’s no denying that del Toro’s first studio film, “Mimic,” is a lesser entry in his canon. His reputation has largely been built on his originality, but it feels like his first time out with a Hollywood budget overwhelmed his inherent kinky, lush weirdness and so he turned in a film that feels, in retrospect, like an imposter mimicking his auteurist hallmarks. So the bug-that-apes-a-person monster seems quite del Toro-ish, but the majority of the films beats are derivative of “Aliens,” while the addition of Chuy, the strange-child-in-peril promises a little of that skewed vision, but he ends up largely inconsequential to the plot’s endgame, despite determinedly engineered attributes like his playing the spoons and being able to tell the make and size of a shoe from its sound. But perhaps what struck us most (aside from del Toro’s lack of compunction in killing children), on a recent rewatch, was the film’s deep humorlessness: absent entirely is the wit and the irony that marks out del Toro’s later, better films. “Mimic” really takes itself far too seriously for a film about giant man-shaped cockroaches, and even the group survivor dynamic (when Charles S. Dutton, Josh Brolin and Giancarlo Giannini are also wandering around the slimy sewers and subway tunnels) is oddly hostile. But if the grimy-faced Mira Sorvino attracted a lot of hate at the time for her casting, we actually find her to be fine in the role (it’s the unconvincingly-accented Jeremy Northam, if anyone, who we would suggest was miscast) and the first half of the film is quite successful in setting up a creepy, oogy tone, even if that is consistently undercut by the familiarity of the fake-scare-followed-by-real-scare repetitions. It should, however be noted that 2011’s Director’s cut version is an improvement, restoring the film to something closer to del Toro’s original design, and even if it doesn’t convince you, the DVD is entirely worth the price for the extras alone, especially del Toro’s terrifically informative, self-effacing commentary. Theatrical Version [C] Director’s Cut [C+]
In the vast, undying realm of the vampire genre, there are many curious examples of filmmakers, more at home in the arthouse than the megaplexes, who’ve taken the well-trodden tropes, familiar to just about anyone with even a cursory experience with media, and provided their own spin. Results vary from the bizarrely awesome (Claire Denis’ “Trouble Every Day”) to touching, disturbing and beautiful (“Let the Right One In” from Tomas Alfredson) to all of the above (Chan-wook Park’s “Thirst”). The fun is seeing the familiar made fresh again, and usually it takes a director with a specific style and point of view to twist things around in a satisfying way. Del Toro’s first film, “Cronos,” is certainly in the same ballpark. It’s enjoyable seeing the ways in which del Toro plays around with vampire mythology and seeing the seeds of his style being sown. His affection and sympathy for his monsters is clear even in this first effort, and familiar actors who’d go on to work with him again (Ron Perlman, Federico Luppi) also feature, given audiences a first look at the chemistry that between director and star that would be refined down the road. In the end, this is one of those interesting, respectable first movies— like Christopher Nolan’s “Following”— that's certainly not a home run out the bat but definitely worth a watch, especially if you’re already a fan. [B-]