Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, the revered director of horror-fantasy classics such as Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone and Cronos, knows that when people first hear his latest film is about giant robots, their initial reaction will be “ Transformers ripoff.”
But although Pacific Rim does feature intricately designed robots the size of a skyscraper, the similarities end there. For one, these robots are controlled by two human pilots, who must meld minds with the sophisticated machines in order to operate them. And unlike those in Transformers, these robots have been designed for a specific purpose: to defend mankind from enormous monsters that have risen from the sea, destroying cities and intending to wiping out the planet.
“I’ve heard about the Transformers comparisons, but I think those will go away immediately once people see the movie,” del Toro said during a recent visit to Miami. “The setting of my movie is completely different. My robots are not designed the way the Transformers are. The style of action and the way we cut those scenes is completely different. Public perception is something politicians should be concerned about, not artists.”
Del Toro, who co-wrote the screenplay for Pacific Rim with Travis Beacham, drew on Japanese kaiju movies (giant monster flicks such as Godzilla), mecha animes (cartoons featuring piloted robots, such as Neon Genesis Evangelion) and a touch of cyberpunk to conceive the story. That may make the film sound like a nerd-friendly spectacle that won’t appeal to casual viewers.
But like the rest of del Toro’s films, Pacific Rim stands apart as its own singular thing — a beautifully designed, intricately detailed fantasy that is unlike any movie you’ve seen before.
“I like to work in genres most people don’t normally take seriously, and then I treat them very seriously,” he said. “With this movie, I wanted to recreate the blast of joy you felt when you watched these monster movies as a kid. But I also wanted it to appeal to grown-ups. We had a very specific philosophy while making this movie. I directed as minutely and as carefully the live action portions as I did the animated portions. I wanted to use everything I’ve learned to this point to make everything seem real. We build the robots’ heads life-size, which ended up being four stories high. I wanted to make the fights very visceral and brutal, so you would feel real danger from the pilots’ end.”
Inspired by Goya’s painting The Colossus, which shows a giant being walking past a village, del Toro decided to go big. The monsters that arise from the sea get progressively larger and thus harder to defeat. They are categorized into classes, the way hurricanes are rated by their strength. When a Class 5 monster finally rises from the ocean, the sheer size of the creature defies belief — but it looks amazingly real.
“Part of the realism comes in the way we told the fights,” del Toro said. “I wanted to do something that nobody does with digital effects. Usually, you try to make every single digital shot super-special. The camera zooms around and flies into impossible spaces, that sort of thing. I wanted to use master shots like a painting, to show a helicopter over here and a ship way over there. We used long shots during the fights instead of fast cutting, so you can follow exactly what’s happening. I wanted those scenes to have the majesty of a hurricane clashing against a tornado.”
Because the creatures emerge from the Pacific Ocean, large passages of the film are set in Japan and Hong Kong, as well as on the American west coast. One of the most breath-taking sequences in the film depicts a kaiju taking out the Golden Gate Bridge, but that’s nothing compared to the damage they wreak overseas.
“These movies come from Eastern culture, so I had to set big chunks of the story in Tokyo, because that’s the point of origin of kaiju mythology,” the director said. “I wanted to do my own riffs on the crazy moments of those movies, with people running down the street and the monsters destroying the city behind them. I tried to make a movie made by fans, but not a fan movie. I grew up watching Gamera and War of the Gargantuans and Ultramen, but I wanted to give my own spin on everything. I also wanted to showcase the color palette of Hong Kong at night, with all those sparkling green and orange and blue lights — a supersaturated, operatic color palette — to make the film look like a living animated movie.”
Although the cast is filled with recognizable names — Charlie ( Sons of Anarchy) Hunnam as a pilot, Idris ( The Wire) Elba as his commanding officer and Charlie ( It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) Day as a scientist — del Toro makes no excuses about who the movie’s biggest stars are.
“Some people have complained that we spend more time with the effects than the characters,” he said. “Well I’m sorry, but to me the effects are characters. They are part of the cast. We were so careful designing the robots. Gypsy Danger, one of the robots, was designed after the Empire State and Chrysler buildings combined with John Wayne, so he struts like a cowboy. The color is the same as a fighter plane in World War II.
“It’s a strange thing, because I’m not a sci-fi guy. I don’t like spaceships and all that stuff, although I love Thunderbirds and 2001 and Star Wars,” he said. “But as a director, I like things that look used and ancient. All the robots in the movie look worn down and oxidized. They’re not super shiny and sexy. I tried to avoid the car-commercial look. So in that way, the movie becomes more of a fantasy than sci-fi.”
Pacific Rim cost an estimated $180 million, by far del Toro’s biggest budget to date. But despite the mammoth price tag, the movie feels as personal and intimate as the director’s smaller projects. His fingerprints are everywhere, from the design of the monsters to the colors and shapes of the various robots. And the plentiful fights are ridiculously exciting, tapping into the inner child that lives at the center of del Toro’s body of work.
“We’re playing in the big-league zone with this movie,” del Toro says. “We cost a lot less than most other movies of this size. But we are still 2 1/4 times bigger than Hellboy 2 [his last big-budget movie]. The great thing is I never expected the level of freedom that was given to me on this movie. I was always careful to observe the budget, because I didn’t want the movie to be compromised by overages. For better or worse, this is 100 percent my movie. It’s as crazy, personal and weird as any of my other ones. That’s a unique combination.”