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-]
So just a couple of years after del Toro had been entrusted with a sequel in “Blade II” (rather underrated at the time, by critics if not by filmgoers: the film had the best box office of the trilogy), he was given the keys to his very own franchise. And if his career had been a little bit “one for them and one for me” to this point, perhaps “Hellboy” is the first real evidence that del Toro was going to be able to synthesize both impulses and, when the material allowed him, to deliver straight-up entertainment and decent action, spiced up and colored in with his eye for the loopy and the off-kilter. And that’s exactly what “Hellboy” is, in addition to providing a shamefully enjoyable and long-overdue leading role for Ron Perlman (seriously, there simply has never existed an actor better suited to this role, and there never will). In fact, Perlman’s cigar-chomping, world-weary benign demon is really the perfect fit for del Toro too, the ultimate sympathetic monster with a mile-wide romantic streak and a snarky sense of humor to boot. Which is not to say “Hellboy” is flawless by any means. Outside of Perlman, some of the performances are shaky (earlier on in his career, del Toro’s sympathy for his various devils comes at the expense of the characterization of the humans), and too often it feels like ever-bigger-and-more-versions of the same grey slithery, tentacled CGI critters are used where real stakes ought to be. Still the Boys Own-style fun, right down to the ludicrous Rasputin/Nazi axis of villainy, and the surprisingly touching emotional core, which details the tentatve romance between Hellboy and fellow freak Liz (a superbly cast Selma Blair), lifts “Hellboy” well clear of a lot of its more anonymous comic-book movie competition and still remains a benchmark in what can be achieved when a director really genuinely feels for the source material, as opposed to just playing lip service to it to get the gig. [B]
“Blade II” (2002)
Seen by many as del Toro’s “test movie” before he could get the greenlight to finally make his passion project— an adaptation of Mike Mignola‘s “Hellboy” comic book series— “Blade II” is one of the filmmaker’s more underrated accomplishments, a violent, stylish, vampire romp in which virtually every character is an unapologetically fiendish blood-sucker, something that makes the movie all the cooler. Del Toro said that he wanted the sequel to Stephen Norrington’s sleeper hit “Blade,” to be scarier, and he set about accomplishing that by introducing characters that are even more vile than the half-vampire/half-human Blade (Wesley Snipes) and the various vampiric baddies introduced the first time around. Enter: The Reapers. Led by Luke Goss (who del Toro would utilize again for “Hellboy II: The Golden Army“), the Reapers were an amalgam of del Toro fetishes: they have a mouth that opens in a provocatively sexual manner that also gives way to an insect-like maw (both specialities of the director). And “Blade II” is just a blast, bolstered by strong design work (some by Mignola himself— his storyboards are framable), energetically staged action sequences (although sometimes del Toro falters on the hand-to-hand combat stuff) and a greater emphasis on the mythology of the vampire world. Del Toro is responsible for a number of fine, gore-soaked flourishes— the way the vampires turn to dust like the remains of a flicked cigarette, the Dracula-worthy lining of Blade’s black leather duster, and, most notably the creation of The Blood Pack, a “Dirty Dozen“-style band of vampires who were trained to kill Blade but are now forced to work with him to find the Reapers. Led by Ron Perlman, as the vaguely Nazi-ish Reinhardt, the additional characters create a nice level of friction and even allow for— gasp!— humor in a Blade movie. Wesley Snipes even smiles a couple of times. Maybe that’s del Toro’s most miraculous achievement. “Blade II” doesn’t try to replicate the feeling of the first one, instead giving into its own bizarre mood and worldview. [B]
“Hellboy II: The Golden Army” (2008)
The stakes were high with “Hellboy II: The Golden Army.” Not only was it the highly anticipated sequel to an original that had garnered a strong cult following and respectable box office, but it was also del Toro’s follow-up to the universally beloved “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a movie that Stephen King called “the greatest fantasy film since ‘Wizard of Oz.'” As such, “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” is a mixture of the sensibilities of both the original “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” with our beloved, lobster-red paranormal researcher Hellboy (Perlman, again covered in pounds of cutting-edge make-up wizardry) back in business, and this time facing down a number of fairy tale creatures who are threatening to overtake the human world. Del Toro directs like he’ll never get another chance at the character (or maybe directing in general), throwing virtually everything into this overheated, hugely enjoyable souffle. Not only does he fashion a dense mythology wholly separate from the comic book the films are based, with an unheard of number of fantastical monsters and beings, exemplified by a prologue visualized as an elaborate puppet show, but he has thrown in a number of fascinating thematic and mythological wrinkles that, should a third film never materialize, will go damningly unfinished. But “Hellboy II” is, first and foremost, a visual feast— a richly imagined, painstakingly world that imagines not only what would happen if the fairy tale world actually existed, but was pushed to the margins of society (so that an elfin king resides underneath Manhattan, his throne a tangle of ancient magic and industrial piping). Del Toro’s imagination (and the goofy gonzo Hellboy universe) reaches its crescendo during the Troll Market sequence, which is like del Toro’s version of the Mos Eisley Cantina setpiece from “Star Wars”— a scene so full of magical, mythical monsters that it almost pops at the seams and one that’s even more arresting for its reliance on practical monsters instead of CGI concoctions. It should also be noted that “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” was the first time that robots and monsters would battle, long before “Pacific Rim,” in the movie’s climax, when the titular army of glitzy wind-up automatons does battle with Hellboy. “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” always runs the risk of being too overstuffed for its own good, like binging on a buffet of your favorite candy bar, but it is a surprisingly deep experience and one that gets better with each subsequent viewing, with its humor, warmth, and peculiarity becoming even more of an asset as we drown in a sea of blandly generic superhero tales. [B+]
“Pacific Rim” (2013)
Del Toro’s latest dazzler is, in sheer scope and scale, unlike anything he’s ever done before. After leaving “The Hobbit” prequel films and getting shut down on “At the Mountains of Madness,” an ambitious Lovecraft adaptation for Universal, del Toro was able to, fairly quickly, fashion something that feels, at times, deeply nostalgic and yet totally new. And since it’s filled with huge fucking monsters, it also resonates deeply as a Guillermo del Toro film. Eschewing many of the traditions of this type of summertime blockbuster movie— it’s not an origin film, the action sequences are not shot in sunny vistas, and the cast is outrageously multi-ethnic— del Toro has made a hands-in-the-air epic, one whose breathless fun doesn’t let up until the moment the credits roll (and there’s even a little nugget in there, so stick around for that). In the not-too-distant future, kaiju, giant, monstrous beasts, have escaped from a dimensional rift and promptly set about attacking major cities around the world. In response, humanity has constructed the jaegers, equally giant, monstrous robots who are piloted by teams of two, who are linked, via neural connection, with each pilot serving to operate half the robot. As the main narrative thrust for “Pacific Rim” begins, the program is being dismantled; the monsters are getting too big and scary and killing too many pilots. The movie documents the last stand of the humans, who have gone from being a fighting force to a ragtag resistance, with only a handful of jaegers at their disposal (with cool names like Gipsy Danger and Crimson Typhoon) and little hope of holding off the apocalypse. But, of course, a plucky hotshot (Charlie Hunnam) and a young pilot with revenge on her mind (Rinko Kikuchi) team up to turn the tide. “Pacific Rim” is more thrilling than most blockbusters, with a level of invention and a lightness of touch that are all too often missing from these kind of hulking enterprises. The director even manages to squeeze in a sizable supporting role for constant collaborator Ron Perlman, this time playing Hannibal Chau, an underground dealer of kaiju organs, who teams up with Charlie Day‘s twitchy scientist, to uncover the monsters’ secret. Anime, old “Godzilla” movies, and Japanese manga all seem to be clear influences (the design work here is nothing short of staggering), but “Pacific Rim” still feels fresh and new. It’s the work of an imaginative master, having the time of his life. [B+]
“The Devil’s Backbone” (2001)
Produced by Pedro Almodovar and shot entirely on a micro-budget in Spain, “The Devil’s Backbone” marked a return to del Toro’s roots after the studio clusterfuck that was “Mimic” (an experience del Toro was wary to repeat) and would serve as the precursor to his most widely accepted film, “Pan’s Labyrinth.” What nobody dares acknowledge, however, is that “The Devil’s Backbone” is just as good as “Pan’s Labyrinth,” a deeply existential meditation on the nature of war that takes place in a orphanage during the Spanish Civil War. As a piece of imagery so on-the-nose that it can’t help but resonate, an unexploded aerial bomb sits in the courtyard of the orphanage, forcefully lodged in the earth, waiting to go off. And since the words “directed by Guillermo del Toro” appear on “The Devil’s Backbone,” it should also be noted that there is a ghost, supposedly the spectral remains of a young boy who went missing on the day that the bomb landed. “The Devil’s Backbone” is a deeply uneasy movie, with a palpable atmosphere so thick you could carve it into slices, smash it between two pieces of bread, and have it for lunch, beautifully shot by del Toro’s frequent collaborator Guillermo Navarro and featuring the kind of moments that aren’t just memorable; they’re downright haunting. Hopefully some of “The Devil’s Backbone’s” cred will be restored when a deluxe edition comes out later this month courtesy of our friends at the Criterion Collection. It might not be as ornate or magical as “Pan’s Labyrinth,” but it’s every bit as emotionally powerful and visually stunning. The two are obvious companion pieces, set at roughly the same place at roughly the same historical point, and equals in terms of quality as well. Those who have never seen it are best served by waiting for this new edition. It’ll be worth it. [A]
“Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006)
If Guillermo del Toro were to suddenly die tomorrow, sad as that would be, he’d have a strong legacy simply because of this film, his masterpiece. This is the film where the writer/director, whose style has always been a delicate balance between arthouse and mainstream, found that sweet spot between cool genre exercise and deeply affecting, hard-earned emotional drama, and it proves to be the perfect melding for his talents. Closest in tone and style to “The Devil’s Backbone,” but in place of ghosts there’s a brooding fairy tale adventure with memorable monsters and brutal violence (as far as memorable head smashing scenes in cinema go, there’s “Irreversible,” “Drive” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” at the top). Del Toro has said in interviews that he’s dreamed of the faun character since he was a boy, and that personal touch is noticeable even amidst a grand narrative set against the aftermath of the Spanish Civil war in 1944. While most English speaking moviegoers seem afraid of subtitles, this is a film we feel confident in saying could be enjoyed by even those folks who swear they don’t like reading at the movies. There’s an elegance to the filmmaking we’ve not seen from del Toro, before or after, that is a joy to behold. The gorgeous visuals truly transport the viewer to another place and time, and we’d be lying if we didn’t admit the ending completely destroys us every time, wholly satisfying yet leaving us with a puddle of tears to mop up. Cliched as it is to use the term movie magic, it feels apt when talking about “Pan’s Labyrinth.” [A]
While these are the only movies del Toro has technically directed, his distinct hand has been hard at work elsewhere, producing and supervising a number of projects, most recently this year’s sleeper horror hit “Mama” and serving as a creative consultant on DreamWorks Animation‘s “The Croods” (where del Toro has a standing contract as a “creative consultant” and executive producer for all of the studios’ animated films). Del Toro also had a huge hand in 2011’s remake of “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” which he co-wrote and produced and along with Joel Silver helped the wonderful sci-fi oddity “Splice” get distributed. In between “Hellboy” features, del Toro oversaw a pair of pretty decent animated follow-ups that featured most of the movie’s cast (“Hellboy: Sword of Storms” and “Hellboy: Blood and Iron“). Del Toro also served as a producer on Alejandro González Iñárritu‘s genuinely amazing “Biutiful” and (along with Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón) produced Spanish-language sports comedy “Rudo Y Cursi.” In a more nebulous “creative consultant” capacity, del Toro also contributed to George A. Romero‘s “Diary of the Dead” and Jon Favreau‘s multi-million-dollar whats-it “Cowboys & Aliens.” He can also be heard, for some reason, as the voice of a partygoer in the James Bond outing “Quantum of Solace.” So there’s also that. – Erik McClanahan, Jessica Kiang, Drew Taylor