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‘Pacific Rim’ will show if the world is ready for more giant robots

Posted 10:45pm on Thursday, Jul. 11, 2013

Guillermo del Toro had just come from a darkened Burbank auditorium when he arrived at the Warner Bros. lot to lead a conference call of visual-effects technicians finalizing the extensive CG sequences for his new film Pacific Rim. He’d spent the first hour of a winter afternoon using a red laser pointer to indicate precisely where he’d like the 3-D effects to be amplified in specific scenes as towering robots known as Jaegers soldiered silently across the ocean floor on the big screen.

Now, seated in front of a computer monitor, it was time to perfect some of the hand-to-hand combat sequences between the movie’s lumbering giants and the alien beasties known as kaiju that serve as the bad guys in the ambitious $180 million film. In one shot, he requested that the otherworldly creature adopt more of a boxer’s stance; in another, he wanted the monster to convulse as it shot a death ray out of its maw. “Can we have him coughing up like acid reflux?” Del Toro asked.

Clad in a faded black hoodie, Del Toro provided his own sound effects as the heroic Jaeger Gipsy Danger smashed a kaiju’s head with two metal fists — monosyllables straight out of the old Adam West Batman TV show, “Bam. Boosh. Oof.” — seeming far more like a gleeful 10-year-old boy playing an expensive game of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots than a 48-year-old bilingual Oscar nominee laboring over a project that could propel him to an entirely new level of success.

Pacific Rim is set in a near future in which a shifting of tectonic plates has unlocked the portal to another world. Kaiju — the name and the genre come from the strain of Japanese B-movie cinema sired by Toho’s original Godzilla — pour through the rift, and before long coastal cities have been destroyed. To fight back, the military creates the Jaeger program, which entails the construction of 25-story robots operated by two pilots who control the machine through a psychic bond. It’s the closest thing to live-action anime Hollywood has produced.

“I really wanted to make a movie that had an incredibly airy and light feel,” Del Toro said, reflecting on the film he had just finished. “This is not a super-brooding, super-dark, cynical summer movie. I wanted very much to do a movie that is aiming for a young audience. Adults can be, God willing, entertained by the big, beautiful, sophisticated visuals and the action and all that, but my real hope is that this movie allows for a new generation of kaiju and robot kids that fall in love with giant monsters.”

Pacific Rim might be many things — the most expensive movie Del Toro has ever made; a glorious homage to the Japanese pop culture he adored as a child in Guadalajara, Mexico; the first film in what Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. are hoping will be an outsized franchise. What it isn’t, though, is a sure thing.

At a time when the major studios continue to rely on sequels and superheroes, Pacific Rim thunders into a crowded season as a wholly original big-budget sci-fi spectacle movie. If it works, the movie holds the potential to chart a new career path for Del Toro, who in the past two decades has cultivated an ardent following making uncompromising movies in English and Spanish that embrace genre strictures and simultaneously rise above them. He’s probably one of the few people working in cinema today who can hold forth with equal authority on comic books and Kierkegaard.

Distinctive style

Written by Del Toro and Travis Beacham, Pacific Rim features an ensemble cast led by Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Rinko Kikuchi, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini and Burn Gorman, with Ron Perlman showing up in a smaller turn as the outrageously monikered Hannibal Chau, a black-market dealer of kaiju anatomy who resembles a futuristic glam-rock pimp.

Yet it’s Pacific Rim’s concept and director that stand out as its biggest stars.

Moviegoers familiar with Del Toro’s body of work know that it does exist in a world of its own, with the 2006 fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth perhaps best exemplifying his wild and devious imagination. The film, which won three of the six Academy Awards for which it was nominated, centers on a young girl in fascist Spain who escapes from everyday life with her mother and her brutal stepfather into a fantastic but dangerous realm populated by unusual-looking monsters and rendered in moody blue and gold tones.

It’s one of three Spanish-language movies Del Toro has made: Cronos located the classic vampire mythology to a modern middle-class home in Mexico, and The Devil’s Backbone set a ghost story in a remote orphanage in rural Spain. His English-language résumé includes 1997’s giant insect movie Mimic — a famously fraught production — and three comic-book adaptations: the vampire sequel Blade II, Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army.

What the films share is an affection for idiosyncrasy often expressed with humor and a singular, painterly palette.

“I always love to take things that are very popular and treat them in a way that is very different than they are treated normally,” Del Toro said. “Like Hellboy. Say what you may, but it’s a very, very strange superhero movie. Not every superhero movie has a fish guy and a demon guy drinking a six-pack and singing Barry Manilow.”

Big-budget setbacks

He came to direct Pacific Rim only after two other efforts fell apart. First, he had set out to direct a two-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which ultimately became a trilogy helmed by Peter Jackson. Then there was his long-held passion project, a big-budget adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft. The story of a scientific expedition to Antarctica that uncovers ancient life-forms collapsed after Universal declined to finance the film, a $150-million R-rated 3-D horror epic.

Within days, he’d signed on to direct Pacific Rim, which he’d previously agreed to produce and co-write. He shot the film almost entirely on eight soundstages at Pinewood Toronto Studios; the scale of the production was massive.

For a portion of the 103-day shoot, Del Toro worked six-day weeks, acting as his own second-unit director. “I wanted Pacific Rim to be on budget and on time because it was basically for me a big moment to show myself that I didn’t get rusty, I didn’t get complacent,” he said.

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