His films may be varied in subjects and themes – from vampire tales to dark childhood fantasies to subterranean mutant insect movies – but if there’s one thing that unites all the films of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, it’s their immaculately-crafted worlds.
From his first feature, Cronos (1993), to his most recent, this year’s Pacific Rim, del Toro’s films create their own perfectly-realised reality that gives the impression of more things occurring beyond the confines of the screen. Even his two celebrated Spanish-language fantasy dramas, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), although set during the turbulent period of the Spanish Civil War, fuse a sense of historical realism with del Toro’s own appetite for exotic fantasy.
The Devil’s Backbone takes place in a remote orphanage, which provides the backdrop for wartime intrigue and a starkly effective ghost story; Pan’s Labyrinth is about a young girl who retreats into a world of fantasy to escape from the horrific reality of war. In both instances, del Toro moves between these two realms so effortlessly that we can barely see the join – in Pan’s Labyrinth, in particular, the world of giant frogs and enigmatic fauns is as threatening and believable as the world of civil war and vicious generals.
Even in a movie like Mimic, del Toro’s 1997 creature feature which was sadly hampered by studio meddling, we can see this same effective world-building at work: a distorted reflection of our real world which slips effortlessly into the utterly fantastical. For much of its first act, Mimic begins in del Toro’s version of New York – a claustrophobic city of seemingly eternal nighttimes and murky alleyways. Something large and scary is scurrying around in the shadows, moving in and out of a church, and seen only by a young boy who describes the entity as “Mr Funny Shoes”.
It’s through scientist Susan Tyler (Mira Sorvino) that del Toro gradually leads us through the story’s world. Having established New York at street level, we’re then taken down into the city’s subways, where we become aware of tall, apparently cloaked beings capable of moving among ordinary people as trains clatter in and out of the stations.
Tyler – and the audience – soon learns that these cloaked beings are in fact giant, mutated cockroaches, and unforeseen offshoot of a genetically-altered insect Tyler herself once created. Following a stunning reveal – where a cloaked figure flutters into life, revealing that its cloak is actually a pair of giant wings – del Toro takes us to the third layer of his unreality – the dark tunnels, sewers and disused subway buildings that lie beyond the well-lit subway platforms, where the cockroaches have made their nest.
Although Mimic revels in its B-movie, creature-of-the-week roots, the way it gradually draws us into its fictional reality is what lifts it from the status of mere schlock; del Toro’s eye for creature and set design is evident everywhere, and like so many of his films, Mimic tells so much through images and not words.
This approach is evident in something like Cronos, where the design of even something as small as its central clockwork device tells us more than a page of exposition ever could. A centuries-old mechanical oddity discovered by an antiques dealer named Gris (Federico Lippi), the device looks at first like a beautifully-adorned fob watch case, before closer inspection reveals a set of claw-like legs and a vicious-looking spike which jabs into the skin of its possessor and injects them with a mysterious solution.
The Cronos device is at least two things at once: an item so elaborate and tactile that it seduces people into picking it up and handling it, and also an object of absolute loathing – an insectoid trap that bestows its own kind of curse on its victims.
Details like this are vital to del Toro’s films, such as Blade II, with its gothic streets populated by mutant vampires whose strange configuration of jaws are almost as elaborate as those in Cronos. The same can be said of Hellboy (2004) and its sequel Hellboy: The Golden Army, with their breathtakingly elaborate machines and creatures.
In all these films, del Toro finds a means of tying these fantastical things back to a form of reality, whether it’s the Spain of the 40s in Pan’s Labyrinth, or the America of the present in the Hellboy movies – part of the reason, perhaps, why del Toro’s cinematic worlds feel so believable. They may be a fantasy, but there’s always something linking them to the ground. Whether they’re science fiction, horror or comic book fantasy, del Toro brings the same fairytale sense of realities running in parallel.
In terms of world-building, Pacific Rim is arguably the most expansive movie del Toro’s yet created. Set in a near future torn apart by giant beasts which have, for reasons initially unclear, emerged from our oceans to wreck havoc on our cities, it sees a dwindling defense force gather together a handful of skyscraper-sized, human-driven robots to repel the incursion.
Proudly inspired by Japanese giant monster movies and anime, Pacific Rim creates its own realm of fantasy logic. We come to accept the strange, majestic movements of these towering robots, whose limbs move in time with the pilots’ own. Like all of del Toro’s films, it communicates so much through images rather than words; Pacific Rim’s designers draw from the symbolism of World War II tanks and submarines to give the machines a rusted, battered, lived-in sense of history, while the screeching kaiju have their own unique markings and individual videogame-like killer moves.
Like Mimic, Pacific Rim isn’t at all ashamed of its own inherent goofiness, and del Toro pulls off an impressive high-wire act of giving the movie both a sense of violent impact and also a childlike, playful sense of awe.
It’s this child’s eye perspective, perhaps, that is also key to the director’s world-building. Not all of his films are literally seen through a child’s eyes (though several of his best are), but they are all invested with the same childlike fascination for minute details and exotic, surreal images. Take, for example, a location somewhere in China, where an ad-hoc city has been arranged around the gargantuan bones of a fallen kaiju.
It’s a detail that is largely incidental to the plot, but it’s an idea that tells us so much about the history of this world without anyone uttering a word: the corpses of the kaiju are so utterly enormous that they’ve simply been assimilated into the landscape, and formed the part of a new and strangely beautiful place.
Things like this abound in Pacific Rim, and if you take the time to see them, they add depth to a story that is constantly thundering along like an untethered beast. Look how the little blue highlight in heroine Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) precisely matches the colorof the coat she was wearing when she was almost killed by a kaiju as a child – a little bit of her traumatic past still clings to her as an adult.
Sure, Pacific Rim can be enjoyed purely on the level of a larger-than-life monsters-versus-robots beat-down, but as with all of del Toro’s films, it’s invested with far more thought and care than a single viewing would necessarily divulge. Once again, it’s the director’s immaculately-conceived world that makes Pacific Rim so visually intoxicating.
Pacific Rim is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.