Gods and Monsters

Maybe Pacific Rim is the best film that Guillermo Del Toro could have made right now.
by Philip Matthews

No, Pacific Rim is not the Guillermo Del Toro film we are all waiting for. That would still be At the Mountains of Madness – which may be on or may be off, depending on what you read and when. But Pacific Rim is a likeable, superior and even slightly old-fashioned antidote to the increasingly cynical ruined-world blockbuster. It’s not just old-fashioned in the sense that you might feel you can take your kids to it, but old-fashioned in that this is essentially a 1940s war film with slightly updated technology. The giant jaeger robots are bombers on their last legs, all steel and rivets. Can they manage one more mission over enemy territory? Like bomber pilots, the jaeger drivers go out in pairs and develop one-mind telepathy. The kaiju enemy is rapacious and faceless, as heartless as the Germans and Japanese in old World War II movies. At one point, Idris Elba’s Air Force suited officer Stacker Pentecost even tells the drivers that they are the Resistance.

This is the near future, but we are pitched back into the past. Del Toro’s world is a war film. It nearly always has been. War is central to the two films that are usually taken as his most personal, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). In both cases, Del Toro worried about the child’s experience of war, or the child’s way of coping. The Devil’s Backbone was set in rural Spain during the Spanish Civil War. That sense of civil war as a family trauma writ large was amplified by the appearance of an abandoned boy at a remote orphanage. He sees a ghost. The film’s ghost moments are both scary and genuinely melancholy — it was noted that Del Toro grasped that sadness would be a ghost’s dominant emotion, maybe even its only emotion.

Del Toro has explained that two events in his own life fed into the film’s sense of lingering sadness — the ordeal of making Mimic (1997) for an American studio and the kidnapping of his father in Mexico — and the ghost experiences were real to him too, as he explains in this short interview promoting the new Criterion release of The Devil’s Backbone. That clip should leave you with just one big unanswered question: can he tell us more about this New Zealand ghost sighting?

Horror films, at their best, are about perspective and empathy. How often is a child’s perspective immediately more terrifying? The threat is increased and the unlikely seems — to them at least — that much more plausible. Think of The Exorcist, The Shining, The Sixth Sense, The Others, Poltergeist and Victor Erice’s Spanish masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive. There are ways in which The Devil’s Backbone and its ‘‘sister film’’ Pan’s Labyrinth feel like essays on or treatments of The Spirit of the Beehive, but more overt in their supernaturalism and use of fantasy.

Pan’s Labyrinth is perhaps the greatest of them all. Early in the post-Civil War era, Ofelia’s fascist stepfather hunts rebels in the wooded hills of northern Spain. With her mother pregnant, Ofelia is another abandoned or neglected child, the usual protagonist of fairy tales. Even more so than The Devil’s Backbone, it is a night film. One night, Ofelia encounters a giant faun in a labyrinth; despite the English-language title, he is never identified as the Greek god Pan (in Spanish the film is El laberinto del fauno). But this faun is a long way from the chummy Mr Tumnus of the roughly contemporary Narnia films — he’s closer to the Satan depicted by Goya and others. Another fantasised character evokes Goya even more directly — the ‘‘pale man’’ in the underworld resembles Goya’s Saturn who devours his children. Mythology fans will know that Saturn is a version of Cronos, which gave Del Toro the title of his first feature, a vampire film that — along with Thirst and Let the Right One In — was one of the great vampire reinventions of the past 20 years (it took Mexico, South Korea and Sweden to do it).

That image of the ‘‘pale man’’ with his eyes on a plate has Catholic origins too, in the image of the blinded St Lucy holding a dish before her with her own eyes on it. What should be clear is that it is the images you remember most in Del Toro films. He is an unusually visual storyteller. Even the much less personal or idiosyncratic Pacific Rim has images with the same sense of awe that he found in mythological or horror characters — not the fairly unremarkable dinosaurs from the depths of the oceans, but the jaeger robots, as big as gods or titans, carried by helicopters as though in a slow and grave procession. One of Pacific Rim’s oddly moving images is the sight of a collapsing jaeger on a snowy beach in Alaska, falling out of the fog. It’s like witnessing the death of a god.

This long New Yorker profile from 2011 details the director’s love of monsters. Once you get past the annoying New Yorker style (‘‘He had large ice-blue eyes, round glasses, and the rubbery cheeks of a kindergartner. An unruly brown beard, touched with gray, grounded him in manhood …’’ etc etc) and the obsession with his weight, there is some valuable stuff in there. This Del Toro quote — ‘‘In emotional genres, you cannot advocate good taste as an argument’’ — is a superb manifesto for any horror or fantasy director (can Dario Argento borrow it?). As is this quote from Del Toro’s comments on Hitchcock’s The Birds: ‘‘In the terror genre, an artist, unbound by ‘reality,’ can create his purest reflection of the world — the cinematic equivalent of poetry.’’

Good taste and realism are your enemies. Even when they are set within actual history (World War II in the Hellboy films or the Spanish Civil War), none of Del Toro’s films take place within a realistic world. Demons, vampires, ghosts and monsters are not just possible but highly likely. That means that the weakest point of the Pacific Rim screenplay, written by Del Toro and Travis Beacham from an original story by Beacham, comes when the monsters are explained. And it’s another variation of ‘‘it’s all our fault’’. It’s an absurd explanation, but then, isn’t the film gloriously absurd?

Everyone has their moment when they decided that they needed to give in and actually see this thing which looked, from the outside, like Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla on steroids. If the pejorative definition of the post-Jaws/Star Wars blockbuster was a B-movie on a mega-budget then this seemed like the apotheosis of that. Even the Pacific Rim tagline — ‘‘Go big or go extinct’’ — sounded like Hollywood studios commenting on their own products, especially given the anxiety that will result if too many of these expensive giants fall over. Mainstream reviews were largely indifferent but word of mouth was good, especially on social media. My own decision that I had to see Pacific Rim was made within about five seconds of reading this tweet from Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite: ‘‘Pacific Rim is one of the most ludicrous films ever made. It makes Starship Troopers look like Solaris. I fucking loved it.’’

Early on in Pacific Rim, with Bruckheimer-ish fly-boy heroism scored to loud rock’n’roll, it looks like Del Toro is heading in the same satirical direction as Starship Troopers. But that tone is largely dropped and it is played relatively straight. It is neither sarcastic nor as cynical as other blockbusters that competed in multiplexes this summer/winter. It wasn’t just because it is happening near our part of the world, or that the title usually has something to do with earthquakes, but the destruction on screen seems to actually mean something. That’s part of the film’s innocence. Contrast that with any recent example of destruction meaning nothing, but just playing out as endless, depressing CGI spectacle. The Avengers, say.

Anyway, what is the central — even personal — moment of Pacific Rim? If you are a Del Toro fan, it won’t necessarily be giant robots wrestling giant dinosaurs off the coast of Hong Kong, as fun as that might be, but a quieter moment in flashback. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) gets into Mako’s (Rinko Kakuchi) memories and re-experiences, for our benefit as well as his, a primal scene. We see Mako as a young girl in ruined Tokyo, stalked by a kaiju. We’re back with the abandoned child in a time of war and you might think of Isao Takahata’s sad animated classic about the WWII bombing of Japan, Grave of the Fireflies. There is also something in this sequence of the eerie, sometimes censored scene in James Whale’s Frankenstein when the sensitive, destructive monster meets a girl on the shores of a lake, and throws flowers into the water with her. But the jaeger that appears in Mako’s childhood memory is the Frankenstein monster, not the kaiju.

As luck would have it, that scene from Frankenstein was also central to The Spirit of the Beehive, in which a girl in Spain during the Civil War becomes obsessed with the Boris Karloff monster. Frankenstein is also a favourite of Del Toro’s, and a story he longs to remake. The other dream project was that version of HP Lovecraft’s ancient gods of Antarctica fantasy, At the Mountains of Madness. When the 2011 New Yorker profile appeared, Del Toro had recently returned from an unhappy stretch in New Zealand, waiting and waiting to maybe be able to direct The Hobbit — and you will have to hang out for a few more months to see how much or how little of his ‘‘flying axe’’ designs for Smaug the dragon survived — and was expecting or hoping to get At the Mountains of Madness going. That didn’t happen that time either.

The conventional wisdom is that Universal wouldn’t have backed At the Mountains of Madness given that Ridley Scott’s derivative Prometheus, which tried to recast the whole Alien universe in Lovecraftian terms, was ahead of it, and, worse, turned out to be such a non-event. But in January this year, in this interview, Del Toro sounded confident that At the Mountains of Madness might still happen. Will Pacific Rim’s box office turn out to make the difference? Remember that, after all the stops and starts on The Hobbit and the Lovecraft film, this is Del Toro’s first movie in six years, after Hellboy II in 2007. Initially, US box office looked disappointing but Pacific Rim’s east Asian settings seem to have had just the right effect. Deadline Hollywood reported that Pacific Rim had broken records in China, and there is a school of thought that this is the first genuinely post-American global action movie.

Film Festival

At the time of writing, the New Zealand International Film Festival has been running for four days in Christchurch. A few titles are in the bag already. Let’s attempt some one-sentence reviews.
The Past (dir. Asghar Farhadi). A relationships drama with a mystery at its centre, and so perfectly acted that despite the shape of the story, there was only one line I questioned.
Behind the Candelabra (dir. Steven Soderbergh). Michael Douglas and Matt Damon bring great dignity and not always expected humour to an unreliable account of gothic showbiz at its most secretive and sordid. Alternate title: Love in a kitsch climate.
Upstream Color (dir. Shane Carruth). Primer defeated me but the second film by the over-talented Shane Carruth (he acts, directs, writes, scores, shoots and even distributes) is admirably poetic and occasionally beautiful science-fiction that won’t leave you entirely frustrated.
North by Northwest (dir. Alfred Hitchcock). A comic nightmare of mistaken identity and a chase through a succession of 1950s interiors – offices, hotels, homes, trains and taxis, train stations – interrupted by perhaps the greatest exterior suspense sequence ever filmed.
The Human Scale (dir. Andreas Dalsgaard). The modern city is a dire warning and, just occasionally, a utopian opportunity. Co-starring Christchurch, which is not quite either of these things. Alternate title: Go big and go extinct.
Stranger By The Lake (dir. Alain Guiraudie). A gay sex beach in France is the entire world in this minimal, surprising thriller.