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Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

How Pacific Rim revived Guillermo del Toro's love of movies and his career

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Mar 20, 2018, 3:15 PM EDT

One of the first images Guillermo del Toro drew for Pacific Rim, his homage to the Kaiju movies he watched as a kid in the small theaters of his hometown of Guadalajara, Mexico, as well as anime series ranging from Gigantor to Neon Genesis Evangelion, was of a little girl holding a red shoe.

The image would appear in what is arguably the film's best scene, a flashback involving Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), the co-pilot of the films main robot (Jaeger) Gypsy Danger. The sequence happens when Mori and Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) perform the "Drift" for the first time, the high concept plot device del Toro and co-screenwriter Travis Beacham conceived in which two Jaeger pilots have their minds connected so they can share the burden of operating the giant machine. Mori, inexperienced, allows herself to get sucked into her memories, specifically her most painful one.

Mori walks in complete darkness with what looks like snow falling around her. She hears the faint sound of a small child screaming for help, looks down, and sees that she's carrying a shiny red shoe; the camera cuts and we see Mori as a child, alone, one red shoe on her foot, the other in her hand. An array of fighter pilots zoom past her, shooting at a cloud of smoke that's revealed to be a Kaiju. The Kaiju begins to chase the small child.

It's a scene unlike any other in the film, more horror movie than summer blockbuster. The camera is placed low throughout, even when Beckett appears in the memory, to emphasize that what we are seeing is from the child's perspective. It's equally terrifying and gripping; it's one of the best scenes del Toro has ever filmed.

"That started the whole movie for me," del Toro, who recently won a pair of Academy Awards for directing and co-producing The Shape of Water, said a few months after the release of Pacific Rim. After hitting theaters five years ago this summer — with a sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising, releasing this week — it's a film that, in the grand scheme of things, will probably be less talked about than other entries in del Toro's filmography, making way for The Devil's Backbone, Blade II, and Pan's Labyrinth. This is mostly due to it not being as beloved by critics as those other films nor making a real impact at the U.S. box office, opening under the sequels to Grown Ups and Despicable Me.

However, half a decade after its release, I think Pacific Rim should be recognized for the importance it had on the career of one of our most famous and successful genre directors. Because it was Pacific Rim that not only brought del Toro back after a long absence from the screen but also reignited his love of filmmaking.

Pacific Rim

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

By the time del Toro took on Pacific Rim in March 2011, he had been a working director for almost two decades, garnering a number of box office successes and an Academy Award nomination. He also hadn't directed a film since Hellboy II: The Golden Army, which wrapped production in late 2007. He was also coming out of the three most emotionally draining years of his career.

Now, del Toro has had his name attached to a plethora of films through the years, everything from Beauty and the Beast, to Thor, to Halo, to King Kong, to a new version of Frankenstein, and that's just from 2008 to 2011. But it was two projects that he spent a considerable time putting together only for them to slip through his fingers that not only hurt his career — as he put other projects on hold or left them all together — but affected him emotionally.

The first was The Hobbit, which he signed on to direct in 2008. After working on the film for almost two years designing costumes, characters and creatures, and spending months in Wellington, New Zealand, del Toro left the project, writing a letter to a Lord of the Rings fansite saying that leaving the movie was "the hardest decision of my life." Talking to The New Yorker in 2011, del Toro went further, saying that the hardest part was "making peace with the fact that somebody else is going to have control of your creatures, your wardrobe, and change it, or discard it, or use it. All options are equally painful." The reason given was that MGM, facing severe monetary woes, couldn't secure financing. However, del Toro dismissed that idea, saying that production issues "came from many factors," and that "it wasn't just MGM. These are very complicated movies, economically and politically."

If leaving The Hobbit hurt, then what came next truly crushed him. This was del Toro's passion project, a film version of H.P Lovecraft's "In the Mountains of Madness." Del Toro had written his own script for it in 1998, but it wasn't until he saw James Cameron's Avatar, in which Cameron pioneered a number of visual effect techniques such as a new lighting stage and facial recognition software, that del Toro thought technology had finally caught up with his vision for the film. He described his idea for In the Mountains of Madness to The New Yorker as a "tent-pole horror film."

He enlisted Cameron as a producer and got the interest of Universal Studios. For the next two and a half months, del Toro worked with designers, visual effects specialists, and artists. Together, del Toro and his team were working on creatures that, as Daniel Zalewski wrote, "would push digital technology to the limit." All the while, he was learning how to film in 3D, studying Avatar on his laptop.

When del Toro presented what he had to Universal, the company was enraptured. However, the project never got started, which, according to a recent feature in The Outline written the day after del Toro's big Oscar night, was because of the proposed budget ($150 million) and del Toro's adamant desire to make it an R-rated film. Del Toro told the Los Angeles Times that when he got the news, "I really was devastated. I was weeping for the movie." After back-to-back disappointments, David S. Cohen wrote, in his book Pacific Rim: Man, Machines & Monsters: The Inner Workings of an Epic Film, that del Toro "needed a tonic, something to restore the pleasure of filmmaking and the wonder he'd felt as a boy watching movies in Guadalajara."

That would come in the form of Pacific Rim.

Raleigh Becket, Pacific Rim

Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

At 2013's San Diego Comic-Con, del Toro was sitting in front of 6,500 people inside Hall H of the San Diego Convention Center, a place that the Los Angeles Times called "the most important room in Hollywood" last year. He was there to promote and premiere the first footage of Pacific Rim, his first film in five years; a film that "for much of the schedule" (103 days), del Toro "would work 17 or 18 hours a day, seven days a week." He was incredibly nervous, as it had been so long since he'd shown something to a mass audience; would the Comic-Con crowd, del Toro's people, still welcome him after years of not delivering?

After the first footage was shown, the reaction was a resounding "yes;" del Toro told Cohen that the reaction "was completely a life-affirming experience," going further to say that the positive reaction "affected me in a beautiful way."

Pacific Rim was the most expensive film del Toro's ever been in charge of before or since. It was also, according to him, "the most fun, the most satisfying shoot I've ever had," going so far as to say Pacific Rim was, at the time, "the only shoot I've ever enjoyed. Ever. Completely." It was the perfect combination of his left and right brain working together as it mixed his love of genre — in the form of the film's hook being giant monsters vs. giant robots — along with the themes of outcasts and family that have appeared throughout his filmography.

The film got major praise from the likes of Kanye West, Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima,and the Japanese manga author and artist behind Mazinger Z, Go Nagal. What the film didn't get was a big audience.

Pacific Rim released on July 13, 2015, and, like many films that do well in spaces like Comic-Con, it didn't translate to a general audience. It grossed $34.7 million dollars on its opening weekend, the highest ever for a del Toro film, but couldn't overcome the combined powers of Adam Sandler and the minions, which took the first two spots on the weekend box office. Overall, Pacific Rim ended up grossing a little over $100 million in the U.S and a little over $300 million abroad for a $400 million dollar-plus total.

Thomas Tull, CEO of Legendary Entertainment at the time (the production company that paid 75 percent of the film's budget), tried his best to spin the film's box office, telling Collider, "I think it did more business than the first X-Men, did more than Batman Begins, our first movie, did more than Superman Returns, The Fast and the Furious, Star Trek." That may be true, but Pacific Rim came out in a post-Avengers world, where a film making $400 million worldwide doesn't count as a hit anymore, especially when it cost almost $200 million before marketing. Which is unfortunate given that del Toro took some actual risks with the story and its characters — a factor that's almost nonexistent in contemporary blockbuster cinema.

Even though del Toro wanted Pacific Rim to have "an incredibly airy and light feel," to not just make "a super-brooding, super-dark, cynical summer movie," the film is pretty dark. He kills most of the cast, including the film's best character, Stacker Pentecost — the best non-Luther, non-The Wire character Idris Elba has ever played — via nuclear explosion. While it sucked that the sequel wouldn't give Elba another chance to cancel the apocalypse, it's refreshing that there were some, y'know, stakes when it came to the film's characters. It's difficult to feel that the star of a superhero movie is in any danger these days because we've already seen them in trailers for another film down the road. Sure, the good guys win in Pacific Rim, but at a cost, which makes you care about the relationships between those characters in future viewings.

Mako Mori, Pacific Rim

Credit: Warner Bros.

And then there is the portrayal of Mako, a female character who is extremely intelligent, able to handle her own against the main character in a one-on-one fight, and, while it's implied that there are some deeper feelings between Mori and Beckett, the film never goes into it. Mako is more than a love interest. She's a member of the team.

Del Toro's vision of Mako was of someone "who has the equal force as the male leads. She's not going to be a sex kitten, she's not going to come out in cutoff shorts and a tank top, and it's going to be a real earnestly drawn character." Mako Mori could be viewed as a precursor to characters like Charlize Theron's Furiosa, Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman, Letita Wright's Shuri, and Lupita Nyong'o's Nakia, all characters who have appeared in cinemas in the five years since the first Pacific Rim.

Since Pacific Rim, del Toro has directed two films, 2015's Crimson Peak and, of course, The Shape of Water. He was supposed to direct the sequel but, after reports came out saying the sequel was canceled, del Toro responded, saying the film was still in development and, later, that he would serve as a producer. The reason for this change of roles, he told Collider, is frankly, "the timing started to suck." Also, Legendary Entertainment was in the process of getting bought out by the Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate that's shown a massive interest in acquiring American entertainment properties (Pacific Rim was a big hit in China). When the deal was going on, del Toro was told that he would have to wait nine months to work on the sequel. Del Toro, having been through this kind of thing before, got out and filmed The Shape of Water instead — a pretty good call.

Steven DeKnight was hired to direct the sequel and decided to rewrite the script del Toro had worked on; when asked about it, del Toro, forever the professional, told Collider that he accepted it. "A producer is in the corner, the director is in the ring," he said. "The producer's not getting the punches, the director is, so shut up, wait in the corner, refresh the towel and wait for the director to come to you."

So while the Pacific Rim franchise may no longer be in the hands of del Toro, his contributions to it should be remembered, as it provided the "tonic" he needed after two crushing blows to his career. A decade ago, del Toro was a genre director with some art-house credit; today, he is a Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Academy Award-winning genre director with art-house credit.

While standing on the 2018 Oscar stage, holding the Oscar for Best Picture, del Toro spoke directly to the future genre directors of tomorrow, those who will use genre "to tell the stories about the things that are real in the world today." Del Toro, raising the hand that was holding the small gold statue, told them, "this is a door, kick it open and come in." It took two decades for del Toro to kick open that door so that many could follow and it should be remembered that a movie where giant robots fight giant monsters helped him do it.