A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the potential for Guillermo del Toro's giant robots vs. monsters movie, Pacific Rim, to fail to draw a huge audience; that possibility indeed occurred, as the film opened at the box office behind the animated sequel, Despicable Me 2, and the Adam Sandler cash-grab sequel, Grown Ups 2. While critics disagree on whether the film was more than the sum of its parts, it has generally good reviews, with most critics praising its action sequence, special effects, and sense of fun. Still, I can't help but be disappointed to see audiences opt for more of the same than taking a gamble on an unknown property from a respected international director.
In an age where Hollywood blockbusters are engineered for maximum box office impact through advance marketing and tie-in merchandise, is there any room for the old-fashioned auteur to have his or her unique sensibilities come across intact? Take Christopher Nolan as an example of a Hollywood auteur who has had success both with his handling of the Batman franchise, as well as an original big budget film, Inception. His thematic and stylistic predilections came through strong in all of those films, regardless of whether the source was a comic book or heis and his brother Jonathan's imagination.
However, Nolan's ability to make his personal mark in multiple modes of blockbuster filmmaking is far from the norm. Marvel, who has brought in filmmakers with strong fan followings and unique voices such as Joss Whedon for The Avengers and Shane Black with Iron Man Three, areis following a different pattern. Whedon had never had a hit on the same scale of The Avengers prior to that film's phenomenal success. Similarly, Black was a long way from his 80s peak of penning Lethal Weapon and multi-million dollar spec scripts, and got the job on the third Iron Man film through his friendship with star Robert Downey Jr. Neither film boasts a visual style that would set their project apart, rather yoking the director/writer's verbal sparring to the Marvel machine. Neither director has yet leveraged those successes into realizing a big budget personal project the way that Nolan has, but that remains to be seen.
Part of the problem as I see it with Pacific Rim is that Del Toro is trying to split the difference between two methods of securing studio funding, having not first secured a huge hit, nor willing to place his unique vision second to a studio mandate. His Hellboy films, while not flops, weren't near the hits that the Marvel films have been. And while, Pan's Labyrinth was a critical hit and did well at the box office for a foreign language film, it didn't necessarily have the same recognition that would generate huge interest for Del Toro's future projects. Without the track record of a sure thing or bending Del Toro's vision to marketing (the audience Del Toro's audience skewed younger than the Bruckheimer-Bay sweet spot of 16-30), Pacific Rim was indeed a gamble for Warner Bros. and Legendary; they were hoping for an Inception situation, but that goal seems unlikely now.
While Pacific Rim may not have fulfilled the wildest box office predictions, and indeed seems like it will be a more modest hit (it still has a chance to make back its production budget) instead of the sleeper hit of the summer, I think it still manages to succeed in a couple of ways. I found it to be one of the more refreshing films of the summer, combining its action and adventure with a lack of cynicism and a genuine humanism. Admittedly, its characters are little more than archetypes, but so are Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. The way the film combines an elaborate, lived-in mythology with a playground logic ("Now the robot gives the monster a pile-driver!") made it the most fun film I've seen this summer, even if it doesn't strike me as as memorable as Del Toro's acclaimed Spanish-language fantasies.
It seems a director with a unique vision and voice can indeed merge his or her vision with the Hollywood blockbuster machine, as Del Toro has shown here and Nolan has done as well. But perhaps he or she only gets one shot if it fails to be a huge hit. If Pacific Rim doesn't end up as profitable as the studio hoped, it's likely Del Toro will have to go back to his more modestly budgeted films like Pan's Labyrinth or Hellboy, or further see his vision watered down by studio mandates and marketing formulas. God forbid it's the later.