Big budget original film ideas are few and far between. That's not to say Hollywood's recent favor for adaptations and reboots is completely lacking in originality, but that every year it seems more and more of the biggest blockbusters are live action remakes, novel adaptations, or additions to past franchises. In other words, Hollywood is playing it safe, sticking with the ideas that are guaranteed to make money because they have already proven they can.
Among the slew of trailers for superhero films and fifth installments to dying franchises that came out this summer, though, was a trailer for Guillermo del Toro's newest fairy tale: The Shape of Water, set for release this December. Del Toro's original storyline follows a deaf janitor through a secret government lab in 1962 as she uncovers the lab's experiments on a newly discovered humanoid sea-creature. Del Toro's newest film joins tens of original film concepts written, directed, and produced by himself since 1993. From a little girl's dark fairy tale entwined with the horrors of being a child of the Spanish Civil War in Pan's Labyrinth to a Brontë-esque horror film about a writer turned ghost whisperer whose love story traps her in the haunted halls of her husband and his sister's dilapidated mansion in Crimson Peak, his work is not only original, but endlessly fun, creative, and thoroughly thought-out.
The film that best displays del Toro's willingness to allow his imagination to wander and his abilities as a filmmaker, though, is Pacific Rim. The 2013 action film creates a world in which humans decide that the best way to kill giant aliens is to build giant robots powered by pilots mentally linked through relived memories that linger and stick in their partner's subconscious. While inspired by Japanese kaiju movies and anime, the story is completely del Toro's and co-writer Travis Beacham's. Under del Toro's direction, the film becomes a colorful, optimistic, and completely over the top journey, which is exactly why it succeeds.
Del Toro shares none of modern Hollywood's fear of cheesiness and extremes, allowing him to play with huge concepts and invest himself wholeheartedly in them. His films revel in their absurdity with the enthusiasm of a child playing pretend. Why can't a giant robot pick up a boat and swing it like a baseball bat at an alien? Why can't the robot wait until just the right dramatic moment to reveal it had a sword attachment? He never lets logic or the fear of going too far with his imagination keep him from letting it run wild throughout every movie he creates, inevitably offering the same child-like enthusiasm to his audience in the process.
Del Toro uses his bold style to enhance his characters, as well. Action movies so often forget that no matter what happens in the plot, the story's characters are what take it there. In contrast, none of del Toro's characters can be described simply. One of Pacific Rim's main characters, Raleigh, defies the norms for the brooding hero through combining that aspect of his characterization with a soft and loving personality. Despite a tragic death being literally burnt and scarred into his side, he remains gentle and hopeful. His co-lead, Mako Mori, is such a well-crafted character that she inspired a test on-par with the Bechdel Test and other tests that examine the strength of female characters in film: the Mako Mori Test, in which at least one female character completes her own narrative arc, specifically one that does not rely on a male character. Though the point of view character is Raleigh, Mako's story is what drives Pacific Rim. Those two characters are joined by a set of incredibly detailed major and supporting characters, from the program's director, Stacker Pentacost, to its scientists, Hermann Gottlieb and Newt Geiszler, to its team of Jaeger pilots. Each has a story to uncover, pieced together through memory montages, room and costume designs, and dialogue, that becomes an integral part of the film's heart.
This attention to the people who make up del Toro's universes is evident in every film he creates. Pan's Labyrinth makes ample room for Mercedes and Pedro's story, despite the majority of it existing separately from Ofelia's arc. Crimson Peak makes sure that you not only fear its ghosts, but learn about and sympathize with them. No character exists without a reason.
On a grander scale, del Toro's universes themselves carry as much or more detail as de Toro's characters do. Backgrounds and props are carefully placed so that each one adds to the story. The entire opening sequence of Pacific Rim is filled with world building, as news clips flicker across the screen. If you put together the clues del Toro lays throughout the film, you begin to wonder about Mako and Chuck's childhood as you realize they both grew up together. You spot a glimpse of Hermann's memories and put together that he wanted to be a pilot. You find that Kaiju bones have been integrated into cityscapes and imagine the remains left throughout the world. These details give life to del Toro's world and make them feel real despite their absurdity. Every moment of his films bears weight and importance, are meant to invest your mind in the world del Toro so enthusiastically offers. His mind's eye is detailed enough to live in.
Films like these, ones that put imagination, heart, and depth into every aspect, whatever the concept may be, are successful. Del Toro does it even in stories that are not his own original ideas, like Hellboy and The Hobbit films, just as he will likely do with future projects like his take on Pinocchio. There are plenty of other directors and writers who can do this, too, even in original work, but very few who have been able to make it big in the box office. Hopefully, as he continues to create new imaginative spaces for his audiences, del Toro will inspire a few of the audience's own worlds, too.