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'Pacific Rim': Guillermo del Toro's strange box-office journey

In just a few hours we’ll begin to know the fate of “Pacific Rim,” Guillermo del Toro's Asian-influenced monster movie that opens this weekend and is the Mexican-born director’s biggest undertaking to date.

There have been few movies to go on such a ride before it ever played a frame. (It’s a hit! It’s a flop! It will exceed expectations! Wait, will it?) But it’s the director's own path that is most strange.

Del Toro has been a fanboy favorite for years, going back to his cult hit “Cronos” nearly two decades ago. What’s remarkable in all this time is that some of his best work is also his least-seen, and some of his most widely seen is not his best.

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If you’re a Del Toro fan, you know what we mean, though you'd likely also debate the particulars. His two least-popular movies at the U.S. box office, “The Devil’s Backbone” and “Cronos,” are perhaps two of his most beloved films. Certainly in terms of pure genre cinema, it would be hard to argue with the genius of either. Yet neither cracked a million dollars at the box office. (It doesn't help, of course, that they're both in Spanish.)

Meanwhile, his highest-grossing film, “Blade 2” ($82 million domestically), is probably his weakest.

For my money — and I know “Hellboy” fans will disagree — “Pan’s Labyrinth” is his best film, even though it’s only his fourth-most successful at the box office.

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This kind of directorial trajectory — their best films make the least amount of money — is not uncommon for cult filmmakers, who do work for hire to pay the bills on the ones they really want to make. But it’s rare for directors of big-budget studio pictures of the kind Del Toro has lately been involved with. Directors of this kind work their way up to that gig, more or less, by making more accomplished films that also make more money. Think Christopher Nolan, whose biggest box office take is from “The Dark Knight,” also probably his best film, and whose least-seen movie, “Following,” while not without its virtues, is far from his best.

Del Toro is an anomaly. He’s a cult director who’s made it big, and that makes for some odd wrinkles.

Which brings us back to “Pacific Rim.” No matter how it does this weekend, the movie will clearly be his biggest grosser, outpacing the “Blade 2” totals, thanks to its summer-movie production budget, marketing muscle and theatrical exposure. But will it be his most beloved? Early trailers had some people wondering if he’d gone too “Transformers,” while others, such as my colleague Kenneth Turan, said that Del Toro had impressively carved his sensibility into Big Hollywood's oft-uncarveable oak. As the reactions come in and the dust settles, we’ll know whether he's continued to be oddball GDT, with his own odd relationship between money and quality, or has made a Nolan-like leap.

ALSO:

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'Pacific Rim' delivers monster-mashing fun, critics say

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