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by Jay Seaver

"An impressive start for Guillermo del Toro."
4 stars

Twenty years ago, there odds that "Cronos" would become known as "Guillermo del Toro's first feature" were probably not as good as those of it becoming "an interesting curiosity out of Mexico for fans of unusual fantasy and horror". There's probably no small amount of luck involved in it bucking those odds - everyone needs a couple of good breaks - but it's also a good enough piece of work that the filmmaker building a pretty great career afterward is no surprise.

It is an odd little movie, though, starting with a tale of an alchemist who came to Veracruz in 1537 with the idea for a machine that could grant eternal life. This "Cronos Device" worked - it would be four hundred years before he died of something other than old age. The device itself disappeared for another half-century before surfacing in the shop of Jesus Gris (Federico Luppi), who spends more time playing with granddaughter Aurora (Tamara Shanath) than selling antiques. Word gets to industrial magnate De la Guardia (Claudio Brook), who has been searching for it all that time, though he is ill enough that nephew Angel (Ron Perlman) must do all the legwork.

Looking back twenty years later, one can't help but notice that many of del Toro's trademarks are already in evidence - surface elements like his fondness for insects and elaborate machines, sure, but also his tendency to use prologues to establish a grand history for his fantastic creations. And, yeah, he was casting Ron Perlman right from the start. Kids have always been an important part of his stories, although Aurora is only the first to not be particularly shielded from the horrors conjured up - and from the way she lives with her grandparents rather than her late parents and rarely speaks, what the Cronos device brings is not her first encounter with darkness.

Despite this, though, there's still something unsullied about her innocence, and it's the way del Toro uses youth as something chased after that allows Cronos to resonate a bit more than many other movies (whether from the mid-1990s or other time periods) remembered for their eccentric visuals or dark fantasy worlds: The whole movie is about how trying to reclaim youth is not just a waste of time but actively harmful, an endless task that harms others and doesn't seem to bring the physically reinvigorated Jesus anything close to the quiet moment of joy that we see of him in a quick sequence where he and Aurora are playing hopscotch on squares they've drawn on the antique shop's floor. It's not a terribly complicate theme, but it's one that del Toro never loses sight of even if he never has his characters speak it directly.

They do tell us enough, though. Federico Luppi is excellent as Jesus Gris; he lets the audience get to know the character quickly without a lot of words; just the way he moves and looks at his granddaughter says volumes. As the character transforms over the course of the movie, we can see his good nature at war with a sort of addiction that kneecaps his nobility. Claudio Brook's de la Guardia has a brutish selfishness to him, and Brook gives him the feeling of a man whose obsession is the most important thing in his life but hasn't become boring in his monomania. Ron Perlman is a fine scene-stealer here, playing Angel with the amorality necessary in a good henchman but an odd sort of outgoing nature that can set a scene off kilter.

There's two prongs to what has made Guillermo del Toro a noteworthy filmmaker, and they're both visible his first time out: There's the imagination, and while it's not always stretched here - falling back on even a non-traditional form of vampirism is a bit of a disappointment - it is both bold and detailed, and he knows how to get both extremes on-screen strikingly at the right moment. He's also a fine storyteller, knowing when to focus on his fantastical concepts and when to shrink it down to Aurora and/or Jesus, never seeming to waste time on what the audience doesn't need.

That makes "Cronos" a strong debut, even if it is in some ways del Toro's later success that would cause people to think of it as such. And that's fine; "Cronos" was likely never going to be forgotten, but it's much better to see it as a sign of things to come as opposed to something where you wonder why more didn't become of it.

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originally posted: 11/06/13 14:54:46
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User Comments

11/07/13 Louis Blyskal Great Movie 3 stars
2/03/05 axe haunting allegory on anti-aging + a touch of a gothic vamp fetish 4 stars
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  30-Mar-1994 (R)
  DVD: 07-Dec-2010

  16-Sep-1994 (15)

  05-May-1995 (M)

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