Tick, tick, tick. The forward quivering second hand on a watch constantly nudging, nudging, nudging at time, at fate, at life. Certainty becomes a false concept as the seconds pass in Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos, a fairytale centered on the force that nudges the clockwork along, both literally and figuratively. Written and directed by del Toro in 1993, Cronos has just been restored by Criterion, and re-released in the form of a new directors cut. This is where del Toro’s career began, and having not seen it prior to its re-release, I came to it anticipating the uniquely del Toro-esque blending of folklore and horror that I’ve come to expect from his films. I was not off-track with my expectations. Cronos plays like a fanciful parable worked to its most twisted dimensions. Time is the films antagonist; an evil force that pits mans faith against his wanton desire for immortality.
Jesus Gris (obvious allegory) is an antiques dealer and grandfather who bides his time tending to his shop and caring for his young granddaughter Aurora. Jesus is no young man, yet he seems content with his quiet life. When he uncovers a strange golden artifact within the base of a crumbling angel statue, Gris is immediately curious and taken by the object. Curiosity of the unknown is one of mans greatest triumphs and downfalls, as history has shown that stroking the unknown can lead to mixed results. In the case of Gris and the artifact that result falls more to the dark side of discovery. The artifact is the Cronos device, a scarab looking medallion created by an alchemist in the 1500’s as a Holy Grail of sorts. Inside the device is an intricate frame of clockwork cogs and gears, controlled at its center by a small and frightening beetle. The device unlocks a long pointed stinger, which injects itself into the body of its finder, thus filling them with the power of immortality. Gris is stalked by Angel de la Guardia (Ron Perlman), the nephew of a wealthy and dying businessman who desperately seeks the device for his own salvation. Gris falls deep into a strange reliance on the device, and the conflict between him and Angel takes the expected turns. But remember, time is the antagonist here, and Gris has plenty of it.
Immortality is a toy, which del Toro plays with carefully. The will of everlasting life plagues old and sick men like a heroin needle plugging the arm of a junkie. In fact, the action of the Cronos device itself almost resembles a heroin needle. The push of life, an addiction that erases all sense and reason. But every addiction comes with its consequences, and immortal dosing is no different. Gris becomes violently obsessed with the Cronos device, going so far as to inject it directly into his heart. The image of the mechanical device clasped into his chest reeks of human reliance on artificiality to retain happiness. This metal heart has now driven Gris to the point of desperation. As his young granddaughter watches her beloved grandfathers fall into addiction, the ramifications of the device begin to take hold. A blood lust takes over, an almost vampire like consequence of the newfound vitality. In his fight between the lust, addiction, and stalking Angel (the character), Gris eventually witnesses the threshold between life and death. The problem is, Gris is a mere witness, unable to cross to either side, stuck in a new limbo between life and death.
It’s here where del Toro’s craft really shines. The dark moments of Gris waking on the table of a mortuary surgeon who is in the process of embalming his decaying body. The young girl witnessing horror through the unblinking love she has for her grandfather. Innocence layered in stark gore and hopelessness. Del Toro is a master of this kind of fairytale play. The bug living inside the device is like a small God, the ticking, devouring God of time. There are shots of roaches erupting from within the statue the Cronos device was found. The roach, the undying insect, a protector of their bug God; Time.
In Cronos, conflicts string together a nice narrative, but the real force remains throughout; Time. In the end, is it the villain time that wins, or is it Gris himself? The limbo of immortality and decay is the stopping of time for one, who is now doomed to watch that ticking, nudging change around him, forever. Del Toro’s handling of immortality is so dark and foreboding that it puts to question the notion of forever. As Gris wears the device on his heart, the ticking clockwork takes over the beating of his heart. Thump, thump, tick, tick. The Greek Titan, and namesake for the film, Cronos is known for devouring his young to stop the inevitable end to his reign. The Cronos device, like the God, fails to stop that which has already been set into motion. The machine does not die. Thump, thump. Tick tock.