Compensating for Size: The "Inadequate Response" of Giant Monster films
- It would be a film I could not watch with my children, and
- It would be a film my wife would have absolutely no interest in ever seeing.
It might be ridiculous to suggest that movie audiences might trade the grit and gore of zombies for the absurdity of giant monsters, WWE in rubber-suits, since SF films depicting large scale, spectacular destruction are largely read as B-movie garbage, and in many cases, deservedly so. In 1965, Susan Sontag’s “The Imagination of Disaster” pronounced such films “inadequate responses” to the “most profound dilemmas of the contemporary situation,” potentially normalizing the “psychologically unbearable” nightmares of natural disasters, nuclear holocaust, and we might add, carrying Sontag’s torch into the twenty-first century, pandemics, fuel shortages, and eco-disasters. Susan Napier built upon Sontag’s ideas in “Panic Sites: The Japanese Imagination of Disaster,” declaring the somber ending of Gojira a moment of secure horror. Secure horror meaning that, despite hinting at the potential of another atomic monster rising from the ocean depths, the film ends on a positive note: the threat neutralized, the monster defeated, security restored. To better understand the difference between secure and insecure horror, consider Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s introduction to Monster Theory, where he states that “Jurassic Park would have been a far superior piece of cinema if its computer-animated velociraptors had in fact ingested the kids they merely threaten,” suggesting that “these monsters arrive at a time when traditional nuclear families perhaps need to be troubled” (vii). That was in 1996, indicating that perhaps Sontag's message still held true.
Since then, giant monster movies such as Gamera 3: Awakening of Irys (1999), J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield (2008), Gareth Edwards’ independent film Monsters (2010), and the aforementioned and critically acclaimed Trollhunter all featured ambiguous endings. Gamera 3’s credits roll with its climactic, but ultimately doomed, battle yet to occur, while Cloverfield, Monsters, and Trollhunter kill off their main characters, leaving the monster(s) still at large. In addition to unresolved endings, these films all share a greater sophistication of special effects with the goal of a greater sense of verisimilitude. Abrams’ Cloverfield in particularly demonstrates what the Japanese have known since the release of Gojira/Godzilla in 1954: if you conflate your impossible beast with real-world images of modern day atrocity, a giant monster movie can be at the very least, if not necessarily horror, unsettling commentary on real-world atrocity.
Edwards has denied that there was any conscious effort on the film crew’s part to generate this reading of the film. Arguably, such a reading might be incidental, the latent byproduct of filming in Central America. Nevertheless, I find Edwards’ protests dubious in light of a scene where Calder and Sam gaze from atop Mayan ruins at a massive concrete containment wall separating the Infected Zone—Mexico—from the United States. When Sam first discovers the ruins, Calder asks, “What’d you find, Cortez?” Postcolonial readings loom as large as the containment wall or the Creatures it is built to keep out, a Containment Wall Edwards had to insert digitally, looked at from ruins that exist nowhere near the real Mexican American border. Monsters’ map is certainly not the territory. This reading is made all the stronger by the moment when Sam and Calder cross over from the Infected Zone into the United States: no one stops them. After all, they are Americans. They are not Creatures, illegal “aliens.” They are true residents.
CONTEST! Want to win 2 advance passes to see GODZILLA, Wednesday, May 14 at the Scotiabank Theatre Chinook in CALGARY? Then just enter a comment below with the name of your favorite giant monster movie, why you love it, and I will announce the winner (drawn out of a hat!) on Sunday, May 11! Then you can email me for the passes at mikeperschon AT shaw DOT com.