The Genius of Monster Movies
Recently, there’s been a monster movie boom. Starting with Guillermo DelToro’s magnificent Pacific Rim and its upcoming sequel, giant monster movies took off. The Legendary Pictures MonsterVerse is producing King Kong, Godzilla, and even a rehash of Destroy All Monsters. And Shin Godzilla arrived from Japan for some serious kaiju couture. It’s a great time to be going to the movies if you’re a fan of giant monster movies, but I realized that many people are unaware of the history and themes of the Toho style monster movies and the differences between the original films and their modern, US produced counterparts. People are missing out on great stories because, through no fault of their own, they don’t know where to look for the details.
Monster movies aren’t really about giant monsters
This is really the main point I’m hoping to make here, and it’s true for most monster-based horror films. These movies are never actually about the monsters. In human-sized monster movies, the zombies, or werewolves, or vampires are a stand in for a specific aspect of human fear. Zombies are death, Werewolves represent a fear of growing up and maturing, and vampires tap into all our collective fears about sex and intimacy. It’s why these archetypes are powerful, and why no matter how many times you kill them, they don’t really ever go away.
In giant monster movies, just like the monsters on the screen, the fears they represent are much larger. Starting all the way back in 1933 with the original release of King Kong giant monster movies have served a similar role. Merian C. Cooper’s original King Kong has tons of problems when viewed by a modern audience, but at it’s core, it’s a movie about a fear of loss of global status by white, European societies in the face of the flattening of the world courtesy of the industrial revolution. By Cooper’s own claims King Kong wasn’t meant to be a racist stand-in, but the movie really does play to the fears of whites over the loss of their dominant position in the world. The key thing is that King Kong is not actually portrayed as outright evil. King Kong is the hero of the movie, Kong saves the girl, protects her, and ultimately sacrifices himself to save her.
Similarly, the original 1954 Godzilla isn’t really about Godzilla destroying Tokyo, though that’s what happens. Godzilla represents a nuclear armed United States. Made in the wake of World War II, Godzilla is a stand in for the terrible power of nuclear weapons, a theme that resonated tragically in post-war Japan, and the movie is fairly explicit about the origin of Godzilla as well. The great lizard is awoken by nuclear tests being performed by the United States in the Pacific.
Ultimately Godzilla is killed using a new kind of superweapon with the doctor who creates expressing the same kind of remorse Oppenheimer showed after initial successful nuclear weapons tests in the American Southwest. The doctor also recognizes that there must be other monster out there and continued nuclear proliferation will only wake more of them, continuing a cycle of destruction.
As the Godzilla phenomenon took the world by storm, Japanese production company Toho produced an entire franchise of films in what was probably the progenitor of the modern shared cinematic universe. In many of these films Godzilla was joined by other giant monsters as stand-ins for the global political climate.
Mothra is often seen as a representative of Japan itself. Though lacking offensive weapons like most Kaiju, Mothra repeatedly calms the rage of Godzilla/The U.S.A.
Rodan is considered a stand-in for nuclear Russia. As a Pteranodon, Rodan resembles the Russian Eagle featured on Russia’s coat of arms. While starting out as a star of his own films, as the Cold War intensified in the mid-1960s, Rodan became an enemy of Godzilla on the screen.
Mechagodzilla is an interesting enemy of Godzilla that doesn’t get too much thoughtful attention. While he looks like a silly robot doppleganger of Godzilla, my personal theory is that Mechagodzilla represents the fear of space exploration. Mechagodzilla first appeared on screen in 1974, around the same time the SpaceLab and Soyuz missions were establishing a persistent human presence in space. This is also around the time that Carl Sagan and other leading cosmologists were starting to talk about our place in the universe. Being made of “Space Titanium” Mechagodzilla is in my mind, an obvious stand-in for humanities fear of the unknown beyond our skies.
While Ghidorah may not officially represent a nuclear armed China, his premier in 1964’s Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster coincides with China’s entry into the global nuclear weapons club. Director Ishiro Honda denied the link, but as China has grown in power, Ghidorah has become a consistent stand-in within the Toho-verse.
American giant monster movies of the 1950s also used monsters as stand-ins for nuclear-based fear and featured radioactive spiders, ants, and humans terrorizing frightened people with the danger of unchecked nuclear power in movies like THEM! and Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (also addressing patriarchal fears of the women’s liberation movement in a nice two for one package).
During this time, traditional, human-sized monster movies were still being made around the world to express the direct fears of regular people, but the thing the giant monster movies had in common was that they were an outlet for larger problems and tensions like the threat of nuclear war and fears arising from fully understanding our potentially lonely place in the galaxy.
That was until blockbuster culture took America by storm.
The “Problem” with American Cinema
America produces some great movies. And there’s nothing wrong with blockbusters, popcorn movies, whatever you want to call them. The issue is that these movies take big ideas and transpose them onto comparatively small human experiences. From Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Guardians of the Galaxy using huge universe spanning events to tell a story about a family or the relationship between a child and a parent has been the bread and butter of big Hollywood films for the last four decades. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Compare the 1976 King Kong film starring Jessica Lange and Jeff Bridges to any of the giant monster films of the past. By making the movie about the human characters and not about Kong, the message they’re trying to tell (in this case a pro-environmentalist one), doesn’t work because the humans are ultimately the enemies in this setup. Kong is the real environmentalist, tending and protecting his island. at the end of the first act, the movie becomes a weird fish out of water film and they end up killing the hero with no resolution to the original theme of the movie. This is one of the first instances of American filmmakers missing this critical point, but it wasn’t the last.
The failed Godzilla movie of 1998 starring Matthew Broderick (and seemingly ending his career as a movie star) is probably the peak of this trend. It treats Godzilla like a bigger T-Rex from Jurassic Park and foregoes all potential symbolism.
The American Godzilla movies in general fail to articulate the larger reason for Godzilla to exist and instead treat him more like a human sized monster that addresses individual fears. For example, Gareth Edward’s Godzilla focuses heavily on a man wanting to see his family again. That’s fine, but in the context of world-devastating monsters there isn’t a solid overarching theme to the Kaiju presence beyond being an instigator for the various family drama plot lines.
Conversely, the inclusion of the M.U.T.O. monsters has the potential to restructure the meaning of the film, and provide a direct tie-in the updated MonsterVerse. The M.U.T.O.s presence turns Godzilla from a rampaging beast into a hero, something that hasn’t happened in US versions of the movies before. It also reinforces the traditional anti-nuclear themes. That said, the movie misses an opportunity to really be about how we deal with nuclear waste and arsenals over an opportunity to smash the decidedly non-nuclear, if picturesque, city of San Francisco.
A Return to Form?
Cloverfield and Gareth Edward’s previous movie Monsters are both examples of how the American movie form can co-exist to varying degrees with the traditional monster-as-metaphor approach. While I would hesitate to categorize either of these as strict monster movies because they both use the monster as a backdrop to contextualize the world, I do believe they allow the monsters to be a more pure stand-in for a general overarching fear. In Cloverfield the monster is closely linked to corporate-led genetic modification and climate change. In Monsters the aliens are a literal stand in for fears of immigration and the threat of others. In both cases, the monster is not something to be stopped. It is a force beyond man and serves as a backdrop for the action on the screen, even if it is never clearly articulated. With Skull Island we are treated to the logical evolution of these first, flawed steps.
Kong is solidly the hero of Skull Island. He is the one we feel for as Sam Jackson’s rampaging madman makes his way across the island. His plight against encroaching western influence as the ruler of an untamed natural world is at the heart of the film. Additionally, the human stories in Skull Island are nearly all in service to either Kong or the wider Monsterverse. You have John C. Riley’s character who has come to terms with his adversary as a parable for US Japan relations in a post nuclear world (remember Mothra and Godzilla). The remaining characters are fighting to save Kong, kill Kong, or are directly tied to the larger Monarch initiative that links the Monsterverse movies together. This is a major shift for the films, and I believe it’s at the root of people not embracing Skull Island.
Edward’s Godzilla was about family, not a theme that needs a giant monster for the story to be told. But as with Monsters (and even Rogue One) Gareth Edwards excels at telling personal human stories in the face of gigantic events. These stories resonate with the American moviegoer. They reinforce personal ideas of humanity and don’t present any unsolvable challenges. If, like me, you believe one role of art and cinema is to ask big questions with uncomfortable answers the Americanized monster movies might leave you wanting more.
Skull Island was the first American Monster movie in a long time to really get at the heart of a larger global view of problems. Shin Godzilla, which has only received mixed reviews on this side of the Pacific, gets this. The true monster in Shin Godzilla, the unstoppable juggernaut that tramples wide swaths of Tokyo is bureaucracy. That’s right, Godzilla represents a manifestation of the crushing weight of bureaucracy rampant in business and government. Near the end of the movie you can even see that at the end of his tale he is made up of thousands of writhing human figures, fighting against each other in futility. Godzilla even spends huge chunks of the movie just standing still, as though he’s waiting for the proper form to clear the right approval desk in triplicate. The response to the threat is equally bureaucratic and I know that is something that frustrated a lot of viewers. It’s hard to go to a Godzilla movie and be satisfied with a government process procedural if you’re not looking for the larger message.
While neither of these films are perfect, they serve as a great indicator of where the genre can go from here if we’re willing to let Monster Movies be about monstrous challenges. There are plenty of big problems in the world that resonate on a deep level and many monsters we as humans need to face.
Note: I didn’t mention the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. As a straight remake of the 1933 movie it definitely focuses on Kong as metaphor, but also fails to update the message to resonate with modern audiences (and it was probably about an hour too long).
Another Note: I didn’t really get into Pacific Rim because Giant Robot Movies are a totally different genre than Giant monster movies from an intent and symbolism perspective. They do exist as a response to Giant Monster movies but serve a totally different purpose.
A Final Note: I do want to make clear that I really like Gareth Edward’s Godzilla. It’s just different and very American, and ultimately it works. It’s just not really contextually the same as the rest of the genre.