There Goes Tokyo

One of the subsets of science fiction – the monster movie – is an example of the genre’s frequent crossover with horror. There are two kinds of monster movie – the classic monster movie based in legend, such as vampires, werewolves and other magical beings – while the second kind is the technological monster, where some horrifying creature is created by science gone wrong, such as in Frankenstein, Godzilla, The Fly or Jurassic Park, four of the defining films of the type. The Fly was a low budget film, but with a relatively well known cast; Herbert Marshall was a long time leading man and comic actor, and Vincent Price was a rising star. It was extremely successful relative to budget and well reviewed, especially for a horror, science fiction or monster movie. It was so successful in fact that it spawned two sequels — The Return of the Fly (1959) and The Curse of the Fly (1965). The director – Kurt Neumann – was a prolific director of terrible films, including the one normally regarded as the first space travel film – Rocketship X-M (1950). While it was well thought of at the time, it’s really bad, even with the presence of Kirk Douglas as the star. Neumann, sadly, never lived to see the success of his best film; he passed away a few weeks before the premiere.

 

What unites the various monster movies of the 1950s (and 1960s for that matter), is that whatever form the monster takes, the culprit is always atomic energy and nuclear bombs. You might be able to see how the fear of atomic weapons had subsided by the late 1950s but the anxiety over the scientists themselves, and nuclear energy remained. People didn’t know much about nuclear energy, but there was less of a concern with a nuclear attack in the late 1950s and more worry over nuclear energy in general. By the end of the decade, nuclear technologies were being explored in terms of peaceful and practical applications, which kept them in the public discourse, but didn’t do much to reassure people. What the monster movie does is suggest that the real danger lies with the scientists and that it would be harmful to individuals rather than society. Something that this demonstrates that’s fairly interesting is how much people get their information about science from movies. Of course, the science is almost always laughable. But think about this: how much of what we know about things like cloning, genetic engineering and biotech is from films like Blade Runner, Gattaca and Jurassic Park? We laugh at people from the 1950s and their radioactive monsters, but is there much difference between the radioactive monster and the cloned ones of Jurassic World?  Since we’re no longer worried about nuclear weapons for some reason, and computers are such a mundane part of our day to day existence, it’s genetic engineering that is the big scientific fear, and in recent years that has manifested itself as fears of terrorism, and as we see in lots of science fiction films, pandemics and epidemics, such as in 28 Days Later or 12 Monkeys.

Regardless, by the late 1950s people were concerned about the possibility that nuclear radiation would cause genetic mutations, including ones that would create sterility. Mutations from atomic radiation appear to be outside of the rationale slow March of evolution – instead they are horrifying results of our experimenting with the forces of nature and God that we should not have messed with, but did so in our arrogance. You can’t control radiation, much as mutation implies out of control transformation. Don’t forgot, it was in the mid-1950s that Watson and Crick discovered DNA and changed the way that people thought about the physical body – in the popular imagination, Watson and Crick had unlocked the secrets of the body, much as the scientists at Los Alamos were able to uncover the secrets of the atom. In both cases, scientists had ‘cracked the code’. Which means that they had acquired knowledge previously known only to God.

Unlike the hard science of the astronaut films, in monster movies, well, it’s all symbolism, metaphor and conjecture rather than real science. One can see this in the sequences where Andre teleports random objects to see what works and what doesn’t (sorry about that Bandalo, the house cat). The computers, the light set, the teleportation pods, are all spectacle and show and no actual science. This allows the true meanings of the monster movie to be more easily seen – the are about the potential dangers of science, scientists and what the community regards as undesirable, threatening.  In general, science seems more convincing in recent films, but it’s not. It’s just as misleading and silly frankly. You can dress modern movies like Jurassic World and The Day After Tomorrow up with all kinds of science and ethical questions, which such films often do, but ultimately it’s not all that much difference from Godzilla.

Ultimately, the monster movie is tied to the original science fiction story itself – Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The difference in this film, and what people remember about The Fly, is that the scientist accidentally turns themselves into the monster. In Shelley’s story, Frankenstein tries to revive a dead man and succeeds, with tragic results of course. It’s not well remembered but Viktor Frankenstein is really motivated by greed though he denies it, just like Hammond. Frankenstein realizes that he was wrong because the monster begins to kill his family and friends. Shelly’s story is important because it was the first novel to ask ethical and moral questions about science, ones that nobody really listened to even as they enjoyed the story. The film is also a reference explicitly to the Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells – which has been adapted a few times including the famous horror classic The Island of Lost Souls (1932) [Interesting trivia: the film is the source of the quote: The natives are restless]. In that novel, which Wells wrote before The War of the Worlds, is about a doctor trying to create animal-human hybrids. Science gone wrong is certainly a long running and prominent theme of Science Fiction, of which Jurassic Park is the most profitable example. What unites the scientist in each film, and this is the legacy established by Shelley as she asked questions about the ethics of science, is that the scientist plays God, or believes themselves to be God-like.

Godzilla is an interesting take on this notion of the ethics of science, since that is the whole narrative around Serazawa’s super weapon, the Oxygen Destroyer. When is it ethical to use such a fearsome destructive device?  In that sense, it parallels discussions of nuclear weapons and technology. That it comes from a Japanese scientist who has been physically and emotionally scarred due to his (intentional quite vague) actions during the Pacific War adds an additional layer of meaning to the question of the scientist. He’s also contrasted to Yamane, who is heroic because his science is a traditional one, has little to do with technology and is invested in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. And yet, he is also depicted by the film as being dangerously naive about the threat posed by the monster.

The plot of a science fiction monster movie always works to ensure that scientists must be punished for their hubris – but what does that mean actually?  It’s a recurring theme of science fiction is that there are limits to science but that scientists don’t get that idea at all.  The central theme is nothing new to us as science fiction experts. It’s the dangers of technology and the question of ethics in scientists, Part of the public perception of scientists after the war, was that they didn’t care about the implications of what they are doing when it came to atomic energy. Its an old myth – man should not play God. Man should not create life – that’s really what meddling in God’s domain means – even if it is a quote from Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster.  To mess around with nature is to play God, but also to attempt to deny that people are animals, governed by the rules of nature. It is to take creativity one step too far. We cannot limit what we create. We cannot contain it. That goes for technology and its unintended side effects, but also goes for meaning in a film. It always exceeds our ability to limit it, which is the case with fantasy films especially. There is always more to the story than the creators intended. And the movie illustrates our inability to control nature, especially at the atomic level – we can create things, but we cannot control them, such is the nature, the essence of humanity on some level.

The best discussion of the figure of the monster, and the monster movie, is Robin Wood’s influential article “An Introduction to the American Horror Film”, which is essential to the study of horror. He outlines exactly what a monster is – the monster, is ‘the return of the repressed’. What he means by that is: the monster is a symbol of that which society represses and can’t deal with. What is repressed is our own sense that we are a part of nature no matter what our civilization and modern world seems to indicate. But whatever we have repressed doesn’t go away – it just comes back in symbolic form. Then it has to be killed in order to keep society from being overwhelmed by that which it refuses to deal with or acknowledge.

The typical science fiction Frankenstein story is about our relationship to nature and our attempts to tame it through science. That’s why it’s fitting that Andre in the original version of The Fly is merged with something as mundane and seemingly inconsequential as an insect. We have not conquered nature, because it cannot be conquered. It just is. Jurassic Park – the epitome of the modern monster movies – is a fantastic reflection of this. The dinosaurs must have thought they were so tough but the asteroid had other ideas. What is repressed that returns, perhaps, is that we are incapable of changing nature – whether plant, animals, mammals or human – no matter how much we try. We can bring dinosaurs back, but they will eat us. What’s truly horrifying is our incapability, to change, to make things better, to adapt, to survive, and the thing that is going to improve things, that has improved things — technology — whether computer or genetic, entertainment or real, that thing, it isn’t going to help. Rather, it is going to kill us all.

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9 Comments so far

  1.   Joao Marques on January 15th, 2018

    it’s funny how the monster is more innocent than the people, even though on a surface level the monster is the bad guy and humans the good guys.

  2.   Ben Cambridge on January 16th, 2018

    The monster definitely seemed more innocent than the people, in fact, some of them even sympathized with Godzilla and begged for the others to see the good in sparing its life. Honestly I thought the movie was kind of confusing at times, and most of the parts that were supposed to be horrifying were actually pretty funny considering how Godzilla looked.

  3.   Anna Douramanis on January 17th, 2018

    “The monster is a symbol of that which society represses and can’t deal with” This sentence perfectly describes what Godzilla is. When this movie was released, Japan was still suffering from the effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which is what Godzilla symbolizes. He can be seen as not only the atomic bombs creating destruction to civilization, but also civilization itself.

  4.   Shira Rosner on January 17th, 2018

    Does that make man the monster then if his actions and his creations are what causes destruction? If the monster symbolizes repressed realities of man’s place in the natural world, then the monster symbolizes delusion. How can man be arrogant enough to try and battle with nature or to assume that they can conquer nature? While scientists can be ambitious, sometimes obnoxious in their capabilities with disastrous results, there is medical science today that has changed the way of nature for good. There are illnesses that used to kill people and today there are vaccines and other preventative measures against them. There are women who were unable to conceive or have a child in any way and now there are several ways to have a baby. It can’t be denied that this science is amazing, even if it might go against nature. Perhaps the downfall of these advancements is that there is overpopulation and there might not be enough resources for everyone but I’d like to look at it in a more positive light.
    It seems like it’s a slippery slope on how to keep things the way they are and to see if things can be altered and changed for the better. In this day and age, man has done a lot of damage to our planet and we’ve seen the planet’s response to that damage. Hopefully, it doesn’t take another monster movie to wake us up from our denial of the negative impact we have on the planet and we finally take action to fix things.

  5.   Stephanie Espinoza on January 18th, 2018

    I have to agree with Joao and Ben on how Godzilla is somehow the essence of what makes us human versus the actual humans in the film. Now I watched Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla (1994) and while it was confusing and a bit trippy, because of the fairies and talking moth?… this movie makes Godzilla more human like in the way that (s)he is good and protects the humans who at first try to kill it. I say she because there is a baby Godzilla, so I think that Godzilla is the mother in the way that it was protecting the child when SpaceGodzilla tried to hurt the child. Once again, military and scientists join forces to kill it but soon find that Godzilla is their savior, not their enemy. The fighting scenes between the two monsters reminded me of the battle scenes from Power Rangers the show, because it looked so fake and it had the same backdrop. Must be because these were both originally derived from Japan? This film also links nature, Earth, evolution, romance. some comedy and family values. And in the end I like how the characters are on the beach, not watching the sunset, but instead watching Godzilla go back to the ocean, its home. Which shows this scene as peaceful and a happy ending, with hope for humanity.

  6.   Antonio Alarcon on January 18th, 2018

    I echo some of the comments before, in here Godzilla it seems to be the monster when in reality the monster in here is the human race, we are the ones invading her territory and trying to kill her/him for “the safety of our society”. It’s funny how governments usually use the word safety to keep oppressing members of the minorities, in this case, it was applied to Godzilla.

  7.   Andrea Reyes on January 20th, 2018

    I think monster science fiction movies are some of the most interesting films to watch. The monster, whichever one it may be, is the spectacle itself, and as technology has advanced the spectacle just gets greater and greater. I think monster movies are also more realistic because with all the advancements in science and technology and humans experimenting with things they’re not always supposed to be experimenting with, it could lead to big problems. There’s already so many types of animals that we don’t know about or don’t understand that one day they could just show up and we’ll call it a monster. I agree with everyone else that the monster is more innocent than the humans. The monster is kind of like a big child because it’s confused and doesn’t know what to do or what it is and humans first thought is to attack and when the “monster” is attacked it has no other choice but to attack back. All problems can essentially be led back to humans. Humans create a lot of the problems that they one day have to face.

  8.   Kawser on January 22nd, 2018

    Gozilla, when i was a little kid i used to watch the cartoon series of Godzilla. I think it’s in the human nature to be afraid when we see a monster. it’s also in our nature we want to kill the big monsters because they’re vey big and scary .Although Godzilla is the good guy but humans doesnt know it. Godzilla also reminds me of the movie Pacific rim, but in pacific rim the monsters are actually bad ones.

  9.   Jonathan Reed on January 26th, 2018

    People get confused with Godzilla. Yes, I know for sure if I seen a monster running through the streets I would be scared for my life. But in this case Godzilla is a protector for the people. At first seen as a threat to the world, overtime Godzilla is seen as a protector like how it should be.

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