Written by Michael Callari
On the surface, a giant monster isn’t terribly hard to figure out. It sinks ships, swats planes, tramples cities and armies, and until the last reel is generally unstoppable. Yet throughout the history of the genre, even as the tone and quality of the movies vary wildly, certain commonalities emerge which are impossible to ignore. When these creatures rampage, the blame often lies with the hubris of capitalism, science, or both. (The moralizing is seldom done in the vein of Frankenstein. Most giant monsters are created or discovered unintentionally.) Though the genre often struggles to break free of repetitive narratives and archetypes, a clear progression can be seen in the roles these two distinctly human forces play in giant monster movies over time.
In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Lost World, the protagonists return to London with a live Pterodactylus as proof of their adventure. Of course, the reptile escapes, but flies back home in short order. When The Lost World was made into a 1925 silent film, this finale was punched up a bit by having the expedition bring back a fully-grown Apatosaurus, who causes mass panic and no small amount of property damage before falling off the Tower Bridge and again heading towards home. Here there is no profit motive – that element would be saved for the next monster movie to be animated by Willis O’Brien, King Kong (1933). This time, the expedition into a far-off realm stuck in the past is intended to make a movie (an “adventure documentary” not unlike the ones Kong directors Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper actually made). Between the dinosaurs and the giant gorilla named Kong that the natives attempt to appease by kidnapping star Ann Darrow, Skull Island proves too hazardous a filming location, and director Carl Denham settles for capturing the gorilla in question. (The two subsequent remakes each made Denham a more unscrupulous character; here he just comes off as naïve.) Kong is chained up on a stage in New York (the city most closely associated with the Great Depression) and gawked at by the upper-class attendees, “a show to gratify [their] curiosity.” When he perceives the flashbulbs of photographers as a threat to Ann, he finds the strength to break loose, tearing through the city as he attempts to relocate her. Civilization, of course, cannot accommodate such a primal threat to its order. Capturing Ann and climbing to the top of New York’s tallest building, the Empire State, Kong is ultimately felled by airplanes.
Almost three decades later, the basic idea of King Kong would be revisited and revised by Britain’s Gorgo and Japan’s Mothra (both 1961). In both, characters stumble upon fantastic beings in remote locations (a sea-faring reptile in Gorgo; twin doll-sized women called the Shobijin in Mothra) and put them on exhibition. The danger, however, comes not from the beings escaping, but from the vastly more dangerous monsters that come to retrieve them. The creature marketed by Piccadilly Circus as Gorgo might be an imposing sight, but it’s just an infant – the mother is 200 feet tall! The Shobijin, on the other hand, turn out to be the priestesses of a monster-god named Mothra who will stop at nothing to rescue them.
By now, Godzilla, first appearing in 1954, and his successors had firmly established the idea of a monster capable of shrugging off modern weapons, but Mothra and Gorgo took it one step further. Rather than face the extermination by humanity that, The Lost World notwithstanding, was a staple of the genre, Gorgo’s mother Ogra and Mothra soldier past all attempts to stop them. Once they have recovered their child/priestesses, they peacefully return home. This was a game-changer – once their survival became acceptable, giant monsters, already earning audience sympathy by way of their tragic circumstances, were free to occupy more varied moral ground, both in relation to humanity and each other. They could even be heroes – more importantly, they could be characters. Human greed, however, would remain a menace, especially when it intersected with environmental concerns. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), made at the height of Japan’s pollution crisis, featured an alien villain who literally fed off of industrial waste. In Gamera, Guardian of the Universe (1995) and Pacific Rim (2013), rising global temperatures create the proper conditions for monsters to extend across the Earth again.
The role of science-as-menace in giant monster movies (most notably, nuclear science), as with capitalism, did not happen immediately. In The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the titular Beast is indeed awakened by nuclear testing in the Arctic, but it is also cleanly defeated by way of a radioactive isotope. Godzilla (1954) is more conscious of the dangers of the atomic age and the arms race it launched. Atomic testing forced him out of his habitat while imbuing him with his iconic atomic breath, and now he is inevitably brought into conflict with humanity. Defeating him, however, is a more complicated affair. Dr. Serizawa, whose private research led to the creation of an Oxygen Destroyer, holds the solution, but he is reluctant to use it, knowing that revealing his invention to the world will add an even more terrifying component to the arms race. Ultimately, he rescinds after seeing the devastation Godzilla has caused, but burns his notes before allowing the Oxygen Destroyer to disintegrate both himself and the monster at the bottom of Tokyo Bay. The movie ends with Dr. Yamane, the paleontologist who discovered Godzilla, warning that if nuclear testing continues, another Godzilla might arise to menace the world.
Subsequent Godzilla movies, and Japanese monster movies in general, did not confront the nuclear issue as directly, but it came to the forefront again in The Return of Godzilla (1984), a semi-reboot that ignored all entries in the series after the first one. Here, Godzilla’s first appearance since 1954 is covered up by the Japanese government; as a result, his attack on a Soviet nuclear submarine nearly sets off World War III. Later in the movie, Godzilla attacks and drains the energy from a nuclear power plant, and the Soviets accidentally launch a nuclear missile at him as he comes ashore in Tokyo. Now, another thirty years later, Legendary Picture’s Godzilla presents a return to radioactive form. With the threat of all-out nuclear war having receded since the end of the Cold War, this rendition acts as a critique of our use of nuclear power in general, from weapons to power plants to storage.
Still, the prominence of humanity’s hubris in giant monster movies waxes and wanes. The threat they represent, however – impervious to basic laws of physics and most conceivable forms of harm, incredibly violent, many times larger than any other living thing – remains fairly consistent. Recent giant monster movies, with Cloverfield (2008) and the new Godzilla prominent among them, have emphasized the helplessness of the average citizen in the face of such beings. In an increasingly complex world where high-frequency trading alters global financial markets by the millisecond, corporations are people, and fiction spreads as easily as fact, it’s easy to feel powerless to affect or even comprehend the world around you. Giant monsters take that fear and give it concrete forms – forms which in turn harken back to more basic fears, of the animals lurking outside our caves and below our trees.