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April 30th, 2014 AP KRYZA | Movie Reviews & Stories
 

AP Film Studies: Lizard Brains

The original Godzilla and the death of socially conscious monsters.

movies_godzilla_4026COME ON, RIDE THE TRAIN: The King of the Monsters. - Image courtesy of Toho Film Co.
Back in the day, our city-crushing, radiation-breathing monsters had a hell of a lot more to say. Somewhere along the way, though, they got too big for their soapboxes. Or just smashed them. 

ILLUSTRATION: Hawk Krall
May marks the return of Godzilla. The new movie, out May 16, looks big, loud and admittedly awesome. But it’s also got some huge shoes to fill. Six decades after the original Godzilla (screening Friday through Monday at the Hollywood Theatre), it’s easy to look simply at what Ishiro Honda’s film spawned: more than 30 films (including a terrible Matthew Broderick movie), video games, kids’ cartoons and more knockoffs than Gucci. But in its time, this rubber-suited granddaddy was more than that: The King of the Monsters was a walking, marauding manifestation of the fear of nuclear annihilation.

As any nerd whose vocabulary includes the word “kaiju” knows, Godzilla’s conception by American nuclear fire in the Pacific is no coincidence. Nine years before the beast’s inception, the U.S. had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nuclear testing ran rampant in the Pacific, and radiation poisoning of humans and fish dominated headlines. But nobody knew the potential long-term effects.

For Honda, the nuclear contamination produced a gigantic, pissed-off lizard that rose from the ocean to destroy humanity. A nightmarish creature whose very existence stemmed from the hubris of scientists, Godzilla became the righteous embodiment of nature’s wrath. Cold War-era imitators followed, from the great ripoff Gamera to ridiculous matinee nonsense like the giant-rabbit classic Night of the Lepus.

And then—as Godzilla spawned a talking son and started teaming up with other creatures to fight aliens—giant monsters became dumb. Soon, eco-terror focused on smaller things: the airborne pathogens of The Andromeda Strain or Outbreak, or the plants duping dumbfuck humanity into mass suicide in The Happening. Some of these films sparked dread for their perceived realism (see: Contagion). Then documentaries like An Inconvenient Truth managed to bump giant monsters out of the game with epic PowerPoint presentations. I can’t figure out PowerPoint. A gigantic prehistoric tortoise like Gamera had no chance. 

What we lost in the past 60 years was the city-leveling metaphor that is a rampaging monster. Pacific Rim’s interdimensional neon beasties just wanted a new home. Cloverfield’s monsters were straight-up pricks, and Super 8’s invading alien wanted only to make us wish we were watching The Goonies or E.T. 

It’s almost shocking that nobody’s decided to piss off Fox News by making a flick in which a woolly mammoth is thawed out by global warming and goes on to destroy Alaska. Or how about a creationist-baiting remake of Encino Man? Maybe an oil spill results in a gigantic Cajun crawdad in the Gulf. Perhaps some dipshit kid pees in a reservoir and officials decide to drain the water, awakening a slumbering prehistoric beaver that descends from his volcano and feasts on people too busy Instagramming the attack to flee. That would be a social and environmental commentary!

While it remains to be seen if the new Godzilla touches on collective fears—blaming the monster’s creation on Fukushima would be logical—it seems unlikely. We seem to prefer our environmental terror delivered by former vice presidents in black suits, rather than by gargantuan monsters in green rubber ones. 


Also Showing: 

  • Kicking off a four-day run of films focused on the American worker, the Clinton Street unearths the landmark 1954 drama Salt of the Earth, which shed light on the plight of Mexican-American mine-workers and, of course, got all involved blacklisted during Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. Clinton Street Theater. 7 pm Wednesday, April 30.
  • KBOO presents a double feature of Clara Lemlich, about the 1909 New York garment workers’ strike, and Chain of Love, a doc examining the exodus of Filipina women seeking work as domestic caretakers. Clinton Street Theater. 6:30 pm Thursday, May 1.
  • Say what you will about Tom Cruise: The toothy bastard has starred in some fantastic films in his time. Few would call Ridley Scott’s 1984 fantasy epic Legend one of them (yes, this might get me stabbed by a unicorn), but it did mark Cruise’s first foray into action, a genre that the little guy’s managed to dominate despite the naysayers. Also, Tim Curry is a demon. Academy Theater. May 2-8.
  • For the second time in as many months, you can misquote Casablanca while watching it on the big screen. Poor Sam. Laurelhurst Theater. May 2-8.
  • The 1947 Michael Powell-Emeric Pressburger classic Black Narcissus gorgeously chronicles the struggles of nuns dispatched to the Himalayas…in Technicolor! 5th Avenue Cinema. 7:30 pm Friday, May 2.
  • The NW Film Center presents a retrospective by modernist postwar animators John and Faith Hubley, who won three Oscars for films you’ve never heard of. Now’s the time to remedy that. NW Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. 7 pm Sunday, May 4. 
 
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