When I was little, like most kids I loved monster movies.
Monster movies are a subset of horror movies, and pundits often attribute the affection the young feel for horror in terms of the pleasure they receive from facing and overcoming their own fears. Some anthropologists even see horror flicks as modern tribal rites of passage. This idea has some merit regarding teens and the truly grotesque movies they watch, but I think it misses an obvious point about younger kids: by and large, young kids don’t find monster movies scary. (If they do, they don’t like them – until their tweens anyway, when they really do begin to enjoy being frightened.) Watch kids play elements from the movies: they are play-acting the monsters, not the people. I did too. This tells us something.
In Forbidden Planet (1956), a sci-fi film and a monster movie (a marvelous double-whammy), Commander Adams (Leslie Nielson) shouts “We’re all part monsters in our subconscious!” So we are. In Forbidden Planet this is literally the case for the character Morbius, whose mind taps an alien technology to generate a physical monster. Freud believed a desire for violence and destruction was rooted in the Death Wish. It needs to be repressed for the sake of civilization; this necessarily results in individual unhappiness, but it is worth the trade-off. Freud has been out of fashion for some time, but he was onto something here. Clearly we all do have natural desires and instincts that are not all sweetness and light. They must be reined in, and young kids are in the process of learning their limits. Movie monsters are the fantasy sides of themselves that can just cut loose and trash Tokyo. They are cathartic. Some of us never entirely lose a penchant for such films, but we do want more sophistication in plot, theme, and dialogue as we grow older. We like the human characters to be more than cardboard cut-outs.
The very first monster movie I recall ever having seen was Godzilla. This would have been the 1956 recut for the American market. (I’ve since seen the 1954 original, and, yes, it is better.) I saw it in a drive-in from the backseat of my parents’ Pontiac. Not yet four at the time, I just barely remember it; I also remember seeing Moby Dick that same year at the same drive-in. The big lizard was fresh enough in my mind at age five for me to want to see it again when it turned up on TV. I was hooked on the genre at least since then, and soon was assembling and painting plastic models of Godzilla, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, and so on. I play-acted as all of them. I even grew to recognize which of the movies have merit as movies – and a fair number of them do.
So, it was with nostalgia that I went to see the re-booted 2014 Godzilla last night. I wanted to like it. Upshot? In a word, dreadful. And not in a good way. To be sure, the GGI work is truly impressive and the 3D urban destruction vast. Godzilla and the other monsters are visually well realized. But fx and devastation ceased being enough to carry a movie since I was ten, and the film is plainly aimed at an older audience – an older audience is certainly what it got anyway. With the exception of the obsessed widower, who dies before the main action, the characters barely rise to the level of cardboard – unlike, say, the humanly flawed and conflicted scientist in the original. I don’t know if the director and screenwriters intended any humor, but if they did (the MUTO monster’s disposition of the warhead?) it missed badly. The film’s misfire is made worse by a first half-hour that actually is promising. There is a nice ominous build-up. It is hard to argue with the premise that ultimately nature is bigger than we are. Historian Will Durant: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.” It’s too bad Durant (1885-1981) didn’t write the script. The last one and one-half hours consist of bare (and not especially logical) excuses for the monsters to smash things. When a film with production values this high fails to satisfy as much as one with an actor in a rubber suit kicking toy tanks, something has gone wrong.
If you want to see a spectacular smash-up of Honolulu, Las Vegas, and San Francisco by big beasties, this film provides it. Perhaps that’s enough if one is in the right mood. Astonishingly, a couple people in the audience did applaud at the end. (I’m pretty sure they weren’t applauding the end itself.) But I think I’ll pull Rodan (1956) from my DVD shelf and give it another spin. I’m sure I’ll enjoy it more.
An oft-overlooked precursor to Godzilla, and also a childhood favorite