ClandesTime 180 – The Politics of Monster Movies
Monster movies are one of the most beloved and distinctive genres in cinema, featuring a winning combination of exotic spectacle, ground-breaking visual effects and reflections on humanity’s relationship with nature. This week I examine the politics and ideas behind some of the most recognisable movie franchises of all time – King Kong, Godzilla and Jurassic Park, as well as a few other monster movies. From Orientalism and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to the Pentagon’s shifting policy on giant creature features, this is a truly gigantic exploration of one of my favourite film genres.
In 1912 Arthur Conan Doyle published The Lost World – a novel that would establish many of the tropes that have dominated monster stories ever since. It tells the story of a group of explorers who investigate an isolated plateau in the Amazon jungle. Untouched by man, the plateau is home to a variety of prehistoric creatures, including dinosaurs. The explorers make their way to the Amazon and encounter some hostile local tribes, who are terrified of the plateau and the creatures who live on it.
After scaling a nearby mountain they cut down a giant tree to provide a makeshift bridge onto the plateau, though one of their indigenous porters then throws the tree off a cliff, stranding the explorers in The Lost World. They explore and discover many creatures that are thought to have died out, including Pterodactyls. One of their group is captured by a group of ape-men, and with the help of some natives who are at war with the ape-men they rescue him. They manage to capture a young petrodactyl chick and take it back to London as proof of their findings. It escapes, briefly terrorises London before setting off south, presumably to return to its home.
If all of this sounds familiar it’s because it’s the plot for King Kong, Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park II: The Lost World and most other famous monster movies. The isolated location. Ancient creatures believed to have been lost to natural selection. Antagonistic locals. Someone gets kidnapped. A monster is captured and taken back to the Western world where it causes havoc. Even the giant tree which gets thrown down into a canyon is a staple of King Kong movies.
This was a fictional response to real world discoveries. For example, gorillas were thought to be mythical until as recently as 1902, and in the 1910s a popular movie genre was the jungle film, which typically involved explorers encountering exotic creatures not available to the general population via zoos and animal exhibits. A combination of the discovery of dinosaur fossils, the discovery of previously unknown creatures, and the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution opened up a culture that had previously been dominated by the Christian notion that all creatures were created by God, and he wouldn’t let any of them become extinct.
Indeed, in 1925 The Lost World was adapted for cinema, featuring ground-breaking stop-motion visual effects, authentic jungle settings and a classic exploration and revelation story. Many of those who worked on The Lost World went on to help make King Kong in 1933, but there’s one more film I need to mention.
Ingagi, released in 1930, is a classic jungle film with a sexual twist. The story portrays African women being given over to gorillas as sex slaves. Made before the production code came into effect, Ingagi heavily implies that the women are raped by the gorillas, and features a lot of nudity (mostly female, though obviously the gorillas are also naked).
So by the time King Kong arrived in 1933 it wasn’t a particularly original film. It blended the sexual sacrifice element of Ingagi with the basic plot of The Lost World, and drew on elements of other jungle films too. Despite it’s lack of originality it did feature some amazing visual effects, an incredible score, and unlike most of its predecessors from the silent era the characters talked. It did enormously well at the box office, talking several million dollars, being lauded by critics and audiences and these days Rotten Tomatoes has it ranked as the greatest horror movie of all time.
Nonetheless, it is not without political controversy. While the film-makers denied there was any secret meaning or hidden agenda, King Kong has been the subject of a variety of politicised interpretations. For example, some see it as a cautionary tale about inter-racial sex and marriage, with Kong representing all black men who, according to the stereotype, incessantly lust after white women. Indeed, the original film has Kong undressing Ann Darrow (played by Fay Wray) and then sniffing his fingers. This was cut out of later re-releases of the film once the production code came into effect.
Another reading is that Kong represents Africans who were imported into the US during the slave trade. The implication is that when Kong breaks free from his chains and causes panic and destruction, this is a metaphor for the social upheaval that resulted from the abolition of slavery in the US, and the rise of African-Americans as a political entity. While I think the film does sustain both of these readings, there may be more to it than that.
To my mind there is a tension in the film’s narrative, between the depiction of indigenous peoples as backward and primitive and therefore deserving of violence and exploitation, and the conclusion of the film where Kong goes on the rampage, implying that the inevitable result of colonialism is violent revenge. This is what we might call an Orientalist reading of the movie, whereby the Other is irretrievably strange and alien to us, whether that Other is the indigenous people of Skull Island or Kong himself, or both.
The film spans several genres – exotic adventure, romance, action, horror – but it is the horror elements that are perhaps the strongest. While today’s audiences might find it a bit corny, for decades it was seen as one of the pinnacles of the horror genre, and when I recently re-watched it I did find myself getting caught up in the peril. So whatever the film-makers intentions the movie itself does function as a warning about the consequences of colonialism, and mixing older cultures with modern Western cultures. Whether you see this as a good thing or a bad thing will largely depend on your own cultural origins and your political opinions.
Nonetheless, one obvious truth emerged to me after rewatching the original 1933 version, the 1976 remake and the 2005 remake – the earlier films are more profound, and in many ways more even-handed. In the original we see the consequences of the cultural conflict for both the natives of Skull Island and for the Western explorers. The natives village is smashed when Kong breaks through the giant wall, likewise when Kong breaks free from his chains and starts running around New York city. When Kong is finally killed by the US Army Air Forces this isn’t a triumph, so much as a grim inevitability.
The 1976 remake, while an inferior film, is still very interesting. Instead of looking for ancient creatures the explorers are working for an oil company and they believe Skull Island is sitting on top of a giant untapped oil field. Along for the ride is Jeff Bridges, a naturalist and wildlife photographer who argues with and confronts the oil company guys throughout the movie.
Despite this somewhat more sympathetic, post-colonial attitude the film still maintains the old binary opposition between us and them, between the known and the Other. The indigenous villagers are never given much of a voice, unlike in the original film where they have some fairly lengthy conversations with the captain of the explorers’ ship. Their motives and beliefs are never articulated by them. We only get to know them via the Jeff Bridges character, who explains that by capturing Kong they have not only taken a huge risk, they’ve also disrupted the indigenous culture.
We kidnapped their god. As I highlighted in the Superman episode, there’s a lot of profound ideas to be found in 1970s movies, even the fairly mediocre ones like King Kong. As I say, despite its more internationalist, liberal pretensions the film still sidelines the indigenous people as secondary, and we are only allowed to understand them through the filter of a white Western guy.
Despite this it is still a much, much more interesting and provocative film than the 2005 Peter Jackson remake – a film no one asked for, very few people enjoyed, and which served no purpose whatsoever. The main problem with the 2005 version is that they cast Jack Black in the main role, as the ambitious film-maker who leads the expedition to Skull Island and ultimately brings Kong back to New York. I can only assume this was a studio decision, because in the wake of the success of School of Rock and other Jack Black-led movies they insisted on a bankable star in order to off-set the massive CGI production costs.
This is understandable from a commercial point of view, but the problem is that Jack Black is a comedy actor and not much else. This, along with some of the scripting and the absurdly unrealistic action sequences, gave the film a comic tone, robbing it of its emotional anchor (peril and horror) and thus its political and philosophical intrigue too. While it’s by far the best looking of the three traditional Kong movies it is also the most shallow and uninteresting.
It is also the most racist of the three films. In the first two versions the indigenous villagers are stereotyped and are secondary in almost every way, but at least they look somewhat authentic and act like human beings. In the Peter Jackson version they are covered in mud, have horrible teeth, some of them have contact lenses to make their eyes go red, and their behaviour is consistently unpleasant and violent. They aren’t really humans, whereas in the first couple of films they are humans, however primitive and secondary they might be.
It does include one element from the earlier versions that is important. When Kong is captured and taken back to New York and put on show, it is the flashbulbs of the press photographers’ cameras that send him crazy, causing him to break free from his bonds and go on the rampage. Whether any of the film-makers intended this, I don’t know, but the way I interpret this sequence is in light of both quantum mechanics and Orientalism. Put simply, it’s the idea that we cannot simply observe anything without changing it. Whether this is a particle in multi-valent states or an indigenous tribe or the natural world, we cannot merely objectify these things and categorise them, we always have some influence on them, we subjectify them too.
Godzilla and Nuclear War
We’ll come back to Kong at the end of this podcast but the other king – or queen, if we’re being strictly accurate – of the monster world is Godzilla. The 1954 Japanese original is, like the original Kong, a truly great movie. Again, the visual effects don’t quite stand up to modern standards, but unlike Kong it was made with specific political dimensions in mind. It also pioneered suitmation, where a guy in a rubber suit crushes a miniature city set.
Godzilla is an ancient creature, basically a dinosaur that lives underwater. It is disturbed by atom bomb testing and starts attacking ships off the coast of Japan. Initial attempts to kill Godzilla are a total failure, so the Japanese military build a giant electrified wall to try to guard against the monster. This fails, Godzilla breaks through the wall with her atomic breath and lays waste to Tokyo. Ultimately, she is killed through the use of a oxygen-destruction bomb, effectively suffocating to death.
The film-makers explicitly used Godzilla as a metaphor for nuclear weapons, and the story is an allegory for nuclear holocaust from a Japanese perspective. The producer Tamoyuki Tanaka said, ‘The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind.’ Director Ishirō Honda said that the destruction of Tokyo mirrors the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, saying ‘If Godzilla had been a dinosaur or some other animal, he would have been killed by just one cannonball. But if he were equal to an atomic bomb, we wouldn’t know what to do. So, I took the characteristics of an atomic bomb and applied them to Godzilla.’
The suffering of the Japanese people in the film also reflects the real suffering of the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and initial responses from Japanese audiences felt this was exploitative. Nonetheless it is one of the most profoundly anti-nuclear films ever made, with both the visuals and the dialogue containing numerous references to the real-world suffering unleashed through the creation of nuclear weapons. Like Kong, it is a cautionary tale about how we weaponised nature for the purposes of war, and this comes back to bite us (quite literally).
A quite heavily re-edited version of the film was released in the US in 1956, called Godzilla: King of the Monsters!. In order to appease American audiences they re-shot a bunch of scenes to insert an American protagonist – a journalist who comments on the unfolding story. They added a bunch of voice over and flashbacks to re-orient the film from his perspective, reducing the Japanese characters to secondary roles.
They also removed or diluted most of the references to nuclear weapons, and to Godzilla’s arrival being the result of atom bomb tests. Nonetheless there are still some moments that allude to this, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters! was the first major post-war film to portray the Japanese in a heroic and sympathetic light. After years of being shown to be slanty-eyed, evil maniacs who hated Americans this was the first big counterpoint to the post-war stereotyping of the Japanese in Hollywood cinema.
As many of you will be aware, Godzilla became a massive franchise in Japan, spawning numerous sequels where a new Godzilla fights other giant creatures such as Mothra, Rodan and Mechagodzilla. In total there are 32 Japanese-made Godzilla movies (and three American-made ones) and it is the longest-running film franchise of all time. Video games, toys, and various other spin-off merchandise have made Godzilla into one of Japan’s most enduring and widespread cultural icons, while maintaining the anti-nuclear values of the original. You might say it’s the most politically important film franchise ever, though you might also say that’s a bit of an exaggeration.
When the US finally decided to make its own Godzilla movie, they failed. Not completely – the 1998 Godzilla is a finished movie and was released, but it’s a failure in almost every way. What clearly started out as Roland Emmerich’s attempt to make Jurassic Park is artistically rubbish, a commercial flop and politically dumb.
Let me explain.
Instead of capitalising on the well-established Japanese legend of Godzilla they sidelined the Japanese for everything but the first ten minutes of the movie. This time Godzilla is not a dinosaur who has been dormant for millions of years but the radiation from nuclear testing is the cause of this new, hybrid monster coming into existence. But it wasn’t an American nuclear test, it was French. It seems that in order to get the support of the Department of Defence, the Department of Energy and other state and federal agencies they had to rewrite Godzilla’s origin story to make it really stupid.
They employed Matthew Broderick in the lead role, as a worm scientist who has been studying how the worms at Chernobyl are 17% larger than they were. This is supposed to foreshadow the new Godzilla origin story but Godzilla isn’t just a 17% larger than average lizard.
But they couldn’t piss off the French too much, so they employed Jean Reno as an agent of the DGSE, the French foreign intelligence service. He helps Matthew Broderick and some other people we don’t care about, because the French government are worried that they are responsible for Godzilla. While the French government were not in any way credited or thanked at the end of the movie it seems they wrote in this whole character to appease them and help the film’s box office results in Europe.
I also think this is a little piece of PR that relates back to the DGSE’s bombing of the Rainbow Warrior, the flagship of Greenpeace which was on its way to protest a nuclear bomb test by the French government. So French intelligence blew it up and sank it while it was in port in New Zealand. This was an unambiguous act of state terrorism, and was exposed as such. So I can see why the French government might have leaned on the film-makers, or possibly the State Department did so on their behalf.
It was another 16 years before Hollywood made a second Godzilla film. And though I think the 2014 version is almost as bad as the 1998 version, it proved quite a commercial success, though it seems a lot of people who paid to see it weren’t happy. The internet is littered with negative reviews.
While the Americanisation of the original 1954 Godzilla and the 1998 Godzilla do contain some references to nuclear weapons, by 2014 they had been totally inverted. One of the opening sequences in the 2014 version features the explosion of an entire nuclear power plant in Japan, reminiscent of Fukushima three years earlier. Unlike in the original story, this is not the cause of the awakening of the monsters, but is caused by their awakening, exonerating nuclear power from any wrongdoing. Similarly, nuclear weapons are blameless, as it is revealed that the 1950s nuclear explosions in the Pacific were ‘not tests’ and that ‘they were trying to kill it’ i.e. kill the original monster. Nuclear weapons are used again towards the end of the film to try to destroy the monsters.
Japan has a strongly anti-nuclear culture that grew in the wake of Fukushima and some critics were not impressed with the total inversion of the anti-nuke message of the Japanese films. The documentary film maker Kazuhiro Soda criticised the movie for the ‘lack of nerve on the part of the filmmakers to say anything substantial about nuclear weapons or nuclear energy’. Despite this and other criticisms, Godzilla did very well in Japan taking nearly $30 million, outstripping almost all other overseas markets.
I would actually go further and say the film inverted the original film’s statements, turning nuclear energy into the unwitting victim of the monsters, and turning nuclear weapons into our only means of protecting ourselves against the monsters.
Jurassic Park (and Jurassic World)
The only other film franchise that even comes close to being as big as King Kong and Godzilla is Jurassic Park. A film that spawned two sequels and a reboot and a sequel to that reboot, no end of video games and other spin-offs and, of course, it turned a popular novel into a blockbusting best-seller.
The first Jurassic Park film made a big impression on me as a kid, and it remains one of my all-time favourite movies. I think it is Spielberg’s masterpiece, combining his trademark childish sense of adventure with some profound reflections on science and our relationship with nature. It is perfectly structured and paced, the soundtrack is one of the most memorable ever written.
And the T-Rex is a great villain, because it’s exciting and terrifying in equal measure. While none of the four follow-on movies are as good, the sequel is pretty solid, if a bit cheesy and lacking the emotional, dramatic and philosophical depth of the first film.
Watching the movie at the age of 10, it was probably the best movie I’d ever seen. It inspired me to read the book too, and I have subsequently re-read it on a number of occasions. I’m a huge Michael Crichton fan, which all began because of Jurassic Park, and I’ve since read almost every novel he’s written. I particularly enjoy how he combines some fairly ludicrous plots and adventures with hard-hitting, well researched discussion of important topics, particularly the ethics of science as it pertains to bio-engineering, nanotech and so on.
Jurassic Park is a great example, because in the character of Ian Malcolm (the mathematician played by Jeff Goldblum in the film) we get no end of fascinating commentary on non-linear dynamics and chaos theory. In essence, Malcolm is the one who warns that the whole Jurassic Park idea is doomed to fail because it assumes we can control nature, when nature is inherently unpredictable, unstable and impossible to control. At the start of each chapter there’s a comment on the unpredictable nature of highly complex systems, and a fractal graphic that gets more and more complex as the story goes on.
The famous shorthand for chaos theory is that a butterfly flaps its wings in Peking and the weather in New York is cloudy instead of sunny. It’s a metaphor for how incredibly complex systems are subject to radical, unpredictable changes due to one small aspect of them not being what we expected. A theme park full of prehistoric creatures where everything is controlled via complex computer systems is itself a metaphor for this kind of system, as well as being a real thing within the world of the novel and the film.
So the whole story is a warning against unleashing the power of biotechnology without first considering the implications, and against assuming we could ever control it once it is out there in the world. Much like Godzilla is a retrospective warning about the power of nuclear technology, Crichton was warning about a new technology that was emerging towards the end of the 20th century. If you’ve never read it, and you like thriller fiction, I can hardly think of a book I can recommend more highly.
When it comes to the film obviously a lot of this had to be condensed – there’s about 2 ½ films worth of plot in the first book, so much of it was left out in order to keep to a normal running time. I only wish the same had happened with Peter Jackson and his three hour King Kong movie, which is at least three hours too long.
Despite the commercial pressure to condense the story, Spielberg still found space to work in some of the more provocative, intellectually-engaging material from the book. Ian Malcolm is still an eccentric mathematician who goes on about non-linear dynamics, strange attractors and chaos theory. The unpredictable stability of complex systems remains a key element in the script, both implicitly through the metaphor of the park itself and explicitly through dialogue.
Spielberg has said in interviews that he drew on King Kong and Godzilla in preparation for directing Jurassic Park, and it shows because like those films he didn’t just rely on the dinosaurs to keep the audience interested, he constructed intelligent characters too, aided by an exceptional cast. Shortly after Hammond has explained to our main cast how he created the dinosaurs and they are sitting around discussing it over dinner, we are given perhaps the most explicitly profound dialogue in any monster film.
As I said earlier in this episode, I totally agree with what Jeff Goldblum is saying here – that science doesn’t make us mere observers or discoverers of the world around us, it makes us active participants in it. We cannot observe something without changing it, and because nature is a hugely complex system of interacting organisms we cannot predict the consequences of those changes.
This spills over into the second film – which takes some leftovers from the original book and much of the sequel book and melds them together. As far as pointless sequels that just retread the same path as the original go, Jurassic Park: The Lost World is pretty good. They managed to persuade Spielberg to come back to direct it, but it lacks the magesty and profundity of the original.
While the original film remains quite faithful to the book, the sequel did not. Perhaps the most interesting addition is the character played by Vince Vaughan. He is introduced as a wildlife photographer but much like the Jeff Bridges character in the 1970s King Kong, he turns out to be much more than that, in this case a kind of environmental activist and saboteur. While Vaughan is hopelessly miscast and appears to have been foisted into the film by the studio following the success of Swingers, there is something intelligent behind the character.
As highlighted in other monster movies, however implicitly, the notion of simply observing nature without changing or affecting it is an illusion. This is stated quite explicitly in The Lost World, shortly after Jeff Goldblum and the others arrive on the island and find Malcolm’s girlfriend, a paleo-behaviourist.
This idea is manifested throughout the first half of the film, on the island, when a team working for the Ingen corporation turn up and start capturing the dinosaurs for use in a theme park in San Diego. Our heroes decide to liberate the captured animals, with the Vince Vaughan character taking the lead. It is revealed he has experience with Greenpeace’s direct action wing, and he was sent there by Hammond as a contingency against what Ingen are doing. So he isn’t just a photographer – a passive observer and documentarian – he’s also an activist, a participant in and influencer on the unfolding drama.
The Military and Monster Movies
Naturally, no exploration of such a major film genre would be complete without looking at the military’s involvement. Perhaps unsurprisingly there are numerous examples.
For the 1933 King Kong the producers asked the Navy for some planes to feature in the climax, when Kong climbs the Empire State building. The Navy turned them down because they could get planes from commercial sources, but one of the producers went to Floyd Bennet Field on Long Island to try to persuade the commander of the naval air station situated there. He convinced the commander to help them, and so four Navy planes (one piloted by a Marine) are seen taking off and flying to New York to take down Kong.
The original Godzilla, and some of the sequels, benefited from assistance from the Japanese military, particularly the Coast Guard. I don’t know if the Japanese military had any input on the script, but just like with Kong they are shown nobly defending the public from the monster.
Also in the 1950s we saw the arrival of a sub-genre in US film – the nuclear-themed monster movie. One of the first films of this kind, 1954’s Them!, features a plague of giant ants who are defeated by an FBI agent who teams up with the military. However, the DOD refused to cooperate on the film as they felt the plot was too fantastical. Bear in mind this is when they were helping to make almost every war movie and military movie out there, a time when they clearly wanted to be depicted saving the world from realistic threats.
A few years later in 1957 the producers of Beginning of the End didn’t even bother to approach the Pentagon, but there is an entry in the DOD’s database about the film. It says:
Typical atomic-generated enemy, in this case giant grasshoppers. Illinois National Guard tries and fails to stop advance toward Chicago. Regular Army brought in in form of about five minutes of stock combat footage showing tanks, trucks, artillery, men all firing at grasshoppers without success. The military (actors to be sure) appears throughout film asnauthority figures doing best to save the world.
It seems the popularity of these movies, and the positive depictions of the military within them, led to a re-think within the entertainment liaison offices. By the time of the 1970s remake of King Kong the policy had changed, and the Air Force ‘provided jets for attack on King Kong in bad remake of classic original’. The Air Force are seen shooting Kong on top of the World Trade Center.
For the 1998 Godzilla the Marine Corps provided extensive support in the form of planes, trucks, humvees and artillery, but they aren’t credited on the movie. It’s obvious from watching the movie that it had full-scale military support and I’ve read articles on military sites about the assistance they provided, but there was no screen credit.
This sometimes happens when the DOD review the rough cut of the film and don’t like how they are portrayed. I’ve read several documents detailing how on movies such as BAT-21 and Heartbreak Ridge they declined the screen credit due to issues with the finished films, and I’m pretty sure this is what happened with Godzilla. For most of the film the military are fairly inept, and destroy more of New York city than Godzilla does. Also, given the overwhelmingly comic tone of the production the ending – where Godzilla becomes tangled in the cables of a suspension bridge and is shot dead by three Marine Corps jets, is poignant and led to quite a lot of audience complaints.
So when it came to Jurassic Park III in 2001, there was another shift of policy. The producers wanted to include a scene where military gunships battle with flying dinosaurs, but Strub said no. The DOD felt that the dinosaurs would be no match for the planes and would be shredded in mid-air, and that people would feel sorry for the dinosaurs. So they removed that scene and instead wrote in a ‘nice military rescue’ featuring the Navy and Marine Corps right at the end of this pointless, stupid, badly made film.
Interestingly a scene very similar to this did appear in Jurassic World, the 2015 soft reboot of Jurassic Park. When the Indominus Rex escapes from its enclosure the owner of Jurassic World decides to hunt it via helicopter. This goes badly wrong and they smash up the aviary where all the pterosaurs are kept, releasing the dinosaurs and causing the helicopter to crash. While NASA supported Jurassic World, the DOD did not.
The DOD has no involvement on the 2005 King Kong remake, and as far as I know they were never asked.
The 2010s have seen something of a resurgence in the genre, with Pacific Rim in 2013 my personal favourite of the bunch. The first film had a little support from the DOD, in the form of recording one helicopter taking off. Despite this being the smallest, most inconsequential assistance they could have asked for, the DOD demanded a full script review, but found ‘nothing objectionable’.
That’s likely because the Pentagon aren’t directly portrayed in Pacific Rim, though one could argue that the Jaeger program is an obvious metaphor for the US military, especially given that their weaponry is based on DARPA technology. They are shown heroically defending the world against the kaiju, who are transdimensional lizard-like creatures who want to take over the world. Clearly someone’s read their David Icke.
What’s interesting is that the world government decide to mothball the Jaeger program and instead build a giant wall around the Pacific Rim to try to contain the monsters. This makes no sense, of course, because any such wall would be destroyed by the endless earthquakes and volcanic activity that characterises that part of the world. Likewise I’m not sure that simply containing the kaiju within the Pacific Ocean – which covers almost half of the planet – solves the problem.
Inevitably, the wall fails and a kaiju lays waste to Sidney harbour, before being taken down by one of the few remaining Jaegers. The rest of the film sees Jaegers and Kaiju going toe-to-toe beating the hell out of each other, with the Jaegers eventually coming out on top. This is a pretty obvious metaphor for how merely trying to contain perceived ‘outside’ threats won’t work, and we have to confront and fight the threats. In South East Asia, an obvious battleground whether we’re talking Communists or Terrorists, or indeed immigrants, as the perceived ‘outside’ threat. No surprise the DOD approved of this political messaging.
Then, for the 2014 Godzilla the military provided as much support as I’ve ever seen in a non-war movie, and more than most war movies if we’re being honest. There’s barely a sequence in the entire film that doesn’t feature military vehicles and personnel, they certainly get a lot more screentime than Godzilla does. The Production Assistance Agreement for the film lists several pages of items of support – they simply couldn’t have made the movie without the DOD.
In exchange, as I’ve discussed before, the military reviewed the script and took out all the interesting things about the main character, a Navy explosive ordinance tech. The original script had him be something of a liar and a manipulator, and there was something wrong in the relationship with his wife. This all got stripped out and what’s left is a hollow shell of a character with no depth, who inspires no interest. There’s even an insipid family scene that adds nothing to the story because the guy then spends the rest of the film away from his family trying to help deal with Godzilla. By removing all the drama the DOD left the film with – shocker – no drama.
The Navy ELO reports also mention how at one point they were considering a DVD bonus feature on how the military would fight Godzilla – something that never really happens in the film (likely a reaction to audience responses to the 1998 film). This is presumably why Phil Strub was joking about this in an interview, because it is truly absurd. In the end this feature was never made, though I’m not sure whether this was because the military didn’t like the idea.
Which brings us to two other films – Kong: Skull Island and Rampage, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed. Kong: Skull Island is the first Kong movie where he isn’t captured and brought to New York, possibly because it is part of the cinematic Monsterverse and they need to keep Kong alive so he can fight Godzilla in a forthcoming movie. Indeed, while the movie is big and dumb, it’s clearly an anti-war film, specifically an anti-Vietnam war film.
It is set in the early 1970s, and a team of scientists with a military escort of US soldiers fresh from fighting in Vietnam go to Skull Island. The female lead is a photographer, who makes a point of telling the military officer that she’s not a war photographer but an anti-war photographer, tying back to The Lost World and the 1970s King Kong. She isn’t just taking pictures, she’s an activist, an active participant instead of a passive observer.
Kong: Skull Island was not supported by the US military, indeed I doubt they even asked the DOD given the nature of the script. The military are shown to be a mixture of incompetence, pointless violence and obsessive revenge, and the movie goes out of its way to satirise long-established war movie tropes. In one scene towards the end when the few remaining survivors are being pursued by a giant two-legged lizard monster, one of the soldiers stops and takes out some grenades. He tells the others to keep going, in a classic ‘I’m going to sacrifice myself so the rest can escape’ moment. But it proves totally futile, as the lizard flicks its tail and sends him crashing into a cliff-face where he explodes.
How do we account for the vast difference in the politics of 2014’s Godzilla and 2017’s Kong: Skull Island? For one thing, audience responses to Godzilla were tepid at best, and a lot of people complained about the weakness of the central character. For another, it was the Vietnamese government and Vietnamese military who provided extensive support to the film-makers, and they no doubt encouraged the anti-war and anti-Vietnam war themes.
Another reason is that the films were co-produced by Legendary Entertainment, a company that enters co-production partnerships with other studios, primarily Warner Bros and Universal. Legendary produced Pacific Rim, Jurassic World and most of Zach Snyder’s macho atrocities but in 2016 they were acquired by the Wanda group in the biggest US media buy by a Chinese company. This happened just as Kong: Skull Island was being developed, and I have no doubt they inserted the role of a Chinese biologist to appeal to the Chinese market. I also think they encouraged the somewhat anti-American sentiments, certainly the anti-US military aspect of the film.
Finally, we have Rampage, which is up there with Pacific Rim for big, dumb fun movies. It is based on the popular 1980s computer game where you control a monster who fights against the US military and you have to defeat them to get to the next level. I played this as a kid so I was looking forward to the movie, and it doesn’t disappoint. The military first discussed the project at a meeting in July 2016 at Warner Brothers Studio with the director, producer and an executive who were ‘looking for guidance and advice for the portrayal and participation of the Army’.
However, the US army’s reports don’t mention the film again until November 2017, a few months before it was released. The entry summarises the plot – whereby three genetically-altered animals become giant monsters who go on a rampage – and comments that they reviewed two versions of the script before declining. It goes on:
The decision to decline support was based on the failure to incorporate script notes provided by OCPA-LA into the revised draft of the script. The notes provided dealt with creating a more accurate depiction of the U.S. Army and the Army National Guard in the production.
In the scripts provided to OCPA-LA, nearly all Army and Army National Guard personnel and equipment were killed or destroyed by the genetically altered animals with no chance of success in their missions. The overall chain of command structure was inaccurate, and the Army characters were based on inaccurate stereotypes of the Army.
Aside from the usual stuff about inaccuracies and stereotypes – a common complaint – the critical part is that the monsters fight the military and overwhelm them, killing all the soldiers and destroying all the vehicles. This is the inverse of their policy on Jurassic Park III, where it is the military who were the overwhelming force against the pterosaurs, before the DOD removed that scene from the script.
So the logic seems to be that the monsters and the military have to have a fair fight. The monsters cannot just crush the military, the military cannot just kill the monsters. This same logic of the ‘fair fight’ also affected films ranging from Clear and Present Danger through to Hulk, with the DOD making changes to make it seem like they aren’t the biggest, richest, most violently powerful organisation on earth. They want to seem like tough guys, so as to intimidate governments and audiences around the world, but not bullies who fight against enemies who have no hope of victory.
Of course, this is an inversion of reality whereby the Pentagon has spent over half a century picking fights with semi-impoverished Vietnamese farmers and Afghan goat herders who once met Osama Bin Laden. In fact, you could argue this ‘fair fight’ logic is the greatest deception perpetrated by the entertainment liaison offices, given the real state of affairs.
To conclude this segment and this episode, we can say that the military’s policy towards monster movies has been through three distinct phases. First, they denied requests because they felt monster movies were ludicrous or unrealistic. Then they started supporting them after several unsupported movies showed them in a good light, as ‘authority figures trying to save the world’. Now we’re in the third phase, where they are a part of monster movies but they can’t be shown destroying the monsters, in case people feel sorry for the creatures and end up hating the military’s intervention.
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