Movie Monsters as Metaphors

Here's your multiple choice question for the day: who said: "We may be witnessing a Biblical prophecy come true--and there shall come destruction and darkness upon creation and the beasts will reign over the earth"? A) Al Gore; B) Dr. Harold Medford; C) Jerry Falwell. Sounds like C, but the correct answer is B, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) in the 1954 sci-fi horror movie "Them!"

Less than ten years after the U.S. military dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, movies created "monsters that morphed into metaphors," as Terrence Rafferty put it, in thrillers with a sci-fi/Atomic Age twist. In 1954, Japan exported "Gojira," known in the West through its many incarnations as "Godzilla." The same year brought "The Creature From the Black Lagoon" and "Them!," about giant ants which threaten the desert population outside L.A. The lumbering 150-foot-tall prehistoric dinosaur with radioactive breath, jarred by the nuclear detonations from its eons-long slumber in the Sea of Japan, and the eight-legged insects mutated by the power of radiation from nearby nuclear testing, functioned as a metaphor for the bomb. Yet, in 1959 in "On the Beach," we saw the effects of a global nuclear holocaust; and the only "monsters" were the humans who perpetrated the war.

Earth-in-crisis films popped up through the decades. In 1973, Charlton Heston declared Soylent Green was (eek!) people, and Woody Allen's "Sleeper" predicted a post-nuclear future in which, contrary to the niggling of late-20th century health food proponents, red meat, butter, and cigarette smoking actually contained life-promoting properties, after all. One year after the tragedy of the Love Canal in 1978, "The China Syndrome" terrified us with its portent of a nuclear power plant disaster. Chernobyl exploded seven years later.

"28 Days Later," in 2002, provided a scary look into a world whose human population has been eradicated by a mysterious, incurable virus. In 2004 the special-effects thriller "The Day After Tomorrow" generated controversy with its climate-change, world catastrophe theme, and passed the global warming-concern baton to Al Gore and David Guggenheim and their sobering and astonishingly successful 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth." "Mother Nature is a powerful witness and has been sending some pretty powerful messages that people are hearing," Mr. Gore warns, during his filmed lecture.

That "An Inconvenient Truth" won the Oscar this year for Best Documentary seems just, given two seasons of record-breaking heat around the globe––and Katrina. Are we––and the movies––finally waking up to the fact that the state of the Earth is more vulnerable than we ever imagined, and that humanity is the real monster?

"Grizzly Man," the 2005 documentary by German director Werner Herzog, examines Timothy Treadwell, a depressed young social misfit, who disregards the laws of nature and forces his "friendship" on 1,000-pound grizzly bears, who end up, literally, eating him for lunch. Treadwell's experience is a microcosm of our macrocosm: what happens when Nature turns on us.

Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men" from last year, updated an apocalyptic vision with a global infertility crisis as it depicted the fouling of the ecosphere. Even children get their own ecology lessons at the movies. In another Oscar winner, "Happy Feet," little penguins are the 21st century version of Chicken Little; only their hysteria stems, not from a falling sky, but from dying oceans and a depleted food source.

South Korea's wild beast, "The Host," by auteur Bong Joon-ho, brings us full-circle to another man-made monster dwelling in Seoul's Han River, which has been polluted with formaldehyde by the (oh, no, not again) evil American empire. Like its predecessor, Godzilla, the host serves as an appropriate metaphor for imagining the unimaginable: we are the most dangerous "beasts" of all.

First ublished in Cathleen's "Santa Cruz Sentinel" column, "Cinema and Culture," on 4/6/07.

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