The James Clayton Column: Godzilla and perspective shifts

Godzilla's cinematic return leaves James pondering the power of monster movies and how they give us a sense of perspective...

Human beings live little lives. We sweat the small stuff. We get bogged down in minor trivialities and teeny-tiny insignificances.

And then, oh my Godzilla, a gargantuan kaiju creature rises up and walks right through it all, stomping all over our little lives and smashing the feeble structures of our civilisation without any difficulty at all. When an almighty entity forces itself into the frame and presents a mortal threat, all the things that are amped up as ‘big deals’ cease to be ‘big deals’ as humans get a view of just how altogether small they really are.

By re-adjusting the scales, messing with proportional ratios and shifting paradigms, perspective is wholly altered. This is one of the great things about special effects cinema, or ‘tokusatsu’ to use the Japanese categorical term. Films can not only blow your mind by reconfiguring conventional scale but can also shape and move your blown mind to a different physical and, indeed, metaphysical outlook. As well as operating as entertainment, here films are also beneficial if you find that you’re sweating the small stuff too much.

Outer space epics are powerful outlook adjustment aids, but with Godzilla looming large as the big draw at the box office draw this week, I’ll stay grounded on Earth and focus on the monster movies. It’s also true that The King of Monsters isn’t the only colossal critter kicking up a ruckus on the contemporary movie scene and I feel that something of a genre resurgence has been occurring recently. (And I really do feel it. The ground is shaking and violent ripples keep on appearing in the glass of water on my desk.)

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I’ve got monster movies on my mind and, consequently, my mental comprehension of reality around me is modified as a side effect of thinking about Kaiju, super-sized beasties and the gigantic mecha made to battle them. With Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla reboot rampaging through theatres and the conscious awareness of people all over the globe, perspective and sense of proportion is indeed altered by the Japanese icon’s dimensions.

Before I crane my neck and face up to today’s (literal) blockbusters, though, let me go back through the centuries to ancient legends and literary sources that set the precedents and sowed imaginative seeds. Those seeds, of course, took root in fertile creative minds and have bloomed into the giants we see on the big screen today. (And the big screen is obviously an appropriate format in which to appreciate such almighty entities.)

Roam awhile through the mythology of elder religions and you’ll eventually encounter an epic, oversized abomination. Think the Nephilim, the Behemoth and the Leviathan of Judeo-Christian scripture. See also the Titans, the Cyclops and sea monsters like Scylla and Charybdis that frequent Greek myth. The Norse sagas, likewise, have their own giants in the form of trolls and the Jötnar (aka Jotunn or Frost-Giants).

Such supernatural entities served to inspire dread in awestruck mere mortals and emphasise the might of the gods and demi-gods who mastered them, Representations of such figures can be found in such recent fantasy-tinged films as Noah (the Nephilim), Troll Hunter and Thor (for the Norse giants) and, for Greek mythical monsters, Immortals, Clash Of The Titans and its sequel Wrath Of The Titans.

Making a giant leap to later centuries we find that, even as archaic religions decline (poor Thor) and lose their sway in an ‘enlightened’ age, gargantuan beings still capture the imagination. Enormous ‘Fee-Fie-Fo-Fum’ figures are common characters in folklore and carry on the tropes of ancient oral storytelling in the fairytales of the modernising world.

Turning to literature, two seminal novels from separate centuries strike me as being particularly significant and profound as we ponder upon (or underneath) the great and powerful. Those disparate novels are Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and The Food Of The Gods by HG Wells – published in 1726 and 1904 respectively.

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They may be far apart in terms of vintage but in both I find similar essential elements that would truly come to life and find vivid expression in the audiovisual formats of the modern age. Outside of ancient mythology, I’d say that these two books are the unacknowledged oddball nursemaids of the monster movie – a pair of classic fables that have subliminally influenced cinematic traditions that spawned later as special effect moviemaking technology developed.

In Swift’s classic satire, the titular Lemuel Gulliver personally experiences giganticism from both sides of the size divide. First he is a titan to the diminutive Lilliputians and then later he himself becomes an inferior, undersized curiosity when he travels to Brobdingnag, a land inhabited by beings as “tall as an ordinary spire-steeple”. Through Gulliver’s first few (mis)adventures, readers get the opportunity to explore spatial dynamics and how vital size and proportion are to the way we live and our understanding of the world around us.

The satirist also uses the Brobdingnagians to take shots at his own society and slap down self-important humanity. When Gulliver finds himself to be an early equivalent of the Incredible Shrinking Man, he realises how inconsequential humanity is in the face of a bigger intelligent animal and how ultimately flimsy its much-vaunted master status is. As he suffers the indignity of being carried around in a box like a performing pet and is attacked by massive monkeys and giant wasps, audiences get a handle on how accepted reality is uprooted if it runs along adjusted ratios.

HG Wells, likewise, has an axe to grind in The Food Of The Gods and sharply employs the “Children of the Food” to devastating effect as he highlights how pathetic ‘civilised society’ is and how trifling humans are in the grand scheme of things. When two scientists introduce a growth-promoting substance named Herakleophorbia IV (or “Boomfood”) into the eco-system, the outcome is an unanticipated attack of giant animals and plants. More importantly, though, the human infant test subjects grow to become a race of juvenile giants and it’s in the reaction to their phenomenal condition that we uncover the ideological core of the story. Viciously hacking at monster animals and plants is one thing, but regular humanity’s inhumanity is truly illustrated when it attempts to oppressively handle the nascent young race of big littl’uns.

The giants – symbols of progressive future growth – don’t care for the controls and ludicrous laws and restrictions imposed upon them by the small-minded smallfolk. The ‘civilised’ society of Little England and all its socio-political institutions are ridiculed as Wells raises sympathy for the evolved, oversized ones who see clearly (from a higher vantage point) that humankind is self-serving, pompous and petty. What’s more, in spite of the contrary conceited delusions, it’s highlighted that the inherently weak human race can’t contain or successfully oppose the superior forces of (super)nature.

It’d also be remiss of me to overlook the rise of palaeontology over the 19th and 20th centuries as we journey forward to the coming of Godzilla and his blockbuster brethren. The expanding and developing field of dinosaur studies undoubtedly had a huge impact upon pop culture in spite of some dogmatic dino-denier protests and the fact that humans never shared the Earth with many of the portrayed prehistoric creatures until Steven Spielberg made Jurassic Park.

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Films like One Million Years BC are anachronistic and speculated preserved lost world scenarios like The Land That Time Forgot and The Valley Of Gwangi are dubious but that doesn’t mean that they should be dismissed. These movies are relevant and in representing prehistorical gargantuan species they tap into ancient anxieties that there are forces of nature that are older and more powerful than the human race and all its cultural advancements.

What’s more, the sheer notional idea of dinosaurs inspires the imagination and creates a colossal, monstrous scale on which human minds can form a model for any primal monster concept. So it is also with giant legends, though in those cases the fearsome titan is here more identifiably humanoid in shape and character.

On the cinema screen, via the magical special effect medium that is the motion picture, these immense, overwhelming figures become viscerally realistic and we can really appreciate them on a multi-sensory basis. As they come to vivid life we are forced to face our human condition and our own fragile, vulnerable nature which is both disturbing unnerving and, in an odd way, strangely comforting.

More than just entertaining large-scale spectacles, monster movies and giant-starring films serve deeper purposes. There are psychological, existential aspects underpinning the action every time a creature with Godzilla or King Kong aspirations steps up to tackle some skyscrapers and scare scores of screaming civilians.

Furthermore, these mighty figures are often used by filmmakers to make a point, and whether that point be a political or environmental one, ultimately it comes down to this – humankind ain’t that big of a deal. If you want proof of that, bear witness to the epic beatdown our species is receiving at the hands, claws, feet, tails and wings of the vast towering terror that’s trampling across the realms.

A very humbling experience awaits those who sit down to enjoy colossal creature features. These modern artworks are humility exercises similar to the theological fables of yore, the major difference being that the addressed throng are urged to bow down before Godzilla instead of the Gods. Such self-abasement appeals and speaks to perverse desires to see the foundations shaken, to see chaos reign and celebrate self-destructive drives.

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That’s the human condition for you and it’s a wretched thing that monster movies can wrestle with and reflect in unflattering fashion, especially when the ‘monster’ is as sympathetic as King Kong. It’s glorious to watch the devastating vengeance wreaked on the modern human world by the nature that it has wronged or merely underestimated in sync with its own myopic sense of self-importance.

I appreciate these nigh-apocalyptic event movies as a reality check for an egocentric, arrogant species that needs bringing down a peg or three. They’re a handy (or claw-y) reminder that in the grand, pan-universal design we are insignificant little almost-nothings scratching around helplessly on a tiny rock that’s just one transient iota amidst an infinite Universe. It’s also quite likely that that the cosmos is indifferent and doesn’t care about us, though it depends which sci-fi story, philosopher or spiritual tradition you’re listening to.

Dialling down the scale to a more localised level, when a enormous entity hits the screen and pounds us little people into the ground our proud race’s stature is diminished. We’re forced to accept an inferior status akin to, say, ants and, to paraphrase Loki (half-Frost Giant) in The Avengers, “an ant has no quarrel with a boot”. Then the Chitauri Leviathan swarms through a portal and sweeps mayhem through New York City, which is the planet’s monster carnage hotspot (see King Kong, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Cloverfield, Men In Black, Ghostbusters with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man and so many more.).

It’s not all misanthropy, though, and The Avengers makes for an exemplary recent case study alongside Pacific Rim. When the human race has been humbled and it’s survival that’s at stake, then we can re-affirm our best qualities and work out who we are, what’s really important and what’s worth fighting for. All that small stuff we sweat and all the divisions and small-minded, self-destructive tendencies are excised and swept aside in these films (most often literally by a reptilian tail). Ideally, at that point humanity comes together and achieves progressive, enlightened shared self-actualisation on a wider conscious level. That’s a massive perspective shift – a positive outcome from eschatological events instigated by threatening immense entities.

Humanity can only succeed in cancelling the apocalypse by acknowledging its flaws and its fragile, finite existence in the wider universe. We are too small on our own to effectively handle the indomitable and overwhelming cosmos. The right response – illustrated so beautifully in uplifting blockbusters like The Avengers and Pacific Rim – is to make ourselves greater as a united collective spirit, rallying around the tremendous heart, tremendous intelligence and tremendous courage that make our not-great species potentially great come crunch time.

Guillermo del Toro’s macrocosmic sci-fi fantasy sums up it best, I feel. Building walls – physical, mental and metaphorical – is proven to be futile, and only increases the likelihood of humanity’s demise when doom comes rushing upon us. Salvation comes thanks to the symbolic alternative that is the Jaeger programme – a cosmopolitan, co-ordinated team effort in which colossal mecha are created to battle the Kaiju, the collective spirit of humanity embodied in their titanic form.

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Thus, we achieve cosmic harmony and enjoy some highly entertaining spectacles while we’re at it. In total, special effect monster movies are good soul food and I’m glad that mega-scale events like Pacific Rim, Godzilla and next year’s Jurassic World are hitting theatres and providing us with a chance to think on our human condition and contemplate a perspective shift. It’s definitely true that some things are bigger than us, and that’s a beautiful thing to realise – especially if it’s as awesome as Godzilla.

James Clayton is humbling himself before the superior Kaiju creatures and accepts that human beings are inferior unless they can do something truly great for the universe, like making movies like Pacific Rim. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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