How Monstrous Is the “Monster” in Monster Movies?
In the Heart of the Sea (2015) was a pretty terrifying film. No, I'm not talking about the aggressive sperm whale. I'm talking about the disturbing glee with which the sailors on screen hunted down and harpooned helpless whales. I'm talking about watching the carcasses of dead whales populate the seas while the sailor men celebrated the barbarism of such an act. The 2015 release inspired by Herman Melville's Moby Dick is neither the first nor the last to glorify humankind's unprovoked battles against other species, and other crimes against the environment.
The movie business appeared to be booming in the "monster movie" sub-genre throughout the 20th century. From Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack's King Kong (1933) to Ishiro Honda's Godzilla (1954) to Steven Spielberg's Jaws (1975) and Jurassic Park (1993), the audience thoroughly enjoyed humanity's predictable victories over vicious, otherworldly creatures. As a member of the audience, I've always viewed the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and the great white shark from Jaws as predatory "monsters", from the perspective of the filmmakers. I imagine you, the reader, have perceived these aforementioned creatures similarly, as ferocious beasts always poised to lay waste to life around them at will. But have you ever wondered what it is that drives them to act in such a destructive manner?
About two years ago, I'd come across a fictional children's novelist in an HBO show discussing her new book where a hunter was on the trail of a bear in a desperate bid to protect his family from the creature, whilst being completely unaware of how the bear sought to do the same for its own family. The thought may have come from a fictional TV character but that doesn't make it any less valid as a theory which applies to the behaviour of rampaging beasts in monster movies, or those in real life even. Going back to 2015's Moby Dick-inspired adaptation, the sperm whale was made to seem like a vicious monster of sorts, hellbent on wreaking havoc, whereas the crew of the merciless whaling ship were portrayed as helpless victims of the whale's wrath. That's not really how it is, is it?
Those sailors willingly chose to go out and upend the peaceful lives of whales whose only crime was existing in a greedy world overcome with consumerism. The whale was never the aggressor; she was merely protecting her home.
The long withstanding notion in monster movies seems to be that humankind's endeavour to constantly invade wild habitats can be justified by some kind of a twisted logic, which makes any retaliation from a defensive life-form appear unwarranted. Resurrected animal species are expected to fit right into a world they know nothing about and wild animals are expected to give up their habitat for the sake of humanity's recreational activities.
One can argue that recently-released monster movies have made an attempt to be apathetic towards these fictional "monsters". But even those efforts fall short as half measures. Humankind's crimes against nature might have been acknowledged by the fictional Dr. Serizawa in an ominous one-liner in the Godzilla reboot (2014), but Legendary Entertainment left no stone unturned when it came to demonising the kaiju throughout the film.
I ask you, again, is the monster you see on the silver screen really the demon that film studios want you to see? Or can you finally see their survival plight in a world overwhelmed by our rising demands for excessive goods?
Rasha Jameel is your neighbourhood feminist-apu-who-writes-big-essays. Remind her to also finish writing her bioinformatics research paper at [email protected]