Spooky Science at the Movies!: Week 2

Environment, Film, horror, Humanities

By Christy Tidwell

Horror movies are often defined by their monsters. Sometimes these monsters are terrifying beasts that give us nightmares (like Guillermo del Toro’s Pale Man from Pan’s Labyrinth or Pennywise from Stephen King’s It), sometimes they’re kind of silly (like the rampaging rabbits in Night of the Lepus), and sometimes they’re surprisingly sympathetic (like Frankenstein’s Creature).

In any case, monsters demonstrate something about both the world we live in and what we fear. In the 1950s, people feared nuclear war; now, we fear climate change. The two horror movies I’m recommending for this week directly address those fears, presenting viewers with monsters that embody the harm of nuclear warfare/testing in one case and that are the direct result of climate change’s superstorms and unpredictable weather patterns in the other.

Classic Movie #2: Gojira

Ishirō Honda’s Gojira (1954) sets the stage for a decades-long series of Godzilla movies. Although some later Godzilla movies are little more than monster fights and the suitmation technique used – a guy in a monster suit stomping around on a small-scale set – seems a little campy or silly to contemporary viewers, the original is a serious film that presents a complicated picture of the effects of nuclear war and nuclear testing in Japan.

Godzilla is clearly aligned with nuclear power and its dangers in many parts of the film. The film opens with a scenario that echoes the very recent real-life event where the crew members of a fishing boat, Daigo Fukuryu Maru (or Lucky Dragon 5), were exposed to fallout from testing in the region. One man died, and the nation was shocked by the incident, which prompted an anti-nuclear (and anti-American movement) in Japan. Similarly, Godzilla’s attacks on Tokyo – in relatively long scenes of destruction – serve as commentary on the not-so-distant bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tokyo’s destruction by Godzilla is meant to look very much like the destruction of those cities. It is truly horrifying to watch.

Godzilla is remarkably sympathetic, too, however. After all, Godzilla – unlike a nuclear bomb – is a living creature that didn’t ask for his role in all of this. It’s hard to watch him lumbering out of the sea and not see him as a hurt and confused animal, disturbed by human activity. And (even though the movie is decades old now, I won’t give away what happens at the end) it doesn’t end well for Godzilla.

The film is one of the greatest monster movies and remains popular in large part because of this complexity. Godzilla is at once a representation of a human-made killing technology and a stand-in for the victims of this technology. There is no clear winner here, but there is a warning: If we continue on this path, more monsters like Godzilla may arise.

Godzilla’s atomic breath and roar.

Contemporary Movie #2: Crawl

Alexandra Aja’s Crawl (2019) is a very different type of monster movie. There are no sympathetic monsters here. Instead, this movie tells the story of a young woman and her father trying to stay alive while trapped in their home’s basement crawl space during the rising waters of a hurricane. As if that’s not bad enough, the hurricane has also released crocodiles into the water and into this same space. The crocodiles are clear villains with nothing to redeem them. They are frightening on their own terms, but they are also linked to the threat of climate change, giving the film two monstrous threats to deal with at once.

Of course, only one of these threats can potentially be escaped or defeated within the narrative time of the movie.

Aja is great at creating tension, and this is a fun monster movie / creature feature. As an environmental humanities scholar, I have to note that the movie relies on some overly simplistic ideas about human and nonhuman nature, but I’ve written about this elsewhere already: “‘Apex predator all day, baby!’: Crawl and the Myth of Human Superiority” (spoilers!).

Official trailer for Crawl.

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