Monday, February 7, 2011

The Monster Movie, and (Hopefully) The Beginning of Your Movie Wishlist for the Year

The "monster movie" sub-genre is far and away the greatest (sub)genre of film ever conceived. A lofty statement I know, but alas one I believe to be entirely true. What genre of movie allows you to be distressed, angry, anxious and fearful while at the same time giving you the opportunity to laugh, cheer, and learn? NONE. In all my years of movie watching, the monster movie has stood out to me, not only for its terror and action (which let's be honest, is the reason we all got hooked on the genre in the first place), but because it has a meaning. There is always something to be learned from a good monster movie. But before we get any farther down this rabbit hole of my personal musings and convictions, allow me get us on equal footing.

I see the monster movie as an extension of both the science fiction and fantasy genres. A good monster movie is simultaneously a commentary on the realistic fears of a society and the individuals who live within it, while also taking those fears to a safe place-- the local multiplex, where families and friends gather to socialize--and allows that society (and those individuals within it) to engage their fears and anxieties without having to face any immediate danger.

Using only the really "heavy hitters" of the genre, we can look first to the Godzilla franchise. Initially released in 1954 as Gojira, the film tells not only the story of Tokyo ravaged by a giant monster, but it contextualized Japanese (and international) fears of a post World War II society in a way that the entire world could digest without having to enlist in the army. Gojira was a surreal, fantastic depiction of the threat of nuclear war, told through the eyes of the country who suffered the single largest display of the horror it can bring.

I'm going to jump ahead to the 1970's. Not that the '50's and 60's didn't bring some great sci-fi/monster movies, but if I were to try and discuss it all this would be a textbook, not a blog entry. (Also, it's my blog, so we're gonna talk about the stuff I want to talk about). That said, 1977 brought us Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This film ranks among my favorite films of all time, and it perfectly represents a society uneasy about it's future. Only eight years earlier, man had first set foot on the moon. The frenzy that followed was unprecedented. (For the record, I wasn't even born for a good 18 years after the events of the moon landing, but from what I've learned in my limited research on the subject, it was a frenzy and it was unprecedented). The vastness of space had been recently touched, and the possibility of life beyond our earthly, human existence was very real. Some people were excited about it while others were fearful. Luckily for me (and you I suppose), Steven Spielberg was somebody very, very excited about it. Using Richard Dreyfuss as his embodiment of the average, working class American, Spielberg presented human beings with the chance to play out their fears and/or fantasies of "alien" contact in what has been reported as "the loudest movie ever made."

Moving on, this time to the present day (AGAIN time and authors' prerogative). In our modern times, the world is a very scary place, more uncertain than ever before. Every day we turn on the news and see that somebody has been killed, maimed, sued, jailed, or nailed. The economy is suffering, and with the birth of the "YouTube Generation" and the "Informat ion Age," it is becoming easier and easier to distribute information to mass audiences. As was said (and later overdone and ruined) in Spider-Man, "With great power comes great responsibility." I hate to break it to everyone, but my (our/the current-whatever you prefer) generation has failed. We peddle fear and hate faster and easier than any generation before us. These fears and failures have brought about a slew of new sci-fi monster movies. Two fantastic monster/alien science fiction films were released in 2008 and 2009. Both received very good reviews and brought in a lot of money. Those two films were Cloverfield and District 9.

Cloverfield dealt with our nation's lingering fear of a terrorist attack, embodied in the flesh, talons and fangs of a 300 foot tall monster from the sea. The characters, confronted with the very fears that many of us had on September 11, 2001--where is my family? Where do I go? How will we stop this?-- did exactly what we would do (and in the case of 9/11, what we DID do)... film it. They took their camcorder, their lifeline, their way of communication (another commentary perhaps?) and showed the entire world what they were witnessing. The fear and anxiety was distributed to the masses and they ate it up (to the tune of the best Martin Luther King weekend of all time at the Box Office). District 9 brought back the memories of the Apartheid. The film only proved furthermore that the monster movie is a universal escape, not limited by country, creed or color. I found it interesting however, that director Neill Blomkamp decided to set the film in modern times. That alone is a bitter commentary on the way the world continues to operate. It also touched on issues of citizenship, immigration and human rights. Being nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars that year only made it clearer to me just how much people still invest in the monster movie.

2009 (or 2010 for us U.S. citizens) brought Monsters, a tale of fear and loneliness to the glorious backdrop of post-apocalyptic Mexico (see the pattern here? The ENTIRE WORLD loves monsters). A journalist and a guide must navigate though and survive an alien invasion that took place many years prior (I don't have the exact number, but I believe it was 7 or 8 years). Human beings are now the minority, and they must fight for survival. Not by accident is the movie set in Mexico methinks. Directly on the heels of immigration reform and societal debate over the issue of citizenship, the film attempts to make a serious argument for the humanist approach (the approach that people are people and we should allow those people, whoever they are, to live freely, wherever they choose--essentially. That's a really crass, idiotic explanation of the ideals, but it serves my needs here. I encourage you to undertake your own research), depicting humans as the insects of the new world. We relate to these characters and hope for their well-being, enjoying their successes and feeling for their failures. The brilliance of this (and all of the movies mentioned thus far) is that when the movie is over, we go outside, back to the real world, and realize that we are still the most advanced species on earth (SO FAR).

With this ridiculously brief, entirely self-indulgent history behind us, I am now ready to reveal to you a few movies that I am excited for in the coming year. I am going to dive into one of these movies at a time over the next week or so. Today, we start with Super 8.

Fresh off the heels of the new Star Trek and the aforementioned Cloverfield, J.J. Abrams brings us an homage to the other genius in this piece, Steven Spielberg (also serving as a producer on the film). Abrams' film is an homage to the great Spielberg films of the 70's and 80's, and that's about all we know so far. Much like Cloverfield, the details of the film are completely under wraps. Regardless, given the track record of the two involved (Abrams and Spielberg, in case you were still catching up) and the fact that it uses a Super 8 camera (which has nothing to do with this article, I just LOVE Super 8 film) make me very excited for it. The film is set in the late 1970's, which is very exciting for me on two levels. One, I LOVE the 1970's. I think the 1970's could be the best decade for movies of all time. Two, I'm curious to see if the film draws any comparisons between the fears of the '70's and the fears of the modern world. The third, and biggest reason is that the trailer looked amazing. It was full of action, mystery, cool special effects, and to cap it off, the very intriguing title.

So I appreciate you sticking with this lengthy post until the end, and I will leave you with the bottom line. Monster movies are the best kind of movies, and over the years some really good ones have been made. Society will always be uneasy and afraid, and the monster movie will always be there to help and inform us. This year looks to have a lot of sci-fi/fantasy monster movies in the cards, and I'm hoping that they continue the tradition of quality flicks. Beyond all of the social commentary and insight into society, the monster movie is fun as hell to watch. More than anything else, I just hope all of them, but mostly Super 8, will end up fun. Following is the synopsis for Super 8 as well as the link to the teaser trailer. Look for it June 10th, 2011 in theaters and IMAX.

"Set in 1979 Ohio, a group of six young children use a Super 8 camera to make their own home movie. One night while filming near a remote stretch of railroad tracks, the children witness a truck collide with an oncoming train leading to a catastrophic derailment. Amidst the fire and destruction, something inhuman emerges."

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