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Other Films about “Monstrous Natures” (Jiyoung Yoon)

October 16, 2009

As a self-acclaimed fan of “cheesy B-movies,” I really enjoyed reading Stacy Alaimo’s “Discomforting Creatures: Monstrous Natures in Recent Films” since the article rendered a new perspective from which I could think about movies I’d watched in different ways. Despite not very “recent,” three films popped into my mind while I was reading Alaimo’s article: two science fiction movies, Them (1954) and The Planet of the Apes (1968), and the classic, King Kong (1933).

1. Them

Them Original Poster

Them Original Poster

Them is a film about human’s encounter with a nest of giant ants. Worth noting is that the giant ants are created by nuclear weapon testing. Yes, they are not just giant; they are radiation-giganticized. Though the ants are created by human, the film projects “them” as monsters that demarcate the boundary between humans and non-human creatures and, thus, should be eradicated for “us.” This movie came out in the ‘50s as a sort of response to the cold war. (In his article “The Contested Earth: Science, Equity & The Environment,” Daniel J. Kevles also examines the close relation between the cold war era and “the second environmental movement; see p. 85.)  It’s pretty obvious that the film used a body of insect to represent the threatening “other,” the Soviet Union, by transforming their physical appearance into a monstrous figure.

2. The Planet of the Apes

A trailer of The Planet of the Apes for thoes who didn’t watch the film to get a taste of it.

Here’s another film about the capitalization of the fear Americans used to have in the cold war era. This film’s a little bit tricky to follow in that the protagonist and the audience alike gradually approach what was really happened as well as what IS really happening in the movie. Let me just jump into the truth of the film for this short post’s sake. The human civilization blew up all humanity on the earth; the planet became bleak and several groups of apes (gorillas, orangutans, and chimps) came to be in charge of the earth as substitutional intellectual figures for humans. One of the reason why this film is so cool is that the hierarchized structure of humans and non-human creatures is reversed in The Planet of the Apes. The protagonist who is an astronaut returning back to the earth after a 2000-year voyage remains ignorant until the end of the movie (he does not even know he came back to the same planet, which is the earth; he thought he landed on another planet due to the presence of the apes), and the apes are knowledgeable. As one of the apes explains, humans are subservient and needed to be kept under their supervision since humans are dangerous. This reversed representation of humans, not as those who supervise but as those who are supervised by other creatures, refreshes our perspective towards the cultural construction of superior humans vs. inferior animals paradigm.

3. King Kong

This is so classic that I do not think I need to explain any general information about the film. (Just to be sure, I’ve only watched the original King Kong released in 1933, not other sequels, so what I’m going to say here might not match with the 2 other contemporary King Kongs.) Here’s a thing I’d like to talk about: the role of the female body of the “monster” movie. Alaimo in “Discomforting Creatures: Monstrous natures in Recent Films” points out “Women, it seems, must serve as the border zone between nature and culture, keeping nature safely at bay” (283), and I think we can also apply this critique to the role of Fay Wray in King Kong. I believe, everyone, if you’ve seen it, remembers the movie ends with King Kong’s tragic death. Does anybody remember with what specific dialogue the movie ends? A cop who was one of the crowd on the street watching the fight between King Kong and the military says, “the airplanes got him (King Kong).” And the film director who caught King Kong alive in some unknown “exotic” location and brought him to NYC in order to exploit the giant gorilla for his show replies, “Oh, no, it was not airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” Therefore, throughout the film, the body of Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) is presented very contradictorily insofar as she is both a necessary figurethe only human body King Kong feels attached to—in exterminating the “monster,” and a helpless, half-naked figure in the giant Kong’s hand who cannot help but wait for the military attack on King Kong.

Lastly, Does anybody have your own list of the films about “monstrous natures” which is not dealt with in Alaimo’s article? Then leave a comment; I would definitely like to enjoy your list too!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. kmckimps permalink
    October 17, 2009 6:57 am

    Good choices! I recall all three fondly. “Them” is particularly compelling to me because of my first experience with it.

    I remember watching the TV in the kitchen with my mother. “Neverending Story” was being shown and I had decided it was worth watching. For whatever reason (most likely my introverted nature) I decided I wanted to watch it by myself and ran to the upstairs television to watch it by myself. But, for some reason, the channels were different between the two televisions, and “Them” was on instead. One would think I could tell the difference, but I recall watching the film for quite awhile before I realized that the black-and-white giant ants were not another plot twist. I do also recall, however, noticing immedietly that the ants must ahve been grown by radiation, so I got that message, and that such grown was wrong in a cosmic sense.

    I remember a third opinion that formed though, after watching a person get eaten after trying to escape by running up what I think was a diving board, which I saw as quite stupid and therefore also gained from the film an elitist, smug superiority over such dumb individuals, extending the chain of being such that animals at the bottom, then dumb humans, then me, then big, gigantic ants. I do not recall at that age assigning it to Russia (This would have been somewhere in the middle 80’s, so I figure I was 5 or 6).

    After reading your post, I wonder if the judgments I made were part of an incomplete conditioning. I got part of the message correct, but missed all the message, instead constructing a second category of humans in the inferiority chain.

    I suppose this construction was conforting and did help me re-affirm that such an occurance (of radiation-grown ants) was truly a fantasy for me, because I wasn’t one of those dumb humans climbing a diving board. Assiging the complex of animals and humans helped me to re-prioritize the environmental message to my sense of identity to where it wasn’t as big a concern.

    I’m afraid my list of monstrous films is largely B&W, excepting S.F. (Star Trek IV), but Alaimo didn’t really approach microcosmic nature, so I would add Andromeda Strain (the older one please) and Outbreak.

  2. October 18, 2009 7:03 pm

    Erica Elliott

    How excellent that you wrote a post about “Them!” While I am *not* a fan of cheesy B-movies, and I was actually unable to sit through the entirety of “Them!”, I learned about the film through one of the articles that has been most useful to my thinking about the Cold War, nuclear culture, totalizing environmental change, and mutation. The article, written by Joseph Masco, is called “Mutant Ecologies: Radioactive Life in Post-Cold War New Mexico.” It was published in the journal “Cultural Anthropology,” Vol. 19, Issue 4. (I would post it here, but I’m not clear on whether that’s a legal move.) Masco discusses several fascinating aspects of “nuclear nature,” but he begins his article by reading “Them!” as a subtle but “devastating critique of U.S. nuclear policy at the very height of the Cold War” (518).

  3. danieljplatt permalink
    October 21, 2009 8:04 pm

    Great post Jiyoung! Your question about other “monstrous natures” in film made me think of a pretty recent (2006) monster movie called “The Host.” It’s by the Korean director Joon-ho Bong. The plot is pretty simple: agents from the American military carelessly dump chemicals into the Han River, resulting in this terrifying monster taking vengeance on the city. It’s one of my favorite monster/horror movies of all time, and definitely one with an “environmental” subtext.

  4. paulbellew permalink
    December 3, 2009 5:23 am

    I would suggest _The Hills Have Eyes_ is in line with this idea of monstrous nature. In the film a family on vacation breaks down in the desert and is attacked and brutalized by a family of deformed cannibals who inhabit the area. Why is this cannibal family deformed you may ask? Because they refused to move from the area during nuclear testing. It’s pretty intense. Also, and this is probably a bit different, the film _Deliverance_. In _Deliverance_ a group of friends go on a canoeing trip in a wilderness area in Georgia. This will be their last opportunity to canoe this river because a dam being built will soon flood the entire forest. Unfortunately, they are attacked and brutalized by a group of creepy yokels. It’s intense as well…

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