In theatres now (and no doubt hitting DVD before long) is the Korean film The Host. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a monster movie this good, and even longer since we’ve had one with this much depth.
Any text, of course, has its subtext, and this is as true of giant monster movies as any other work of art. But some films are much more a much richer subtext than others, partly because the filmmakers were quite deliberate in seeing their monsters in a metaphorical or symbolic light. Though the e…d results are very different, this level of depth is most clearly visible in the likes of King Kong (1933), Godzilla (1954) and Them! (1954).
Kong is perhaps the most protean monster of the bunch, at least within a single film. The most human and sympathetic, he has been read as standing in for everything from unleashed id to working class rebellion to white fear of the black male. And on it goes. This incredible thematic richness is something that Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake, much as I love it, doesn’t quite achieve. Because it is so focused on paying tribute to, and bouncing off, the original, it doesn’t have the same mythic resonance. Jackson makes a stab in this direction by tossing in constant references to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but I’m not convinced the idea is followed through all the way.
As for Godzilla, his incarnation of atomic bomb has been pointed out over and over again, and certainly the scenes of post-devastation Tokyo drive this concept home, with the landscape shots eerily reminiscent of newsreel footage of devastated Hiroshima, and the shots of children dying of radiation poisoning. Unlike Kong, however, Godzilla’s symbolic value has shift from film to film (revengeful nature, punishment for Japanese war crimes, etc.). He has always been more than simply a large dinosaur, but it is the first film which goes out of its way to force the audience to see the monster in more than literal terms. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack does come close in this regard, however. The 1998 American effort, however, hollowed out the monster almost completely.
In past columns I’ve mentioned the Gamera trilogy, and how the giant turtle comes to be both elemental force and Christ figure (!), and in Them! we have a nice presentation of Cold War paranoia. The title itself is simply that most paranoid of pronouns, and the giant ants can certainly be read as Communists (look at them, all working together like that). The fact that the ants are created by American A-bomb tests, however, should give one pause, as the film also suggests a certain cultural guilt with regards to the nuclear age.
At any rate, these films have generally been the exception, rather than the rule. And the more recent ones (the Gamera films and GMK) are dealing more with history and broader societal concerns than specific current events. The Host, though, takes us back to the 50s for a more ripped-from-the-headlines feel. It will be interesting to see how well the film does in North America. It is VERY Korean in its concerns – one is forcefully aware of a Korea chafing against what is perceived as the paternalistic and frequently uncaring presence of American power in the country. But the shutdown of civil liberties that occurs in the wake of the (wonderfully realized) monster’s rampage might well speak to a much broader audience, as its members worry about their own countries’ responses to the fear of terrorism. In any event, all monster fans owe it to themselves to check the movie out. As a demonstration of how to use comedy without in any way compromising the thrills, it has few equals.
So there you have it, a triple bill to chew on. Do yourselves a favour, though, and save the best for last.