On the Shoulders of Giants: Why Movies Are Shifting from the Undead to Big Monsters

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by Jesse Damiani
December 18, 2013 2:43 PM
2 Comments
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At this year’s New York Comic Con, hordes of cosplayers donned khaki military jackets, white spandex, combat boots, and hip-level silver boxes—costumes imitating the uniforms of the Survey Corps in this spring’s breakout anime show, Attack on Titan. In the show, the Survey Corps is the group responsible for identifying and dispatching gigantic humanoids that eat people for fun. Earlier this year, Jack the Giant Slayer blended the Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack the Giant Killer fairy tales into a battle of mythic proportions between humans and giants, and, in the fall, the Guillermo del Toro-helmed Pacific Rim combined global crisis and B-movie kitsch with state-of-the-art mecha-kaiju grudge matches. That vampires and zombies have surged in popularity over the past decade is news to none, but it’s becoming clear that, in the new moment, our interests lie with bigger things.

To discuss the genres intended to scare—horror, suspense, and thriller, et al.—is to examine the cultural fears they exploit. They serve as litmus tests for our collective anxieties; no matter how intelligent a scary movie may be, the underlying purpose is to frighten—to activate in viewers some amalgam of masochism (the chance to be put through psychological discomfort), catharsis (the chance to see what scares us exterminated), and voyeurism (the chance to see others suffer our demons). The spike in popularity of vampires and zombies in Western entertainment stems back to the pre-recession decadence of the early aughts. Before the financial collapse, enough of the American population felt comfortable that their basic needs would be met, creating an environment that allowed many the space to speculate about evils lurking in their midst. The embarrassment of riches was obvious enough to generate the fear that it could be stripped away, making the undead, creatures that begin their lives as humans, perfect vehicles to play on this anxiety. Hearkening back to the Biblical fall from Paradise, their immutability only deepens their evil. They exist as binaries along the spectrum of the idea that overwhelming power can easily turn monstrous; vampires present the conundrum of willful immortality, zombies showcase the total relinquishing of agency to beast instinct without the pesky intrusion of awareness.

But, by 2013, the illusion of economic security has long since crumbled, and with it, the energy to interrogate the contours and consequences of the milieu that produced it. “Big monster” movies and television shows mirror this phenomenon in their frequent inclusion of global catastrophe. In place of the fear that we’ll lose our resources is the fear that we’ll even survive long enough to use what resources we have left. These creatures generally exhibit neither the vampire’s cunning nor the zombie’s contagion, and, maybe most importantly, are not so obviously us, and when they are—as in the giant armored robots of Pacific Rim—they showcase our aptitude for collectively addressing and combatting impending evil of equal proportion.

This is the most pivotal psychological difference between big monsters and the undead: the turn away from the individual to the group. One person—with enough strength, wit, or courage—can singlehandedly dispatch zombies or vampires. Giants, though, are enemies so massive that only a group can vanquish them. Where a zombie can be shot in the head and a vampire can be exposed to sunlight, the kaiju in Pacific Rim, for instance, have no obvious Achilles heel. Humanity’s only fighting chance lies in the convergence of disparate sets of knowledge—some from scientists, some from black market dealers, some from those who fight the beasts directly. It is only from this collaboration that Newton Geiszler, the excitable researcher with nontraditional methods, begins to discover patterns that can be exploited to save humanity.

Attack on Titan is also an exemplar of this new trend in its degree of remove from culpability. Big monsters are, at worst, an accidental outgrowth of humanity, and likely unrelated to us whatsoever. We’re aware that the monsters couldn’t exist without our involvement (this becomes an important plot point in Attack on Titan), but blaming ourselves for them doesn’t fit, either. Even if we were implicitly involved in their creation, our involvement was unknowing and passive. The average person may buy Kraft macaroni, for instance, but that doesn’t mean the average person intended to support the parent company, Monsanto, in effectively monopolizing entire crops.

Simultaneously, our social ills are the outgrowth of groupthink, and, as is the case with mega-conglomerations, are the fault of no definable enemy. This process is explained in a recent video titled “The Innovation of Loneliness.”

In its immediacy of exchange, the Internet is unprecedented in its uniting of human knowledge and experience, revealing on a mass scale our best and our worst. The new technologies that have sprung up alongside it have created as many conveniences as they have barriers of separation, ranging from internet-based customer service lines to video conferencing. No technology is fundamentally bad—neither are big monsters, in that sense—they’re just doing what they’re compelled to do. How we respond to them has effects on us, though, some of which can harm us and others that can help or better us. Much as social networking has altered our sense of community, it also allows us to organize in record timeframes. With the growing presence of fundraising apparatuses like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, grassroots campaigns have never been easier or more effective. As witnessed in the increasing relevance of viral media, the strength of the individual now lies in one’s participation in the sharing process. We still need leaders and innovators, but there are so many voices now that we can—and in fact, must—exist in more stratified niches than ever before. There will always be the Eren Jaegers and Raleigh Beckets—those who traditionally exist as heroes of the stories—but they will have relied more heavily than ever before on the work of the Armin Arlerts and Mikasa Ackermans, the Newton Geiszlers and Hannibal Chaus. It’s the agency of an individual hero that’s being held in scrutiny, not the necessity of their existence.

Where undead entertainment traffics in pessimism, big monster movies often feature underlying optimism, typically borne of dire circumstance. The fighting is necessary for our very survival, imbuing it with undeniable purpose, and, maybe most importantly: we’re fighting for something we want to save. It’s not about the monsters; it’s about us, the underdogs. It’s about what we’ll do—who we’ll become—to fight back. If it was the allowances of the group that allowed these monsters to exist, it can only be the group that takes them down. Our giants are bigger than they’ve ever been. We can’t beat them alone.

Jesse Damiani is Series Co-Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Omnidawn, 2014). He lives in Madison, WI.
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2 Comments

  • Gordon Litefut | December 19, 2013 7:11 PMReply

    My god, what hot air! Get a job, Jesse!

  • Josh | December 19, 2013 9:49 AMReply

    Good essay, but if movies aren't successful or embraced by audiences, can they really be seen as some kind of indicator of the zeitgeist? Pacific Rim and Jack the Giant Slayer pretty well failed to resonate much with American audiences.

    Meanwhile, The Walking Dead found its mega-success from 2010 on-wards, hardly a time of financial security.

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