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

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

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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Comments

Gordon Litefut

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

Josh

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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