Appetite for destruction in summer blockbusters

Director Gareth Edwards's remake of Godzilla at least tries to get across the horror felt by ordinary people
Director Gareth Edwards's remake of Godzilla at least tries to get across the horror felt by ordinary people
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As cinemagoers brace themselves for the new Godzilla film, Alistair Harkness looks ahead to the rest of this summer’s blockbusters

After a solid decade of summers dominated by giant robots and superhero smack-downs, it’s small wonder that Godzilla should once again be rising from the deep to reclaim his crown as the self-styled “King of the Monsters”. But this week’s new rebooted origins story is re-entering the fray at a time when the kind of devastation that was once the character’s stock-in-trade has become a much more frequent blockbuster occurrence.

Already this year we’ve experienced city-destroying carnage in Pompeii, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and seen civilization ruined in Transcendence and drowned in Noah. Within weeks of Godzilla opening we’ll also be faced with the architecture-obliterating Sentinels of X-Men: Days of Future Past; Tom Cruise repeatedly battling aliens across London in The Edge of Tomorrow; and robot dinosaurs exacerbating the usual building-breaking bedlam of Optimus Prime in the aptly titled Transformers: Age of Extinction. Cinema’s appetite for destruction clearly knows no bounds.

Where does this masochistic filmmaking impulse come from? King Kong (1933) may have first dibs on city-stomping devastation, but the template was really set by 1953’s The War of The Worlds and the original Japanese Godzilla (1954). Both featured the now-standard sight of collapsing buildings, panic in the streets, hubristic scientists and a seemingly unstoppable external threat wiping out people and landmarks with cataclysmic abandon. They were also the first major films to express humanity’s collective anxiety about the terrible destructive powers unleashed during the Second World War. This was particularly true of Godzilla. Its plot not only allowed a nation banned from making movies about its suffering to codify what its people had gone through in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it tapped into the universal fear of the nuclear age that such destruction could happen anywhere.

That kind of sub-textual unease was very present in the disaster movies that flourished amid the tumult of the 1970s, but blockbuster cinema’s current wrecking ball mentality really began in earnest with the advances in CGI technology in the 1990s. Suddenly filmmakers could deliver large-scale destruction with unparalleled realism. It’s just too bad they recycled the same old stories. Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1996) was little more than an ersatz Godzilla, which in turn begat Roland Emmerich’s rubbish Godzilla remake (1997). Meanwhile, Deep Impact and Armageddon (both 1997) recycled the basic premise of forgotten Sean Connery clunker Meteor (1979) to ponder how humanity might go the way of the dinosaur – even if humanity was arguably the last thing on Michael Bay’s mind as he proceeded to wipe out half of Paris in Armageddon, having already spent the film’s first ten minutes blowing up the Chrysler Building and the Twin Towers.

Unsurprisingly, it was movies such as these that people subsequently had in their mind when the terrorist attacks of 9/11 destroyed the Twin Towers for real. In the weeks that followed, Hollywood pondered whether it should continue making movies that gleefully celebrated our own demise. It soon came to the conclusion that, yes, it should: hence the casual nuking of Baltimore in The Sum of All Fears (2002), the war-on-terror-themed chaos of Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005), and the found-footage monster movie Cloverfield (2008). All these films – along with subsequent Emmerich efforts The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009) – played on genuine real world anxieties, but they were also freed from the burden of having to contemplate the realities of large-scale loss in any meaningful way.

That’s something that Godzilla has at least tried to address, with director Gareth Edwards (Monsters) making an effort give a full sense of the horror wrought upon those not lucky enough to be among the main cast. But it’s a lesson that has yet to be absorbed by comic book movies, which have seen a curious rise in unintentionally homicidal heroes whose godlike invincibility has blinded them to the fact that slamming into the sides of buildings while attempting to vanquish evil would likely result in innocent bystanders being killed or injured. The title characters of Avengers Assemble (2012) and Man of Steel (2013) are lucky they’re not in superhero jail for manslaughter.

What these illogical escalations in destruction really reflect, though, is the film industry’s fear that audiences won’t show up unless provided with action sequences that top themselves in every reel. That’s why genre movies that aren’t comedies or horror films cost hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and market. That’s the cost of trying to convince audiences to watch a film on that all-important first weekend – something Anita Elberse identifies in her book Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment as “the blockbuster trap”. And as long as movies are costing the Earth to accomplish this, you can be sure that studios are going to continue depicting its destruction in ever more spectacular ways to justify the cost.

• Godzilla is on general release from 15 May