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Monster Movies Teach Us Key Truths About The Human Condition


This weekend’s release of “Kong: Skull Island” marked yet another “shared universe” of films aping the Marvel universe, this one linked with the 2014 “Godzilla” movie.

Now, I am a huge Godzilla fan. I love that world and its characters the way some people love Star Trek or “Doctor Who.” It really is what got me interested in movies in the first place. So I’m as pleased as a cat that got into the birdcage at the prospect of a series of big-budget films set in that universe—provided, of course, that the filmmakers don’t screw it up the way the DC cinematic universe has.

So far, it’s been pretty good: “Godzilla” needed more monster action and a more interesting human story, while “Kong” was bogged down by an asinine anti-war theme that doesn’t suit the material, but both films are entertaining, creative, and, most importantly, true to their characters. Whatever flaws they had, I felt this was Godzilla and this was Kong.

An Examination of the Warrior’s True Purpose

I say an anti-war message doesn’t suit Kong because, especially as depicted in this film, Kong is a warrior, and really doesn’t have the option to not fight. His presence is the only thing that allows the island’s natives to live in a cartoony utopia (that, for some reason, doesn’t include smiling) and possibly prevents the rest of the world from being threatened. Godzilla was in much the same position in the previous film, as the only thing standing between humanity and destruction by the electricity-draining MUTOs.

In either case, the image is of a world that is only allowed to continue in whatever state of peace or safety it has because there’s a ferocious warrior standing guard, ready to push back the things that threaten to destroy it. “Godzilla” made this link explicit by casting soldiers as its human leads (in fact, “Godzilla “was the closest thing to a pro-war, or at least pro-warrior, movie I’ve seen in a long time), while “Kong” has its chief human warrior character as an Ahab-like antagonist.

The good news is that “Kong” has more than enough sheer creativity and enthusiasm for the material that makes it worth sitting through tired anti-Vietnam agitprop. Also, the medium undermines the would-be message. The very nature of a kaiju film like this forbids any kind of triumphant humanism. In a world where monsters the size of buildings stand guard against creatures that can shut down a city with a single move, there really is no room to hope that mankind has the wherewithal to end the perennial ills of the human condition.

When Trying to Play God Unleashes Demons

The essence of a monster film is that there are things in this world that man simply can’t control, and that trying to control or remove these things can have dire consequences. Kill Kong, and you end up with skullcrawlers (nasty lizard-snake-crocodile things that apparently have a “kill everything” instinct). Try to kill Godzilla and you might end up with a world ruled by MUTOs. This theme carries over from the original kaiju films, which repeatedly emphasized that tampering with the natural order is a very bad idea, one that carries unpredictable and horrible consequences, however good the intentions.

Kong, Godzilla, and their ilk serve as indomitable fortresses of nature’s power: stark reminders that man does not determine his own reality, but shares this world with powers and principalities far beyond him. Attempts to overthrow those things inevitably lead to disaster due to his limited powers as either a creator or a fortuneteller.

In kaiju films, mistakes have consequences measured in millions of lives, violation of the natural order brings swift and sure retribution, and salvation comes from ancient forces outside our control, which we can help but can’t direct. In other words, it actually bears a strong resemblance to the real world. Fancy that.

Edmund Burke famously preached in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” that even an imperfect established order is preferable to the most rational revolutionary system merely for the fact that it is established and, hence, orderly. The history of Western civilization ever since has largely served to demonstrate the truth of his words. Indeed, it seems as though the entire modern world is built upon first rejecting the wisdom of our ancestors then spending billions of dollars and decades of effort trying to compensate for the loss (often with piles of bodies to show for it).

France spent much of the nineteenth century struggling to make its latest political experiment function. Russia and China threw off the shackles of private property and murdered 100 million people trying to force human nature to fit the mold they had set for it. The West abandoned the sexual morality and taboos of the past and now finds itself a mass of broken families and fatherless children on welfare (not counting the millions that are simply murdered before we have to look at them).

Again and again, humans destroy the established order, only to find that doing so unleashes monsters far worse than the ones we were at such pains to escape. It is surely tragic when a culture’s sexual taboos doom a girl to a second-class life because of a mistake made in the heat of the moment, but it pales compared to the mass slaughter of abortion mills and the seething underclass of fatherless youth that we’ve created as an alternative. It’s sad to see a family-run shop ruined because a more powerful corporate giant drove them out of business, but hardly compares to the chronic unemployment, inefficiency, and crushing taxation of even the best socialist state.

Life Is Often a Choice Between Monsters

That’s the hard lesson of kaiju films, and one of the reasons I find them so compelling: they teach that there are some problems that simply won’t be solved to everyone’s satisfaction, and that taking drastic steps in an attempt to do so will be far worse than just letting the thing go on.

Life is a choice of monsters: war and its attendant horrors, or conquest, devastation, and greater suffering at some later time; private property, with its temptations to fraud and greed, or crushing, unsustainable bureaucracy and universal poverty; morality with its taboos and potential for prudery, or a chaotic sewer where no one takes responsibility for his actions. Perfection will never be achieved because mankind simply lacks the power to change either his own nature or the nature of the world around him.

It’s a choice of monsters, but some monsters are better than others. Mankind can coexist with Godzilla or Kong, but not with the MUTOs or skullcrawlers. War, with uniformed men facing each other on a battlefield on behalf of recognized and clearly defined nations, is a great evil, but it is an evil that civilization can endure more or less intact. Marxism, with its hatred of established norms, refusal to admit human nature, and denial of objective morality, is an evil that civilization cannot survive.

With the relative peace, ease, and comfort it provides, civilization is ringed all around by things as monstrous as Kong or Godzilla. We call them “laws” and “ethics” and “tradition.” Yes, sometimes that means someone, sooner or later, will suffer. A man fails in business and loses everything. A girl makes a mistake and is tainted for life. A war devastates whole regions and leaves millions dead.

These are all terrible things that ought not happen. But, in the end, such things often can’t be prevented without a cost more terrible still. That’s because removing these things does not just eliminate their immediate consequences (i.e., casualties in war) but undermines the whole structure of the civilization, reaching people who would never have been touched by the thing itself.

Life Is Full of Competing Evils

For instance, a man may be falsely arrested, or injured resisting arrest by overzealous or corrupt policemen. That’s bad. But then in the aftermath we see what happens when the police don’t enforce the law: thousands of people riot with impunity, putting the lives and property of tens of thousands more in jeopardy.

Then in the aftermath we see what happens when the police don’t enforce the law.

With police, injustices may occur to those who, for whatever reason, cross paths with them. Without the police, thousands of people who have never had anything to do with crime, injustice, or racism end up suffering. More importantly, the system that allows them to run businesses, raise their families, and live in peace is destroyed, something that was never even a possible downside of a police force.

The same can be said for war. Even if a given war doesn’t seem to threaten any real harm to the nation, the willingness to fight is itself part of the structure of civilization. If other nations or organizations believe they can undermine or defy a country with impunity, then sooner or later the situation will reach the point where the country itself is threatened.

The English might have been unwilling to fight for the Sudetenland, and likely would have raised an almighty outcry against it as an “unnecessary war,” but the fact is that if they had, London wouldn’t have been bombed to rubble three years later. As Churchill said, “You were given the choice between war and dishonor: you chose dishonor and you will have war.”

Nature Sees Your Harms and Raises You

The point is that, yes, adhering to traditional values and established orders will cause harm to some people. People will suffer for committing moral taboos, or die in wars fought over points of national honor, but in the end we have to say the same thing as we would to those people drowned in the tsunami Godzilla caused coming ashore at Waikiki, or those soldiers Kong slaughtered in the helicopter battle: “I wish this hadn’t happened to you, but it’s still better to have such things.”

You can’t know the outcome, so you should hold fast to principles even when they seem to produce bad results.

Some people will call this consequentialism, but it’s really the opposite. Consequentialism says the morality of an action is determined by its consequence: if I shoot you because I knew you were going to murder someone later, that is a good thing. It advises compromising principles in order to achieve a better outcome. I am saying you can’t know the outcome, so you should hold fast to principles even when they seem to produce bad results.

That’s because if you try to fix the immediate results by compromising on truth, tradition, or morality, you’re going to create a far worse situation than you had to begin with. Even an imperfect situation, which you know will result in some evil consequence sooner or later, is generally much preferable to the alternative.

As usual, our ancestors knew this and gave us a proverb summing up this entire essay in a single sentence, which I will now take the liberty of offering in a slightly modified form: “Better the monster you know than the monster you don’t.”