Putting the life back in science fiction

Movie Science and the Kaiju Industry

This was inspired in part by others’ blogs about Pacific Rim, so credit to SVPOW and TetZoo for what follows. Ahem.

The first thought was inspired by Darren Naish’s comments about the portrayal of scientists in Pacific Rim. This is scarcely news. In fact, it’s even inspired a few entries at TV Tropes. Still, it’s frustrating, especially when the sheer stupidity of some applied phlebotinium degrades the rest of the movie (red matter, anyone?).

There are potential solutions. Movies tend to be quite sexist, and this has inspired the Bechdel Test which is a litmus test for how women are portrayed in a piece. In order to pass, the piece must:
a. Include at least two women,
b. who have at least one conversation,
c. about something other than a man or men.
When you start thinking about the number of films that fail, you realize how biased most films are. This goes double for summer blockbusters, unfortunately.

Can we do something similar for science? I’m not as pithy as Bechdel, but my first thought was that if a film could be improved by hiring an out-of-work scientist to vet the script and including her suggestions, then it fails the test. This would catch everything from midichlorians and red matter to the continuity gaffs in all the Star Treks, the teleportation between forests in Jurassic Park and so forth.

Now, movie types typically argue that scientists are such a tiny percentage of the audience that there’s no point in catering to them, but that misses the point of the test. This test is more in line with Van Halen’s requirement in their contracts that there be no brown M&Ms backstage. The point of this bizarre-seeming contract clause was that Van Halen at the time was touring with a huge, heavy and technically sophisticated stage rig. Their contracts ran to dozens of pages, and included things like making sure the stage they were to perform on wouldn’t collapse under the weight of all their props. The no-brown-M&Ms clause was actually there for safety. if they spotted brown M&Ms in the bowl, they would immediately know that the venue managers hadn’t bothered to read the contract. At that point, they’d have to immediately check every other show detail, to make sure that nothing collapsed and no one died during their show.

When a movie is stupid about the science, it’s often stupid about a lot of other things too, things that everyone notices, like a crappy plot or cardboard stock characters. Get too stupid and the movie flops. Compared to that, getting a scientist to vet the script is pretty cheap.

Now, let’s turn to Pacific Rim. At this point, I haven’t seen it (and since Darren and Mike Matt have seen it multiple times, I’m not sure they need my ticket money). Be that as it may, I’d like to suggest what would really happen to any kaiju, including godzilla, that was stupid enough to make repeat visits to our little world.

Here’s the fundamental stupidity about these giant kaiju films. It’s all about killing cities. Yes, this would certainly happen the first few times, at least until someone ran an analysis on a kaiju corpse. See, kaiju are biophysically impossible as we understand reality, so if they did exist, they’d be absolutely full of bizarre chemistry. In Pacific Rim, this is all treated as hazardous waste and black market rhino horn stand-ins. But in real life, each corpse would be a gold-mine for the transnational, immensely sophisticated, chemical industry. It doesn’t matter whether you’re rendering Godzilla down for radionucleotides to supply the chronic shortages of medical isotopes, or rendering the blood of PR Kaijus down for all that ammonia, which is a major feedstock for both fertilizers and explosives. Those giant things are too valuable to nuke.

So if our world was invaded by kaiju, here’s what I suspect would happen. First, people would hack kaiju communications to figure out how to lure them or repel them (much as the Allies hacked U-Boat communications in WWII and routed the entire force. Controlling attack subs from a central hub is self-defeating). Then they’d build giant killing pens, probably on the coast of China (note that I’m suggesting this not due to any bias against China, but because they have become chemical suppliers to the world, and they’ve got the huge infrastructure needed to deal with the influx of kaiju products). Once these facilities were built, fleets would lure and drive kaiju into these kill-zones, dispatch them humanely, perhaps with a bunker busting guided bomb to the back of the skull dropped from 10,000 feet, and render their carcasses for everything we could get out of them. Rather than shutting the rift down, we’d probably drop a note in, asking the kaiju masters to send more kaiju (NSFW link). For all I know, bringing in kaiju this way would render our industrial civilization a bit more sustainable, since we would have outsourced production of some highly dangerous chemicals to another planet.

Yes, I understand that Pacific Rim runs on awesome, and that what I just suggested would be titanically not awesome, more in line with The Cove than with what actually made it to the screen. In fact, given Hollywood’s limited set of plots, the only movie they would make out of this scenario is some blue-eyed mother kaiju being mercilessly herded to her doom on the industrialized China coast, with impractical environmentalists’ efforts to save the noble beast from certain destruction. But there’s something a little sad in this whole exercise. It’s not just the bad science, it’s the lack of vision. Hollywood can only think to make kaiju in one mode: destroying coastal cities. There’s little creativity, it’s all replaying a trope that first showed up in 1954. The Japanese were more inventive with their kaiju, but Hollywood’s creativity has been leached out by the monstrous budgets they play with, since investors far prefer predictable ROI to untested creative productions. Personally, I think that adding a little real science, along with that massive dose of creativity that real science inevitably brings, would spice up the whole enterprise. Unfortunately, I doubt anyone in the industry (outside the SyFy Channel) would agree with me. And so it goes.


6 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Get too stupid and the movie flops.

Cite? 😦

Comment by Monte Davis

How about John Carter? According to the writer David Farland, he suggested that the scriptwriters “sex-up” John Carter, make him more of a superhero. They did, having him leap around like Superman, while at the same time, getting overwhelmed in swordfights with Martians who were notionally far weaker than he was. As I recall, several reviewers commented on how stupid this was, since everyone knew so much about Mars from the NASA rovers that it came across as silly. Certainly, superman-type figures are less vulnerable, making them less sympathetic. Someone who’s stronger but still vulnerable is a better protagonist.

Note, if you read the original John Carter of Mars from 1906, it’s actually more accurate. Burroughs wasn’t a scientist, but in the first book, he did base his Mars on what the scientists of the day were saying. His John Carter only leaped three times higher than the Martians, and while he was stronger, he could be overwhelmed by sheer numbers or superior skill.

Comment by Heteromeles

Excellent idea. I’d pay good money to watch the movie you describe.

(BTW., it’s Matt who’s seen it multiple times, and blogged about it on SV-POW!; not me.)

Comment by Mike Taylor

Oops. Fixed that in the text. Thanks.

Comment by Heteromeles

I think the only way to make any sense of Godzilla, Gamera, and the other original Kaiju is that they are some sort of minor Shinto gods. Mothra in particular is explicitly worshiped in the films. Nature is sometimes hostile and sometimes benevolent, just as Godzilla sometimes attacks and sometimes defends Tokyo. Kaiju as Kami would also explain how Godzilla is something like a person and something like a force of nature, but not much like an animal, and why any scientific explanation is total nonsense.

Unfortunately, this also means that Western attempts at Kaiju movies, let alone attempts by scientists to make sense of them, are really destined to miss the mark.

Comment by Howard

That’s a great point. It’s an extension of a theory proposed by Michael Foster in Pandemonium and Parade, which is a cleaned-up PhD thesis on Japanese weird monsters, aka yokai. He pointed out that, in the Edo period, yokai were fun literary monsters. If you’ve not heard of them, they’re similar to the weirder faeries of Irish folklore, though much weirder. After the Meiji restoration and westernization, yokai effects were compared to the new, magical electricity (as were spirits in the west, notably in an L. Frank Baum’s The Master Key. Later on, supernatural activities were blamed on hypnotic effects (in parallel with spiritualism), and to psychological disturbances prior to WWII.

For most of the decade after WWII, yokai stories were, of course, absent. Then Godzilla happened, and there was a decade of kaiju. The yokai showed up again in the late 60s (in parallel with the revival of western fantasy) and have flourished ever since.

I think you’re right to think of kaiju as Japanese supernaturals, although I’d suggest that they’re somewhat more on the yokai end than the kami end of the respectability spectrum. In the case of kaiju, they are stories about a “supernatural” empowered by a magical understanding of nuclear energy and modern science, but they followon the earlier tradition of trying to give a scientific cover to old folklore patterns from Japan.

Comment by Heteromeles

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