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The Lonely Scientist as Hero – Dr. Serizawa in Gojira (1954)

Dr. Daisuke Serizawa is my lonely scientist of choice, from the original film Gojira. What attracted me to the character was how differently he is portrayed, for a lonely scientist, that is. Most lonely scientists inadvertently cause destruction…or at least their own downfall. But in Gojira, Serizawa’s loneliness is actually a sign of his heroism and humanitarian integrity, rather than instability or pride.

The original Japanese film was released in 1954 and launched one of the most famous – perhaps the most famous – movie monsters in history. His only competition is King Kong. What makes the original Japanese film so good, however, is not the special effects or even the monster, but what the monster evokes. It is a beautiful evocation of the trauma of war, evacuation and dislocation, and nuclear warfare.

The monster, Godzilla (or Gojira) actually looks rather unimpressive today. Whenever he rises from the sea, he sways woozily, like he’s had too much to drink the night before. He’s also a bit pudgy and ponderous. It does lend him an aura of unstoppability, though. Slow-moving, but invincible and inevitable.

But when he rises from Tokyo Bay and begins to lay waste to Tokyo, the burned out city he leaves in his wake is a painfully accurate image of how many cities in Japan (and around the world) did look after bombing. While the monster is stalking through Tokyo, a woman hugs her three children tightly and tells them that they are going to see their father soon, who no doubt died during the previous war.

The film surprisingly does not flinch from showing what must have been nightmare memories for many people. Children crying in hospitals, cities on fire, military machines ineffectually firing as the monster keeps coming. The monster represents not just the war, but also nuclear warfare. In the film, he  is a prehistoric dinosaur released by the testing of atomic weapons.

The only one who can save Japan is the lonely hero of the film: Dr. Serizawa. Serizawa himself is a living reminder of the war, having lost an eye while fighting during WWII. He is engaged to the daughter of a colleague, zoologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura). The daughter, however, is in love with a ship’s captain

But Serizawa spends all his time in the lab and everyone wonders what he’s working on. The only person he shows is his fiance, Emiko (Momoko Kochi). Oddly enough, I think that was his way of telling her that he loved her. He’s a more reserved man, but after her shows her what he’s experimenting on – which horrifies her – he tells her that she is the only person he would show that to.

What he’s working on, however, turns out to be an inadvertent weapon of mass destruction. It’s an Oxygen Destroyer, which he discovered accidentally and deprives all living things in an area of water of its oxygen. He’s afraid of sharing it with the world for fear it would only add to the already lengthy lists of ways people can kill each other. Hence his isolation and refusal to see others.

The dilemma for Serizawa is to decide whether or not to use it to destroy Godzilla. If he uses it, then the world will know and he fears will want him to create a weapon for them. If he doesn’t use it, then Godzilla will go on destroying cities.

(Spoilers) His solution is to destroy his research, use his Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla, and end his life in the process so that not even the knowledge in his mind can be used for ill. This only works because his research is entirely in his control, because he works alone. The lonely, principled hero standing up for right.

I can’t help but think, however, that once it is even known that such a thing as an Oxygen Destroyer exists, then it will be invented again by somebody. No one ever really does have a monopoly on scientific knowledge and scientists never can ultimately be alone – it’s there for everyone to find. As was pointed out to me recently, the knowledge is out there on how to create a nuclear bomb; the hard (and expensive) part is actually building one.

This is my contribution to The Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by Ruth of Silverscreenings, and myself. Be sure to check out all the other posts, which can be found here for Days 1, 2, and 3.

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Posted by on September 10, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Planet of the Apes (1968)

planet-of-the-apes-posterI promised I would write this post over a month ago and I have finally done it! My only concern is that it’s been over a month since I’ve watched this movie. However, I took notes about some of the things that most stood out to me.

It’s not quite what I was expecting, though I did not expect it to adhere closely to the novel by Pierre Boulle. The book is a satire, an examination of the inevitable decline and de-evolution of civilization and a treatise on how the difference between civilization and savagery is wafer-thin. The movie, on the other hand, seems more about human hubris and self-destruction.

George Taylor (Charlton Heston) and his team of three other astronauts are in hibernation on a spaceship, but it crashes on a planet long before it was supposed to. One astronaut dies, while the other three go out into the new world, searching for any sign of life (even plant life). For the first twenty minutes or so, they travel through vast, barren wastelands and it’s visually stunning…as the men look small, insignificant and lost.

But eventually they run into human life…and simian life. But it’s all reversed. The simians are the sentient beings, while the humans are like animals. Zira (Kim Hunter) and Cornelius (Roddy McDowall) are two chimpanzee scientists who try to help Taylor and who ironically seem like the most human characters of all.

But what first strikes one is what an irascible, egoistic misanthrope Taylor. is He hates humanity, but hates it even more when monkeys are on top while humans are on the bottom…because now it means that he’s treated like he’s on the bottom, despite his own feeling of superiority.

At first, it seemed like the film was going to being partly about religious bigotry, how religion is incompatible with science and Dr. Zaius (Maurice Evans) is presented as the dogmatic zealot who will squash the truth at any cost, persecute Taylor and the two scientists for their honest inquiring. But then the movie pulls a switch on the audience. Dr. Zaius is revealed to be – not a religious fanatic, but a pragmatist. Unlike Zira and Cornelius, he always knew that the religion was not true. He also always knew (mostly) the truth about Taylor.

But Zaius believes that humans are inherently violent and that the only way to protect simian civilization is to shun humanity and its civilization and arrogance. He hides the truth, because he believes it will lead to apocalypse. He seems to want to keep simian civilization from developing too far. Though one can’t help but feel that he is fighting a losing battle. One can usually only cover the truth for so long.

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Charlton Heston, Linda Harrison, Kim Hunter, Roddy McDowall, Robert Gunner

But in a way, the film seems to endorse his point of view. He warns about what Taylor will find in the desert (a nuclear wasteland, as it turns out). What Taylor finds is the half buried Statue of Liberty and he realizes that he’s on earth and it destroyed itself with nuclear weapons. Considering his low opinion of humanity, it is surprising how shocked Taylor is by this discovery.

What I was curious about, though, is how representative Taylor is supposed to be of human civilization. Is he an anomaly or representative of the people who nihilistically blew themselves away. I’m inclined to think he’s meant to be representative, since only a misanthrope would be capable of cynically retaliating with nuclear weapons.

What made the policy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) effective between the Soviet Union and America during the Cold War was that neither side wanted to die. They wanted very much to live and one hears stories of government officials emerging from viewing the destructive capacities of their weapons with faces drained of all color, horrified at what could be done. I heard one story of a soviet official who noticed on his radar what looked like a nuclear weapon heading towards Russia. In truth, he should have fired back, but it didn’t make sense to him that America would only send one missal and he held back, believing it to be an anomaly. He was right and he saved the would from destruction.

But what it illustrates is the powerful drive to survive that people have. In that sense, Taylor’s misanthropic impulse to wash his hands of humanity and embark on a mission that will take him thousands of years into the future is nihilistic and an endorsement of the kind of death-wish that leads to mutually assured destruction

Taylor’s lack of faith in anything – religion, humans, civilization – and his endorsement of rebellion (he encourages Zira’s nephew to keep up the good fight of rebellion) does not, in truth, seem sympathetic. It seems symptomatic of what led to death and destruction in the first place. Making Dr. Zaius’s concerns seem oddly valid, if very possibly doomed.

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2016 in Movies

 

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Planet of the Apes – The Novel, by Pierre Boulle

414895I have not seen any Planet of the Apes movies, but I’ve been intending to go on a Planet of the Apes watching spree – from 1968 to 2014. However, before I do so I wanted to read the novel that begat such a long-lived franchise.

Planet of the Apes was published in 1963 and was authored by Pierre Boulle (who also penned the novel The Bridge Over the River Kwai in 1952). He was a Frenchman who worked as a spy for the British during WWII, but was turned in by a Vichy Frenchman and spent two years in a prison camp until he escaped.

Most people know the basic idea of the story. Space/time traveler/journalist Ulysse Merou travels through space from Paris with an eccentric, brilliant professor and his assistant to the distant star of Betelgeuse. They leave fully knowing that when they return to earth, thousands of years will have passed. But when they arrive on the planet (Soror) that circles the star, they find things to be rather different than they expected.

The planet is very much like earth, except the humans are like animals and apes are the sentient beings – the orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect of Planet of the Apes. I had my dim notions gleaned from references to the movies, but the book proved somewhat different. At first I thought it was a satire of human civilization…the airs we give ourselves, the assumptions of our own natural superiority, the behavior we consider natural, but seems grotesque when carried out by another species of animal.

The apes cut off the hair of humans and wear it in their hats, they hunt humans, they conduct scientific experiments on humans. Even the idea of humans wearing clothes strikes the apes as absurd, just as humans see no need for apes to be attired. Poor Ulysse is reduced to walking everywhere stark naked.

They even have their own stratified society, with chimpanzees being historically persecuted and gorillas historically the aristocrats of society.

They clearly felt that having all the humans naked was a bit much for the movie

They clearly felt that having all the humans naked was a bit much for the movie

The humans on Soror, on the other hand, are like animals, with no spark of intelligence. Ulysse is startled when he meets a gorgeous woman, whom he calls Nova, who he finds physically attractive, but with no soul to respond to him other than has a pet mind responds to an owner.

On the other hand, he forms a deep spiritual bond with Zira, a female chimpanzee scientist. He convinces her of his intelligence through geometry and they bond closely, though they cannot get over the physical repugnance they feel for each other’s appearance. He cannot help feeling physically attracted to Nova, but it is only with Zira that he finds emotional and intellectual communion.

Oddly enough, I found it difficult to really imagine Zira has a chimpanzee while reading, because she is presented as so warm and human. I’m curious to see how much of this would-be romance subplot makes it into any of the movies.

But by the second half of the novel, I realized that the point of the story was not satire, but a look at how the barrier between being savage and civilized is wafer thin. The professor who had traveled with Ulysse becomes so accustomed to captivity and being treated as an animal that he reverts to animal-form. All spark of comprehension and higher feeling is completely extinguished and he acts just like all the other humans. Even Ulysse finds it startlingly easy to drift into a kind of complacence.

While held captive with the other humans – before it is realized that he is on their intellectual level – he finds himself being taken care of, falling into habits of wanting to please the chimps to earn food, trying to match their expectations and just generally letting himself go. He is only saved  from this by Zira.

Charlton Heston and Kim Hunter - they couldn't bring themselves to kiss in the book (though they almost get swept away by emotion), but they couldn't get over how ugly the other looked

Charlton Heston and Kim Hunter – they couldn’t bring themselves to kiss in the book (though they almost get swept away by the their deep bond), but they couldn’t get over how ugly the other looked

In fact, Zira’s scientist fiance – Cornelius – discovers that chimpanzees did not evolve into sentient beings first on Soror, as was previously believed. Instead, he discovers that humans were the dominate species on earth, but taught apes to imitate them. Through imitation, they learned intelligence and while they grew more intelligent, humans grew lazy and unmotivated, slipping gradually back into primitivism while apes took over the world.

And that is Pierre Boulle’s central point: civilizations inevitably die away, people grow lethargic and contented, happy to be taken care of, losing all motivation and desire to push forward and instead slip backwards. It’s de-evolution. In the book (unlike the 1968 movie) there is no nuclear war or folly that brings about the demise of humans, but merely the natural course of nature. And the same thing is destined to happen to the apes, the author suggests.

There is a twist at the end of the book, but it is not the twist of the movie. There is also a framing story: two lovers floating around space who find a message in a bottle that contains Ulysse’s story. There is a kicker to this framing story, but I don’t want to spoil it.

Over all, I found it a fascinating book. The tone is initially lightly-ironic, sometimes mocking. But there is also an increasingly grotesque horror that pervades the book. I am curious to see how the movies compare with this book…and it’s message.

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2016 in Books

 

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