An underground monster that can’t see, but senses your steps via vibrations. A giant ape that falls in love with a woman and fights lots of dinosaurs. And a hellish creature that fights on the side of humanity against mechanical armies and wayward elves. What do these have in common?
I interrupt this critical essay to bring you an important announcement: Monsters are cool!
Yup, monsters, one of the key contributions to world culture by cinema over the last 100 years, and by fantasy literature for much longer than that. Something about the monstrous and the freakish appeals to the storytelling impulse, whether scaring kids around a campfire or burning through millions of dollars of special effects in the latest box office spectacle.
I’m prompted to write about all this because I recently watched Hellboy 2: The Golden Army. The film, while generally passable at a character and narrative level, seems much more interested in the chance to put lots of monsters onscreen. Our gang of heroes, monsters all themselves, are looking for some clues in the dilemma of the day – whatever it is, it’s hardly important beside the fact that this obviously means a trip to Troll Market. A site of commerce for otherworldly beings, and pretty much a “pause the action and examine every frame” segment where every corner is stuffed with weird creatures, bizarre actions, imaginative freaks… an overwhelming mess really. It’s too much to take in, and the story sags almost immediately.
Let me repeat: Monsters are cool! Lots and lots and lots of monsters… cool I guess, but not so helpful in keeping the audience’s interest as might be expected.
On the topic of this type of misstep, I always think of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (for an extended rant about King Kong, see my piece on Challenging Destiny). King Kong is awesome! I should probably add an extra exclamation mark, since he’s a believable character, the FX are superb, and so forth. But look at what actually happens in the movie. He fights a T. Rex. Then he fights another T. Rex. Then he fights two. Then he fights three. Then he fights three while hanging from vines in a ravine. Etcetera, etcetera.
He’s doing all this to protect the human female that he’s fallen in love with, so there should be enough of a spine to the story to support all this spectacle. It’s just the same as in Hellboy 2: in the Troll Market, the heroes meet an elvish woman who is on the run from dreadful danger. They protect her, she gives them the clues they need to help save the world, blah blah blah. I wish either movie had spent more time giving us reasons to care about what was happening and less on monsters.
Or maybe just spent less time in general? Why make a monster movie of epic length? Hellboy 2 clocks in at 2 hours, and King Kong at 3 hours – and I think that this is too long.
To prove my point, I’ll point to Tremors. I’ve written about Tremors at length elsewhere, but the short version is that I consider it a perfectly-constructed monster movies. And it’s short, 90 minutes all told. We meet the characters, the threat is introduced, the threat escalates, our heroes face certain doom, our heroes use their brains (a rarity in this kind of story), our heroes succeed, Kevin Bacon gets the girl, The End. Every twist and turn is exactly to the point, and every character moment propels us into an action moment, which in turn either whittles down the cast or sets us up for the next beat in the story. There’s one type of monster, a very effective and deadly one.
Now, not every movie has to be Tremors, and I enjoyed both Hellboy 2 and King Kong. But adding more monsters isn’t a cure-all. If the people making a movie are having problems, the solution should be to fix the script! An obvious answer, and one that’s just about the hardest thing to do.