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What Measure is a Monster? or Sympathy for the Devil…

I loved Super 8. It was just a wonderfully made coming-of-age tale that paid excellent homage to those old Spielberg films (even those he produced, like The Goonies, not just the ones he directed). However, as I got thinking about the film, and the plot that focuses on a rather ugly-looking alien escaped from government custody, I did find myself somewhat conflicted in what to make of the menace. Was it a poor victim of torture and inhumane treatment at the hands of the United States military, or was it a genuinely evil creature that deserved to be put down? It’s interesting how Abrams manipulates us into feeling sympathy for the creature, despite the fact it tends to feast on innocent human flesh.

Well, it's certainly alien...

It should be noted that none of this is an attempt to chip away at the film, which is well worth a watch. As I mentioned above, I loved it. This is just idle thoughts escaping from my head and working their way to the computer screen. Being honest, as much as the movie was sold around the alien creature, it’s really about Joe coming to terms with the loss of his mother and learning that he can move on and live his life, surrounded by those who love and care for him. The fact that there’s a giant rampaging and killer alien running around stealing humans to power its space craft (and occasionally chowing down on one or two) seems a bit besides the point. Well, not really, but you get my point.

Anyway, Abrams shows us that the creature has been imprisoned and experimented upon for roughly twenty years. That would make any creature insane, and one can understand the rage that it directs towards Nelec, for example. Indeed, it’s a plot point that it views humans as hostile creatures, and that it is only trying to get home, something it wanted to do for years. The idea of a trapped alien, stranded in a foreign land and seeking escape, evokes memories of E.T. and immediately wins the audience over. The majestic shot of the creature climbing into its improvised space craft and soaring to the sky just seals the deal, as a moment of genuine triumph.

Bruce Greenwood put in a mosnter of a performance...

However, something bugs me. I can understand that the creature needs humans to power its craft. I can sorta forgive that, in that it has no reason to believe that we’d willingly help and it seems that there are no real negative side effects to being used as an interstellar battery. So that use of humans is understandable. It’s what might be termed a “necessary evil”, like a hero taking a hostage to escape hostile fire, or stealing a car to pursue a bad guy. I’m not going to applaud it, but I can understand.

On the other hand, the creature snacks on humans. You might argue that it doesn’t see as having the same intrinsic rights as it does, or perhaps it simply sees us all as extensions of the military-industrial complex that locked it in a room and experimented upon it for decades. However, here’s my central problem: the creature makes telepathic contact with its prey by touch. That’s how it gets into Mr. Woodward, sharing an empathic bond with the teacher. From the way he was talking to Nelec about their shared perception, perhaps it even knows it was the actions of the retired scientist that freed it.

In case of broken glass, emergency!

Even if it doesn’t, when it has the moment of epiphany with Joe, it’s picking him up as if to eat him. As Joe seems to be on the way to the creature’s gastro-intestinal tract, he manages to imbue the movie’s central theme, and escape death. However, the creature presumably ate most of its victims in the exact same manner. While Joe was a child and probably a little more innocent, the creature had to have a peak into the minds of countless residents of the small town, and learned that they were: (a.) sentient and self-aware, and (b.) unaware of the creature’s existence, let alone its torture. And yet, rather than hunting local livestock (the dogs were smart enough to get out of town, but it looked like a rural community), the creature fed continuously on humans.

That makes me wonder whether I should be glad that the creature escaped the military and got to go home, or if I should just be glad that it’s no longer skulking along the small town, feeding on poor innocent passers-by. Consider if we were talking about a human character, who had been through similar sorts of circumstances. Assume the human character had been brutalised and tortured and experimented upon. Killing a bunch of poor innocent local people would effectively diminish a lot of the sympathy that the audience would feel for the individual – particularly if he were aware enough to build a space-ship. And that sympathy would be further lost if the casualties were inflicted as casually as the monster here seems to do.

The movie has a magnetic appeal...

You might argue the same logic wouldn’t apply to an animal. I’m saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes last night, and I admit that killer monkeys who have been inhumanely treated will probably get more sympathy than a human being who received the same treatment, if only because – even super-intelligent – they are still animals and beneath the bounds of human culpability and morality. I can make allowances for the monkeys functioning on raw primal instinct, which they might have difficulty suppressing even with radically (and suddenly) increased intelligence. There’s also the tendency to forgive (or at least empathise with) “innocent” mistakes from creatures that don’t understand the consequences of their actions, like Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein. Plus, Caesar’s rebellion actually tries to be relatively bloodless (except to the handful of humans who really deserve it).

But this creature is not struggling with a sudden increased awareness. Its civilisation is advanced enough that they have manned space-flight and can build a rocket from scraps. That implies a sort of civilisation beyond even our own. It might be that the creature’s civilisation – like the advanced civilisation depicted in Mars Attacks! – might consciously reject the rights of beings they deem to be inferior, but that’s an action that I feel comfortable to pass moral judgment upon. I think that’s beyond the bounds of moral relativism. It’s a choice made with full awareness and reasoning. There is no way that the monster couldn’t know that the humans it was feeding on were aware in a manner far more advanced than cows or sheep, because it had to touch them to eat them. And, by touching them, it made telepathic contact, which would have allowed it to know that we were self-aware and capable of higher reasoning.

Roll it there, kids!

If the creature was killing out of revenge for its captivity, as Joe implies, urging it to let go of its pain as he let go of his mother, then I suspect a double-standard might be at play. While we may tolerate a character focusing on revenge against those who caused it harm, it’s hard to think of a film that allows us to empathise with a human character who kills dozens of people he knows to be innocent. It’s probably a testament to Abrams’ skill that this thought only really occurred to me after I’d had a while to contemplate the film.

I just find it fascinating that we’re probably more forgiving of an alien monster than we’d likely be of a human protagonist, even though none of the usual caveats seem to apply here. I loved Super 8, and I think it’s one of the better films of the year, so this isn’t an attack or a criticism. It’s just an idle thought that slipped through my internal spam filter.


2 Responses

  1. Many of the points you bring up have irked me since the credits first rolled, and have hindered my want to love this movie more than I do. The revelation that it was eating people was given in such a flail, mcguffin toss away, sort of way that you could forgive the audience for not really registering it. At the same time, however, the writer/director felt the need to make sure the audience knew that’s what this alien was doing. They wanted us to know: this big hunk eats people, which immediately inspires all the questions you’re asking based on other points the film was certain to present us.

    I really worry the film underminds itself by going down that route, when it never needed to in the first place. They could have skidded by that he was using them as his own slave army to help build the ship. The chase sequence through the tunnel wasn’t really all that necessary anyway, so doing away with it wouldn’t have hurt the movie any. Perhaps since much of the film’s tension rides on “what is the alien really doing” they thought the audience would want some diabolical payoff?

    • I see where you’re coming from Ryan. I was surprised that the monster started eating people. I sincerely thought he was going to be a benevolent creature who was just misunderstood. And I think that’s what the filmmakers wanted too right? So why did he make the monster… a monster. Epic Fail I think. It rendered the creature a bit… disappointing.

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