Monthly Archives: May 2014
In 1954 Toho Studios unleashed Gojira upon an unsuspecting populace, causing widespread devastation to countless bank accounts. In 1998 Tristar took this intellectual property and placed it in the incapable hands of Roland Emmerich, who stripped the character of every relevant trait and produced the most expensive Jurassic Park rip-off to date. This travesty caused Toho to spring into damage control mode and bring Godzilla out of hiatus early in the far more entertaining Godzilla 2000, producing a superior movie in under twelve months. I am very happy to report that Toho need not perform such emergency surgery in the wake of Legendary’s Gareth Edwards-helmed remake. This is a well-made, faithful and engrossing kaiju film, worthy of a place in that hallowed pantheon. Spoilers abound below the fold. You have been duly warned; please do not ruin this for yourself.
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Children’s media is often dismissed as sentimentalised and condescending tripe, and in many cases this is entirely true. The heroes are as pure as the finest Colombian marching powder, driven towards benevolent ends by unselfish motives and bearing only the most superficial of flaws, ripe for a teachable moment or two. The villains are theatrically cackling menaces, skipping along the tightrope between irredeemable depravity and appropriately G-rated mischief. Good guys win, bad guys lose, and as always, England prevails! Ahem… These are literally infantile morality plays of the kind that I have previously denounced as insulting to the intelligence of anyone over the age of twelve. I personally abhor being spoken down to and kids’ television and films are often prime examples of this irksome tendency. This preamble has been a clever exercise in misdirection because I am about to defend exactly this stark good/evil dichotomy, and why this can be valuable to us as emotional and only partly rational beings.
As is my custom, a few definitions and distinctions must be noted before going any further. The terms used going forward are largely colloquial, and are not to be taken as strict definitions in any kind of logical argument. My case is not logical or necessarily rational but rather emotional, and thus it may be unconvincing to most people. The fact that emotions are non-rational does not diminish their importance to us, and per my last piece on the objective-subjective distinction, subjective matters may be simultaneously crucial and indefensible. It should also be made clear that I am referring to an abstract kind of good vs. evil story, wherein the only stakes are those of a fictional scenario, and no real world parallel is intended. This is for a very simple reason: the world in which we live is not one of black and white issues, wherein any situation can be reduced to this kind of bifurcation. To do so is offensive precisely because it fails to respect the intelligence of the audience and the complexity of the situation. Though five years have passed, James Cameron’s Avatar remains at the top of my list of least favourite movies, precisely because it commits this cardinal sin. Acting as a clear metaphor for modern American foreign policy, or whichever colonial catastrophe one wishes to mention, it attempts to reduce real history to the level of a pantomime. The following examples do not do this; any resemblance to real events or persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
The 1990s were the decade of the televised superhero team. This was the era of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Biker Mice from Mars and the mighty Samurai Pizza Cats. More specifically it brought the shows of Saban, a company adept in the Americanisation of Japanese tokusatsu shows, bring us VR Troopers, Masked Rider, and Big Bad Beetleborgs. But the king of these programmes was one that continues to this day, and which is so ingrained into the consciousness of my generation that the first three words of the theme song will elicit a spirited singalong: Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. All of the necessary elements are present: comedy, action, romance, giant monsters, giant robots, and a main cast so diverse and stereotypical that everyone could easily pick a favourite. The titular heroes would regularly foil the machinations of Rita Repulsa and Lord Zedd, two villains with charmingly convenient evil monikers. It was all so simple. A monster would wreak havoc, the Rangers would defeat the creature and, crucially, they saved the world. To a child this is a glowing example of the power of hard work, friendship and a pure heart overcoming any adversity. To an adult this is a bittersweet reminder that we once believed that it was as easy as that. The only threats to humankind can be overcome if we only try our best and saving the world is as easy as vanquishing a personified evil presence. To watch this now is to experience a kind of jealousy at the world that Power Rangers presents. Huge monsters ravaging the abandoned warehouse district may be a legitimate threat, but we have people we can rely upon the stop them, and these special people are capable of making a real difference and bringing peace to the planet. This is uncomplicated and incredibly endearing, and as a form of escapism functions personally. For just over twenty minutes I can almost believe that the darkness is powerless before the light, sink into a disconnected ethical simplicity, and find a little peace.
In comparison to films and TV shows, video games hold a unique advantage. You can both witness and participate in the action, by your own hand determining success or failure. This is what makes games a distinct and valuable medium, and why they deserve a place in the pantheon of the arts. Of course some games are more worthy of this status than others, and I am not here concerned with any game I would call a work of art. The interactive aspect is the important component of my point. Thus, my subject is another nostalgic creation, familiar to anyone familiar with the ’90s: Sonic Adventure, the blue blur’s first true 3D outing on Sega’s doomed Dreamcast. As with Power Rangers, there is a surprisingly jovial criminal mastermind planning to take over the world with a giant monster. But in this case, we get to take control of a group of superheroes in order to take him down. Minor conflicts abound, yet running through the middle of this game is the same moral dichotomy, and undiluted satisfaction that one is on the side of the angels. Moral choice systems have been a feature of video games since before the age of dialogue wheels, but they are noticeably lacking in this game, and it is better for it. The experience contains precisely that which I earlier lamented that Power Rangers could not give us: a chance to save the world. A computerised world, composed of nothing more than a few lines of code, but a world nonetheless. For the vast majority of us this is the closest we will ever come to the real experience, and a fictional facsimile of feeling is better than no feeling at all.
The charge of hypocrisy looms large over my comments. Surely this is a privileging of feeling over thought, of sentimentalism over rationalism. Is ignorance really bliss, and knowledge an unbearable burden? Ought we to value happiness over reality? Better a beautiful lie than an ugly truth, right? Well, no. What I am extolling is the feelings that such works can ignite in us, but also the recognition that this is escapism. The world is an enormous, complex and frightening place, and it is beyond the capability of most humans to face brute reality with no buffer at all. Even the most rational, nay cynical, of us need to take some time out with a novel, a film or a game, to take a break from the “real world”. To be absolutely clear, this can only ever be a temporary respite. To take this too far is to flirt with irresponsible delusion and an unwillingness to treat life with the weight and importance it deserves. I do not really believe that I can leave the world in the hands of superheroes, or that I can personally solve every problem with a clever gambit or righteous battle. All I can do is try to leave the world as a better placed than I entered it. But in the meantime, there is nothing wrong with stepping back and finding something simple that you can enjoy. To paraphrase Carl Sagan, love is the only thing that allows finite creatures such as us to cope with the enormity of the universe. This love can take many forms, among which I hope I have illuminated the love of these simple stories of heroism and the impossible dream that good can, once and for all, defeat evil.
Despite disagreeing that love of God is a factor in our love for our fellow humans beings, I have rarely (if ever) seen such a gracious and elegant statement by a believer regarding the paramount importance of treating others well, not just in spite of our beliefs, but actively negating our harmful ideas. The conclusion is plain and inarguable: Empathy trumps dogma.
Church leaders from across the United States gathered at an ecumenical council to discuss the future of Christianity. Culture was changing, and they found themselves having to compromise their beliefs to remain palatable to the public. Much to their surprise, Jesus showed up to offer counsel. In the course of discussion, a leading theologian asked of Jesus, “What must one do to be a Christian?”
Jesus turned to him and asked, “How would you answer?”
The theologian replied to him, “First, to love the Lord your God with all your soul and all your strength and all your mind. Second, to love your neighbor as yourself.”
“Very good!” Jesus replied, “This is what one must do be a child of God.”
But the theologian inquired further, because there were issues where he wished to justify himself, “What does it mean to love?”
And Jesus answered him, “A gay man was…
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When considering morality, questions about the subject are as important as the ethical conclusions reached within moral investigation. This subject, known as metaethics, asks not what is good but what is good. This question seems basal to the whole process; first we figure out what the hell an ethical conclusion is, then we can attempt to identify instances thereof and derive more practical outcomes. Is the good subject to the whims and feelings of the individual or are there murkier, more holistic and impersonal forces at work? Are morals subjective or objective, and what form does such objectivity take? There are some who deem objective moral values both desirable and unthinkable without a god or gods to send down such edicts and give us lowly primates a foundation upon which to stand. As with so many religious arguments this seems to succeed only in pushing back the problem one more step, and then placing great faith in the power of special pleading.
Objective morality, by its very nature, is something which can be assented to by any rational, dispassionate observer. To be subjective is to be open to debate precisely because there is no fact of the matter. I might say that Star Wars is a better franchise than Star Trek – and defend my conclusion to the bloody end – but since there is no demonstrable correct answer this is purely subjective. But were I to say that the first Star Wars film was released in 1977, there can be no disagreement of this kind. All of the available evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion that this is a fact; it is objectively true. Objective morality is of this kind. Objective moral propositions are verifiably accurate therefore are true regardless of your protestations or support. Based on this definition, objective morality must be based upon objective reality, not upon the conviction of a single being. A statement of an objective moral value will end in, “… because facts x, y and z are factually accurate to any rational observer.” A statement of a subjective moral value will ultimately end with, “… because I/he/they say so.”
I do not think that it is an exaggeration nor a misrepresentation of the theistic position that all believers regard their god or gods as a source, at least, of moral teaching and guidance. Many go further and state that their deities are the only source of solid and objective morality at all. The mantra is, “If there is no god, there is no foundation for objective moral values.” Such moral guidance as is forthcoming from gods may take the form of precepts in scriptures, vicarious communication through their representatives on Earth, or a conscience urging us towards the good implanted directly into our bodies. This godly morality applies to all people at all times and must not be contravened. It is thus dubbed ‘0bjective’. This is a very different definition of objective morality than the one offered above: No rational or dispassionate person can reject these ethical statements because the guy in charge said so. Rather this divine command theory eerily resembles subjective morality.
In Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates confronts the eponymous character over his intention to prosecute his own father for manslaughter. Making the not unreasonable assumption that such a man must be confident in his own piety, Socrates performs his usual duty of relentlessly questioning his interlocutor into submission. His challenge is to request that Euthyphro define piety, which forces this hapless fellow onto the horns of a particularly ill-tempered dilemma. “Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” If piety is something independent and is only communicated by the gods, deities become irrelevant middle-men between humans and holiness. If piety is simply that which is demanded by the gods, it is subject to the idiosyncrasies of of the mighty and holds no deeper meaning than that. The gods are rendered either irrelevant to piety, or piety is rendered meaningless by the gods. The same principle is exactly applicable to morality. Is the good loved by the gods because it is good? Or is it good because it is loved by the gods?
There are those among the unbelievers that entirely agree with this line of reasoning, and therefore hold that morality is subjective and cannot be defended in an objective manner. In the worst of cases they lapse into moral relativism, a position as repugnant as it is self-contradictory (A moral principle is good if the society deems it so, except for the moral principle of relativism, which holds among all societies). However, there is a way to construct an objective morality that does not depend upon the divine, but only upon those minds that seem to clearly be present: the minds of conscious creatures. On this view, objectivity is not a nebulous, universe-spanning concept, but applies only to a limited sphere, namely those entities which are capable of suffering. If we grant the uncontroversial premise that the best possible flourishing is better than the worst possible suffering, we have all the foundation we need to build an objective moral system. To argue that it is not good or moral to promote flourishing and avoid suffering is, to me, to lose sight of any reasonable concept of ‘good’. In any given situation concerning a human, there will be options as to how to proceed, and among those options there will be some which will cause suffering and some which will cause flourishing. This is simply factual. I can demonstrate that drinking brake fluid will cause me to suffer. Thus, it is objectively true that to drink brake fluid would immoral, insofar as it causes nothing but suffering. Because there is tremendous diversity and uncanny similarity among all conscious creatures on Earth – chauvinistically singled out because we do not as yet have any proof of extraterrestrial life – there will be no simple, sweeping answers to moral questions. But we will always be faced with paths which are more likely to cause suffering and paths which are less likely. The objectivity lies in the demonstrable conclusions and the ability to apply such a method in all cases, if not in practice then certainly in principle.
I once wrote an essay entitled, “Why Moore’s “Naturalistic Fallacy” is Neither Naturalistic Nor Fallacious”. While I hold only a tenuous grip on the conclusions that I reached in that particular composition, while still thinking I was mostly correct, I can report that it is very satisfying as a critic to find that your target fails on multiple levels. This may seem childish, but it is undeniably true in my own case. In the case of objective morality as based in gods’ existence, we find that not only is such morality not objective, it is not moral either. It is based on what some being or beings think, and is thereby subjective. There is no guarantee, and plenty of evidence to the contrary, that the thoughts of such beings as they are reported to us will be beneficial or in any sense good. (Should anyone doubt this, please consult any given holy book.) Rather this theistic morality seems an impediment to building the better and more comprehensive ethical framework towards which we are still struggling. Cast off the notion of divine parental permission, focus our energies on the eradication of suffering and the promotion of flourishing, and it seems clear that we can accomplish yet greater feats of compassion than we have thus far.
[Addendum: The ideas for a godless objective morality are not entirely my own, but have been heavily influenced and inspired by Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I highly recommend checking it out, as it makes a powerful case for the fusion of ethics and science, and lays out a plan for putting an end to quibbling over moral dilemmas – thus putting me out of a job…]
Spoiler warnings for Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, Gamera 2: Advent of Legion and Gamera 3: Revenge of Irys.
Kaiju make for lousy heroes. Generally superheroes and supervillains are distinguishable by their differing regard for collateral damage. A powerful good guy with no interest in preventing innocent casualties, contra Zack Snyder, isn’t a far cry from his dastardly antagonist. Giant monsters have limited options in this area. When you weigh hundreds of tonnes and stand several storeys high, the best avoidance strategy for damage is to stand really still. Hardly practical or – frankly – entertaining. So these are the horns of our dilemma; if our huge beast does nothing, they will be safe but ineffectual and tedious; if they try to act, they will certainly cause considerable death and destruction among friend and foe alike. The best heroes are neither impotent nor catastrophically dangerous. Whence cometh the heroic kaiju?
As far as I am aware the best exploration of this concept can be found in the 1999 classic Gamera 3: Revenge of Irys, the stunning conclusion to the Heisei Gamera trilogy. Ordinarily the point at which summoning a colossal and catastrophic monster to resolve a crisis seems reasonable is referred to as the “Godzilla Threshold”, but I wish to start a movement to have this rechristened in honour of Gamera. Godzilla, at least since 1975, has rarely risen above the level of merciless force of nature, while Gamera remains a steadfast agent of good, and far more deserving of status as a hero, albeit a hero who regularly demolishes buildings. Revenge of Irys goes where few kaiju movies have gone before or since, into a world of consequences, sacrifice, and thoroughly human reactions of living in a world where huge reptiles are a recognisable threat.
As a young teenager, you are unfortunate enough to be living in Japan at the onset of the age of the kaiju. As such, it comes as something of a shock the apartment block your parents are standing is suddenly collapses under the onslaught of a tremendous fire-breathing turtle, killing them both. Given this formative experience it is entirely understandable to bear some hatred against this creature, regardless of any later heroics. This is the genius of the Heisei Gamera films: events have consequences. In this third installment, the surge in the Gyaos population is the result of the extreme lengths to which Gamera was forced to defeat the alien Legion, Sendai is still a smoking crater after its destruction by the Legion’s explosive seed pod, and the driving force of the plot began years earlier during Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. This is not just a film set, it is a living world in which life must go on in the wake of events both tragic and triumphant. In addition, a realistic world often involves making the choice between a terrible situation and a worse one. Allowing Gamera to co-exist with humanity is a constant risk, but to look at what his absence would entail, his presence is certainly the lesser of two evils. Though Sendai was destroyed, Sapporo and Tokyo would also lie in ruins. Humanity, if they had survived the predatory Gyaos of Earth, would have been further annihilated by the alien Legion. Thousands have died, but at the expense of millions.
Gamera 3 is an almost perfect reversal of the plot of Guardian of the Universe. A huge creature appears, causing death and devastation. Luckily, there is another creature who emerges, forming a close, mystical bond with a young woman, and growing in power to take down the former monster. This is carried to the point where Gamera himself looks more bestial and terrifying than he has previously, now sporting a spiked crest and darker colour scheme – looking positively demonic in Ayana’s memory – while the new monster Irys looks much more traditionally “good”. Baby Irys is frankly adorable, and its grown form looks almost like a phoenix in vivid colours with only its tentacles, a classically sinister attribute, hinting at its true nature. Any film worth its salt will feature more motivations than a simple good vs. evil dichotomy, and here we are treated to a very able example. Ayana is justifiably furious at Gamera over the death of her parents and behaves entirely understandably when given the power to carry out her vengeance. Irys seems to be exploiting Ayana’s negative feelings and gaining power from their connection. Mayumi and Asagi, and to some extent Gamera himself, recognise the threat that Irys poses, and realise that Gamera is a necessary evil in the face of the Gyaos population explosion. Asukura and Kurata are happy to use Ayana to destroy Gamera, believing him to be a harbinger of doom. Some of these motivations are relatable, others are not, and the split does not lie along the simple split between good and bad.
Monster movies, like so many things, tend to fall on a bell curve. Most are good. A few are terrible. And some transcend the genre to become genuinely great films. The whole trilogy of ’90s Gamera films is well worth seeking out, but the final instalment brings all the threads together to become one of the best kaiju flicks ever made. If you want your audience to accept the absurdity of a huge, pyromaniacal turtle, you need to keep the rest of your fictional world very grounded, and Revenge of Irys pulls this off beautifully. To return to the beginning, in the real world, sometimes we need to accept that our heroes are less than perfect, and that thankfully perfection is not a prerequisite for acting for a better world.
[Reposted from Podzilla! King of the Podcasts]