Monster films evoke adventure but also the ‘dangers’ of tropical climates

The new monster movie Godzilla vs. Kong allows audiences to travel from their couches. Before you picture a tropical getaway, perhaps in a sun-soaked lounge chair by the beach, remember that this is a movie about monsters.

These images have a dualistic quality partly because colonial representations have long influenced Hollywood films. The tropics are portrayed as romantic, palm-fringed coastlines, full of natural fertility and abundance. Still, they can also be frightening places, full of disease, pestilence and primitiveness, and “undiscovered” animals.

By telling stories of colonial discovery, tropical landscapes are transformed into places where Westerners can experience both the sensuality and danger of nature. This view makes the tropics a place where man is dwarfed by nature, which is what monster films are trying to correct.

These films begin in tropical locations, but the threat of mega-creatures only becomes real when they reach the Western world. Godzilla, for example, starts in former colonies and ends up in New York.

Monster movies are meant to protect westerners from foreign lands, strange peoples and diseases. (Duke Press)

In these films, the problem is to protect western lands from invasion by strange lands as well as “aberrants” and their people. The burden of resembling these threats is then placed on non-western landscapes, and even people. This burden is magnified in monster movies. In narratives about disease transmission, the same trajectory is invoked: From a “primitive”, rural space to a metropolitan centre.

While Godzilla was based on Japanese culture and history, it became a Hollywood phenomenon when the film’s setting was influenced by colonial history. While monster films are entertaining, they also build on structures that have a long history of imperialism and can affect the way Hollywood audiences view the tropics.

‘Savage wilderness’

It is possible to trace back the narratives about tropics as a place of both paradise and pestilence, all at once, to colonial scientific exploration.

These ideas are brought to life in , a 19th century explorer’s account of a trip into French Guiana. He talks about “virgin forest,” “tropical luxury,” “wild denizens,” and their “gloomy crevices.”

Joseph Banks, a 19th century British explorer who accompanied James Cook, the cartographer, on his voyage through the South Pacific in the South Pacific Ocean, was amazed at the abundance of nature’s bounty for these lands. The tropical land, he said, produced fruit without any labour. These perceptions helped shape the idea that the tropics were a place where natural abundance was abundant, giving rise to the trope tropical bounty.

Read more: Earth Day: Colonialism’s role in the overexploitation of natural resources

The “discovery” of new lands was combined with the impulse to recreate the Biblical idea of an Eden, or paradise on Earth , a phenomenon which played out with colonial explorers on tropical islands.

The yellow filter

Hollywood monster films such as Godzilla (1998), Kong Skull Island (2017) and Kong: Skull Island have used similar concepts. The tropical island plays a major role in all three films. It is the setting where the stories are set. The three films follow similar patterns, and they use similar techniques in order to portray the tropics as opposed to the west.

The opening sequences of the 1998 and 2014 version of Godzilla feature sepia-toned beaches lined with palm trees, Indigenous Peoples as well as a mine in the Philippines that is warmly lit.

Sepia tones in 1998 Godzilla are similar to the Yellow filter used by Hollywood for tropical settings. The use of yellow filters by western film makers to depict tropical climates is a common practice. Critics such as Elisabeth Sherman point out that it’s a way for them to portray a tropical and dry climate. But they say that the filter makes the landscape look unhealthy.

The lens of a camera

included modes of representation like the camera in the imperial apparatus. The white explorers brought technology that allowed photography to be used as a way to capture land, erase people and arrange them.


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