In my first year in college, I became a fan of Japanese monster movies. The ultimate of these for me was not Godzilla or its many spin-offs, but Mothra, in which a giant moth destroys Tokyo by beating its wings and generating hurricane-force winds. Tokyo got destroyed by the monster in pretty much all of these movies; apparently the film-makers found it necessary to destroy a city to show us just how bad each monster was.
This trope is hardly restricted to Japanese films. Tokyo, while still on the list of most-often-destroyed-in-a-movie cities, now takes a back seat to New York City, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Paris, London, and Rome. The Concourse has a fun article about the various “monsters” that attack cities; apparently we fear monsters, aliens, viruses, and Mother Nature more than we do terrorists.
What is at work in this gleeful destruction of the city beyond making us feel that the threat is very bad indeed? While I found plenty of lists of movies where cities are destroyed, few of these writers ask why—and only a couple offer any answers. Film critic Elizabeth Rappe likes Max Page’s assertion that the cities involved are cultural icons, precious to us; we care about them, so seeing them destroyed hooks us in more. Gabe Toro of CinemaBlend suggests that it’s not monsters but “villainous chaos” that we really fear—what comes in the wake of the monster—and that we get satisfaction and reassurance from seeing the hero defeat the cause of such chaos. He concludes that it’s all so that we will applaud the hero.
Four years ago, I touched on this topic, suggesting that what we really are after is reassurance that we can, in fact, survive Armageddon—that there’s always hope for us even in the most threatening situation. We’ll find the cure, we’ll figure out how to destroy the asteroid at the last minute, or a superhero will step in and save the day.
I still think this is true. But I suspect there’s another impulse at work, a contradictory one: we hate our cities as much as we love them. David Wong explains how this hatred played out in the recent election in a brilliant article, arguing that for most people who live in the country, the city represents an elitist, decadent, amoral mindset that accepts and even supports chaos in the form of riots, rampant drug use, even terrorist attacks—all deeply offensive to the hard-working, church-going, and most importantly, poor people of rural areas. In The Hunger Games, it’s even worse: the city is a parasite sucking the life out of the country people. The monster IS the city; it is the city that has created the villainous chaos and so deserves destruction.
So there are many reasons why film-makers destroy a city. But sometimes it’s overkill, as is the case in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This movie feels like two movies. One is a sweet children’s tale about magic and amazing creatures, starring the adorable Eddie Redmayne as Newt Scamander, smiling shyly and sweetly as he plays with and tends to a menagerie of monsters. This movie wants to tell us that if we take the time to understand what we fear, we’ll come to see that in fact our fears are groundless and that we can not only co-exist with but come to love what we once feared. A good movie for the times we’re living in.
However—and we have to blame J. K. Rowling herself for this, as she wrote the screenplay—this sweet message is undercut and nearly silenced by the second movie, which is about villainous chaos destroying a city. It does tie in to the first movie, because the chaos results from fear of something not understood (magic) that turns to hatred and thereby creates (though child abuse) the thing it fears most. Rowling loves this idea; in the Harry Potter books we eventually learn that Harry was given his power to destroy Voldemort by Voldemort himself. Acting out of fear, trying to prevent his own destruction, Voldemort created his own nemesis.
We create our own monsters. The real monster in this movie is a young man who has been warped by abuse—as is the case with most of our human monsters; behind every serial killer, every tyrant, every nasty neighbor, there’s usually a horrific childhood. This young man has been taught to fear his own gift for magic, to see it as evil, and as a result, he does become evil. (Voldemort was also abused as a child for having power.)
To make sure we get the point, Rowling sets him to not only killing people, but destroying New York City. This is where the movie lost me. This movie is set 75 years before Harry Potter’s time, yet it seems Rowling felt compelled to give us a monster nearly as bad as Voldemort, and the plot devolves to a battle between good and evil. Predictably, the monster is destroyed, but we don’t feel good about it, because we were set up to believe that sweet Newt could have redeemed him. Newt does try, but his efforts—along with his reasons for coming to New York from England in the first place—get set aside in favor of the battle to destroy the monster and his creators.
At the end Newt leaves New York and returns to England having accomplished nothing of what he came to do. I left the theater disappointed and confused. I also left wondering if we have gone past the point at which destroying the city in a movie serves a purpose, or several purposes, to a place where the Hollywood suits are telling scriptwriters that they must add scenes of destruction just because it sells tickets. The monster in Mothra is an insect that acts out of instinct, not reason. The addition of the chaos-causing villain in this movie feels equally thoughtless. And ironic, because by focusing on him, Rowling destroys her own story.