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The Monsters in the Mirror: Reflections of Science and Fear through the Science Fiction Genre - by Jonathan Willbanks

The Monsters in the Mirror: Reflections of Science and Fear through the Science Fiction Genre - by Jonathan Willbanks

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Published by: Jonathan Willbanks on Oct 02, 2010
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Willbanks 1Jonathan WillbanksIntroduction to CinemaPatricia Ahn November 24, 2007Monster Mirror: The Reflection of Scientific Fears through the Science Fiction GenreIn 1933, moviegoers around the world were entertained and awed by the spectaclethat was
 King Kong 
(1933). Never before had such thrilling imagery and special effects been seen on film before. Playing to the scientific climate of discovery and revelation - acultural embrace of the unknown coupled with an impeding sense of fear at the power of the natural world the scientific community was just beginning to truly understand -
 King  Kong 
resonated with classical-era audiences in a way few films had before, shattering all box office records (Dirks, 1). It was not until years later that the science fiction sub-genrewould see a film of comparable impact and scope. Steven Spielberg’s
 Jurassic Park 
(1993) provides one of the most prolific post-modernist parallels to
 King Kong,
and wasan even bigger commercial success, becoming the top grossing film of all time at the timeof its release (Hoberman, 2). But where
 King Kong 
explored the natural world throughdiscovery,
 Jurassic Park 
explored science through creation. As times change and theworld moves forward, Hollywood’s tried and true genres adapt themselves to the contextof their contemporary society. No film genre is better suited than science fiction toincorporating cutting edge scientific and technological advancements into its themes and plots.
 King Kong 
and its contemporary
 Jurassic Park 
saw commercial and criticalsuccess because they reflected and played upon the scientific attitudes, ambitions, andfears of their time such as natural discovery, extinction, civilization’s encroachment upon
Willbanks 2the natural world, and genetic engineering on a level that reduced these complex issuesinto a simple and easily digestible pill for eager audiences of their day to swallow.Science fiction, by definition, explores scientific concepts of the day in its plotsand themes, often in future, “what if?” futurist scenarios that aim to predict how sciencemight one day evolve. The genre captivates audiences in a way that pure fantasy cannot because
it depicts
science and technology - two inextricably linked fields - as they mightone day actually
. Fantasy on the other hand is limited to a purely fictional settingthat, although compelling, can never truly exist, and is therefore further removed from thereader. This socioscientific reflection inherent in science fiction serves both as thefoundation of its success and as a valuable window into the scientific and technologicalclimate of the day. From Issac Asimov to
Star Trek 
, the genre has successfully adapteditself to the great scientific questions of its time. For example, Asimov explored artificialintelligence in the late 1930’s and the 1940’s, a time when computers were just beginningto emerge in the public consciousness. Star Trek on the other hand, originally airedduring the heat of the US-Soviet “space race,” focused on space travel, a topic of fascination and intrigue for 1960’s audiences. Viewers watching Neil Armstrong’s moonlanding could change the channel to find Captain Kirk and his starship Enterprise fightingKlingons and other hostile races. Science fiction remains so popular because it capturesviewers’ imaginations in a manner that at some level is still grounded in reality.The science fiction action film
 King Kong 
serves as a fascinating window into thescientific attitudes of the 1930’s. At the time, scientific and technological advances were being made at an unprecedented rate. The natural world remained largely misunderstood.Scientists had only the narrowest window into the world of the microscopic. There were
Willbanks 3regions of the globe yet to be explored. Yet new advancements like vaccines providedimmunity to some of nature’s most dangerous diseases like smallpox, diphtheria, and pertussis, while inventions like air conditioning made man’s day to day life morecomfortable (
 A Vaccine Timeline
, 1). Though some scientific and technologicaladvancements improved quality of life, others raised uncomfortable and often scaryquestions. Fossils of large and terrifying beasts – dinosaurs - were being discovered at anincreasing rate, capturing the world’s imagination and raising questions and fears aboutthe possible existence of these creatures in some remote region of the world. Our  preconceptions of the natural world were being constantly challenged, many times in a positive way but just as often creating fear, a sort of social backlash at mankind’stampering with the unknown to an extent it had not done before.This led to an overwhelming theme in the science and technology of the 1930’s of man seeking to control nature. Refrigerators control climate. Vaccines control disease.
 King Kong 
exemplifies this theme of man’s control of the natural world in every sense of the word. When the film’s characters discover a preserved prehistoric world on “SkullMountain,” (often called ‘Skull Island), the setting of their first encounter with a massiveGorilla called Kong, their first reaction is to capture him, to put him on display for theamusement of depression-era audiences desperate for entertainment and thrills. It was notan understanding of nature they sought. Instead they sought simply to control nature, todominate it. By having their characters behave this way, directors Merian C. Cooper andErnest B. Schoedsack reflected the scientific attitude of the control of nature prevalent atthe time, but then subverted it into a catastrophe when Kong breaks loose from his chainsand runs amuck in New York City, wreaking havoc on the city in search of his love and

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