Skip to main content

America addicted to the other porn

By Lewis Beale
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
In his most recent film incarnation, Godzilla flattens both Honolulu and San Francisco. Here he takes his turn destroying the Golden Gate Bridge, a favorite target of disaster films. In his most recent film incarnation, Godzilla flattens both Honolulu and San Francisco. Here he takes his turn destroying the Golden Gate Bridge, a favorite target of disaster films.
HIDE CAPTION
Violent summer movies
Violent summer movies
Violent summer movies
Violent summer movies
Violent summer movies
Violent summer movies
Violent summer movies
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Lewis Beale: This summer's movies show America's growing addiction to 'destruction porn'
  • He says from 'Godzilla,' to 'X-Men' and beyond, it's not just violence, it's maximum mayhem
  • He says if films have long reflected our anxieties, recent films show psychic meltdown
  • Beale: Annihilation now entertains us. Hollywood feeds this lust. We should worry

Editor's note: Lewis Beale writes about culture and film for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and other publications. He has taught writing about film at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- In the latest "X-Men" film, Magneto levitates RFK stadium and drops it around the White House; the stadium is destroyed.

In "Godzilla," the monster fights off what looks like the entire U.S. military while he flattens both Honolulu and San Francisco. And in the new Tom Cruise film, "Edge of Tomorrow," Paris is left underwater after an alien attack, and a futuristic D-Day-like invasion leaves a French beach strewn with dead bodies and smoldering war materiel.

There's plenty more mayhem to come as this season's glut of blow-'em-up flicks rolls out: "Transformers: Age of Extinction" (aliens drop a cruise liner on a city), "Guardians of the Galaxy" (outer space vehicles liquefied by the dozens), "Hercules" (the title character fights off lions, sea monsters and a whole army of bad guys) and "The Expendables 3" (Sly Stallone and gang; train rams into prison).

Lewis Beale
Lewis Beale

Entertainment Weekly recently referred to it as "the summer of destruction."

But let's call it what it is: destruction porn.

Like real porn, these movies play to our most atavistic instincts. They all include some sort of buildup, the titillation of expectation that really bad, but cool, things are about to happen. They generally climax -- pun intended -- with a massive set piece of CGI carnage. And like real porn, afterwards we're supposed to feel deliriously fulfilled and exhausted.

Fact is, we should hate ourselves for feeling this way, as if we'd just had really bad sex. But that's not the reaction destruction porn elicits. Even worse, we're exporting this American blood-lust globally, giving outsiders the impression of a country that has totally gone over to the Dark Side.

It's not as if there hasn't been massive carnage in the movies before this. Hollywood has produced plenty of war films, ecological disaster flicks and alien invasion epics in the past. But the sheer frequency of destruction porn these days -- at least 11 movies of this type in summer 2012 ("The Avengers," The Dark Knight Rises," etc.) and 12 during the same season last year ("White House Down," "World War Z," etc.) -- and our delight in seeing things blown up, should make us worry about the mental health of society.

Movies have always reflected the anxieties of their age. In the 1950s, we had plenty of nuclear paranoia films,often featuring mutated life forms. (Can you say "Godzilla"?) The '60s and '70s brought us ecological and bio-terror themes in films such as "The Omega Man" and "Silent Running."And later films, like "The Road Warrior," reflect an apocalyptic mindset.

How 'Godzilla' made US military a star
Godzilla's monster opening
The summer blockbuster is back
Hugh Jackman's 'X-Men' gratitude
Tom Cruise Premieres "Edge of Tomorrow"

But the recent spate of films seem to reflect a collective psychic collapse. Sure, there are reasons for this: fear of terrorism, the insecurity created by all those mass murders, like the recent episode in Santa Barbara. We feel that world has gotten even more chaotic. That there's too much of everything. That society has gotten way too complicated, with too many people, too much technology, too many opposing ideologies clashing against each other.

It recalls the classic 1959 dystopian novel "A Canticle For Leibowitz," by Walter Miller Jr., in which the end of industrial civilization is referred to as "the Simplification." It's as if we're preparing for a global meltdown.

And the summertime, when we're supposed to be mellowing out, is a perfect time for Hollywood to exploit our growing appetite for this kind of carnage. There are two specific reasons for this: Most filmgoers are in the under-40 demographic, looking for a night out away from the heat and to put their brains on pause -- and believe me, there's nothing more mindless than watching stuff blow up. If it's photographed lovingly, and with insanely good computer graphics, all the better.

The second reason is the importance of the foreign market, which now accounts for nearly 70% of total box office gross.

Our global neighbors tend to go for what we do best, which is make big budget films with state-of-the-art special effects, a minimum of dialogue (explosions speak a universal language) and lots of mayhem. Lots. Just to take two recent examples: the just-opened X-Men film has grossed $168 million in the U.S., and twice that much overseas. And the new "Captain America" flick -- "Captain America," no less! -- has grossed $255 million domestically and a whopping $454 million overseas.

America: A country where scenes of mass destruction are the norm, and carnage is preferred over peace, love and understanding. Is this the kind of negative image of America we want to export? And sure, we all know that "It's only a movie," but don't kid yourself: When we get geeked at the leveling of entire cities, it says something about who we are, and where our society is going.

And you'd think after 9/11 and the never-ending mass murders in this country we would be a bit more sensitive to scenes where cities are destroyed and thousands of lives lost, but the opposite seems to have taken place: We wallow in it. We cheer it. Like porn, we can't take our eyes off it. It's seductive and incredibly addictive.

Wish fulfillment? Catharsis? Just good old entertainment? It really doesn't matter. While we're in the grips of whatever social psychosis is stoking this ravenous appetite for mayhem, Hollywood will be happy to oblige.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
updated 5:52 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
updated 5:21 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 1:38 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT