"History shows again and again how nature points up the folly of men." So goes Blue Öyster Cult's sociological song about Godzilla. The 1998 blockbuster boondoggle from directorial destroyer of worlds Roland Emmerich is equally instructive about the peril of tampering with a natural order. Emmerich's American vehicle swerved hard left from prescriptive, pulpy nuclear polemics of its Japanese forebears. Instead, we got woeful pop-music misappropriations and puerile putdowns of film critics. (See bespectacled Mayor Ebert and balding assistant Gene.)
The film's failure scared studios off other large-creature features for a time. Then, just as its shadow disappeared, 9/11 understandably made urban destruction a poor-taste proposition. A silver lining: Interim visual effects improvements afforded modern-day monsters more harrowing heft. Thus, in this week's Godzilla reboot, the scaly 60-year-old more realistically throws his weight around. If only he weren't a special guest in his own film, which vacillates between brainy and berserk with nagging indecision. Godzilla gets a modestly rousing resurrection, but during his hibernation, these movies truly went into beast mode.
The Host (2006)
Simultaneously squirmy, sassy and somber, this South Korean export is a wild, convulsive ride. A chemical dump turns Seoul's Han River into a moat for a monster. When it snatches a deadbeat dad's daughter, a family reunites to attempt rescue. Director Bong Joon-ho wraps Silent Spring's finger-pointing, The Thing's wiseass wickedness and Little Miss Sunshine's fractious feel-goods into an insanely intense package. At one point, the beast turns a picturesque park into a killing floor during a mercenary spin on Jurassic Park's Gallimimus run. Bong brings unique purpose to pixelated panic, though—audaciously poking for nervous laughter and bittersweet regret.
Monkey, crab, whale, squid, eel. It's every animal and no animal—stretching as wide as the city blocks it crushes; the sort of behemoth you'd conjure during fitful REM sleep. It's no wonder, then, that this fearsome story of an alien rampage in New York uses "found-footage" first-person POV to simulate a terrifying nightmare you wish you'll never have. Just don't confuse "handheld camera" for "home movie." A subway-tunnel creature clash echoes the inescapably claustrophobic Aliens while a relative lack of score heightens immediacy. It's a thrilling, exhausting tale of an incomprehensibly horrible beast.
Stephen King's The Mist (2007)
There's plenty of vomit-worthy viscera in this adaptation of Stephen King's novella, as giant inter-dimensional creatures pick off people trapped in a grocery store. (Two words: Spider incubation.) Yet it's survivors' ideological security blankets that prove as deadly—used not to swaddle or soothe, but smother those who disagree. Rarely does such merciless momentum rear its ugly head in mainstream movies. Director Frank Darabont fiendishly contorts King's original conclusion into one of the most deeply disheartening finales since Seven. What's in the box? Your nerves, or whatever remains of them. Watch it the way Darabont preferred—in stark, unforgiving black-and-white.
Super 8 (2011)
Teen filmmakers use a train accident to boost their movie's cinematic cred, unaware a large, nasty alien escaped from the wreck and is pursuing them. Writer-director J.J. Abrams offers note-perfect riffing on Steven Spielberg's classic Amblin adventures like Gremlins or The Goonies. He's not just nostalgically imitating a master. He's infusing his story with his own impish, idiosyncratic exploration of teen identity. To wit: The creature's subterranean-insect face (resembling a runty cousin to Cloverfield) remains hidden for 90 minutes. Still, we recognize the personality he shares with the passionate kids he's chasing: Misunderstood, occasionally destructive, but empathetic if emotionally engaged.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Director Guillermo del Toro is a monster anthropologist—fascinated more by the physiology of a creature's tentacles than how it might use them to kill us. He also channels the childlike charge of crashing action figures together in backyards and bathtubs. Consider this brawny, big-hearted blockbuster a field guide to his freaky, fertile brain. To save the world from undersea monsters, mankind strikes back by piloting robots so tall they look spot-welded by the sun. It's a pastiche with panache—immersive, invigorating and invariably impressive. When summer spectacles dream this big, it's the work of a maestro, not a middleman.
Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures