Skip to main content

America addicted to the other porn

By Lewis Beale
June 10, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
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
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2113 GMT (0513 HKT)
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1734 GMT (0134 HKT)
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT