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
July 29, 2014 -- Updated 1650 GMT (0050 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1251 GMT (2051 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1635 GMT (0035 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT