Sunday, September 11, 2005

The Iron Giant (Bird, 1999)

In the middle part of the twentieth century, mankind’s love affair with technology took a rather horrifying turn. Shortly after discovering how to split the atom, humans developed weapons capable of unleashing unimaginable devastation. Many of those who worked on the atom bomb did so despite strong moral objections because they thought that they would be able to save the world from the threat of Hitler. Though Hitler was indeed toppled, the weapons remained and soon were stockpiled into quantities capable of destroying each and every human life on the planet several times over. In The Iron Giant, Brad Bird’s animated adaptation of Ted Hughes’ popular story, mankind’s struggle to comprehend the unbelievable power that has fallen into its lap is played out in a tale of an enormous metal man from outer space, the boy who befriends him and the government agent who fears potential threat to national security.

Like technology itself, the iron giant, I would argue, is morally neutral. He is driven by a need to consume and sustain his own existence. Depending on the input he receives, he is capable of great acts of compassion or terrifying acts of violence. He arrives on Earth an innocent. Yet, it is in this state of innocence where both goodness and evil originate. Fortunately for mankind, the first human being to make significant contact with the creature is a young boy filled with curiosity and imagination. In a moment of bravery, the young boy instinctively saves the metal man from destruction. Soon, a tentative trust is developed. And then a mentorship. And finally, a loving friendship. Though we will learn later that the metal man has destructive capabilities, the boy’s spirit of exploration turns the creature instead into a swimming buddy, an amusement park ride, even a scrap metal artist.

On the other end of the spectrum, the iron giant is hunted by a government agent with very limited imagination. He immediately latches onto the idea that the metal man is a threat that must be eliminated. Where a young boy sees the coolest friend he could ever have, the agent sees only a weapon. And like many influential men before him, his paranoia is enough to make his own nightmarish prophecy come true. Together, the boy and the agent represent opposite sides of human potential with technology in the middle looking for guidance. Through our curiosity and sense of wonder, we can use technology to create a better world. Through our fear and selfishness, we can use technology to obliterate that world.

All of this may sound daunting and heady for a family film. However, this is where Bird deserves kudos for pulling off a remarkable feat. He is able to couch the film’s overt political message in a tale that also works in simple terms that could no doubt be understood by a five-year old. Most notably, the early scenes in which the giant’s illuminated eyes can be seen in the darkness against the shadowy forest background are thrilling in their execution. Bird also deftly handles the film’s transition from light-hearted adventure to soul-searching morality play with ease. All of this leads up to an intense emotional climax involving choices both foolish and noble and a stunning, instructive moment of sacrifice. Throughout the film, Bird uses the atomic era setting to his advantage, most especially while lampooning the horribly naïve and surreal ‘duck-and-cover’ films produced by the government for consumption by young Americans.

The Iron Giant has few missteps, but one of them is nearly critical. In the film’s coda, the final, brief images we see nearly undermine the powerful fifteen-minute sequence that has preceded them by altering the meaning of the film’s most critical moralistic choice. It is an unnecessary conclusion and seems slapped on in order to make the film more palatable for sensitive filmgoers. Fortunately, the moment passes briskly and is left open-ended enough for viewers to supply their own interpretation. In the end, the film’s style, humor and trust in its young audience overwhelms its minor faults and packs a wallop that surely could serve as the basis for valuable family discussion. Involving, inspiring and instructive, The Iron Giant is not to be missed.



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