Field of Science

Dinosaurs enter the Atomic Age

Monsters in monster movies - they are the antagonist of our hero, the threat to society, the key element of the movie - we despise and love them at the same time.

The monster movie can be created by human folly - an experiment gone wrong, the destruction or the violation of an isolated habitat - or on purpose as a biological weapon.
The monsters can came from space: actively searching habitable planets or hosts for its lifecycle or it was brought back as sample or unwillingly from a space mission.
This last origin can be mixed or being replaced by the explanation that the monsters came from a different time period, usually the past - trough a time warp or surviving entrapped in ice, mud or on a lost island.

All these different births of monsters reflect the technology and the fear by society of this technology at the time. A classic example of this correlation is the decade of 1950 to 1960. "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" is considered the first movie to introduce the atomic bomb as possibility to create monsters - that will go wild. 

Fig.1. The "Rhedosaurus" - first evil dinosaur-star?

The movie was produced by the small independent company "Mutual Pictures", Warner Brothers recognized the potential and released it in 1953, 8 years after the first U.S. atomic bombs and 4 years after the first Soviet atomic test, just at the beginning of the arm race between the two superpowers. First test previously of 1948 and released footage of the test sites at the lagoons of Bikini had already showed to the public the devastating effects of the heat and the radiation of an atomic blast on living animals - the movie is based on and also exploits this fear. 


In the movie during "Operation Experiment" (how inventive by the scriptwriters...) an atomic bomb will be detonated in the atmosphere over the Arctic, the producers used real footage of real nuclear blasts- a common trick to save costs, but maybe also to emphasize the "reality" of the story. The movie introduces the classic scientists and their pseudoscientific techno-babble, an element that will become standard until modern movies.
"20,000 Fathoms" is also one of the first movies to introduce animals/dinosaurs as the main monster - breaking with the tradition of human-like creatures of the early 20th century - and inspire an entire bunch of later movies that will explain the origin of the monsters from misuse of radioactive radiation or contamination of harmless organisms. 

The "Rhedosaurus" is awakened by the nuclear blast from the arctic ice and goes on to terrorize and destroy entire cities, the military and all the weapons can´t apparently stop it.

Fig.2. Timeline of nuclear test and important movies of the monster genre, note the decade 1950-1960. "The Valley of Gwangi" in 1969 is considered an effort to revitalize the - at the time - dying genre, by introducing western elements in a classic monster story.

Strangely it is a nuclear scientist that will solve the problem - displaying the contradictory relationship of society to the atomic energy at the time - it causes problems but also can solve them. However this somehow positive message of "20,000 Fathoms" will go lost in subsequent movies, when the monsters created by the atom will only cause havoc and suffering.

Video: Footage of the animal tests codenamed "Plumbbob" (1957)  - WARNING Graphic Content!


EVANS, J.A. (1998): Celluloid Mushroom Clouds - Hollywood and the Atomic Bomb. Critical Studies in Communication and in the Cultural Industries; Westview Press: 212

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