The past 60 years of cinematic history have presented a fearsome array of threats to the world. Monsters from King Kong to the Black Scorpion have wreaked havoc on our planet—breathing fire, stepping on cars, reducing cities to rubble. And, in the process, they’ve raised vital philosophical questions: How safe are we from mutant cephalopods? What are the health risks of shrinking to the size of a chipmunk? What’s the best approach to take when being attacked by a giant ant?
As it turns out, there is one expert we can turn to: Michael LaBarbera, a professor of biomechanics at the University of Chicago. “Hit it in the leg,” he advises in the case of the ant. And what with? “When shrunk, don’t try to use any weapon that uses momentum, like a hammer. Small animals need to use thrust weapons, like a spear, something that uses the force of the body.”
LaBarbera has gained a reputation as a man unafraid to tackle life’s knottier mysteries. He once wrote a paper explaining why animals don’t have wheels. Most famously, he is the author of “The Biology of B-Movie Monsters,” a treatise in which he explored the science behind films like “Them!” and “Attack of the Giant Leeches.” And his findings represent good news (for humans, anyway): The shrinking, enlarging, and sundry biological tinkering employed in creature-feature disaster flicks of the 1950s and ’60s would have been a disaster mainly for the creatures themselves.
“The 50 Foot Woman,” LaBarbera says with a small sigh. “If she takes a single step, she’s going to break a leg.”
LaBarbera’s objection to building-sized female marauders stems from his understanding of scaling laws, which tell us that you cannot change an object’s size without corresponding structural and material adjustments. “If you increase the diameter of something by five, then mass is increased 125 times,” he explains. “Something 10 times bigger will be a thousand times heavier.”
What this means is that King Kong, in the absence of a refigured skeletal system, would have crumpled into a heap before having a chance to crush a single human. Mothra, without a new set of tracheal tubes, would have suffocated before getting off the ground. The Incredible Shrinking Man, his metabolism gone haywire, would have had to eat continuously, 24 hours a day, to avoid starvation. The list goes on.
One film that featured prominently in “The Biology of B-Movie Monsters,” “It Came From Beneath the Sea,” raises a couple of objections from LaBarbera. First, far from being able to destroy the Golden Gate Bridge with a single swipe, he argues, the giant octopus in the film would have suffered debilitating blood pressure problems. He also takes issue with the idea that octopuses have a propensity for violence. “They are gentle, sweet animals,” he says, “unless you happen to be a crab.”
Historically, B-movie filmmakers have concocted cursory scientific rationales to explain their creations—exposure to radioactive material, say, or an experiment gone horribly awry, or the inopportune awakening of a prehistoric creature. Some take their real-world responsibilities more seriously than others; LaBarbera is full of praise for the biomechanical verisimilitude in Spielberg’s “Jurassic Park.” But expedience generally prevails, and scientific principles tend to get trampled at pretty much the same rate as fleeing Tokyoites.
Audiences, for their part, are happy to sacrifice consistency for the benefit of spectacle, accepting logical lapses as part of the game. Some serious thinkers—the novelist J.G. Ballard among them—have argued that films like “The Beast With a Million Eyes” are a form of alternative mythology, and as such are no more beholden to the laws of physics than “The Bhagavad Gita.” LaBarbera is not so forgiving: “Hollywood’s approach to [scientific principles] has been, from a biologist’s perspective, hopelessly naïve.”
The professor is aware that such criticisms may sound a little prim. “People accuse me of taking the fun out of life and of being far too literal,” he says. “But it can be fun to look at these movies from other perspectives.” And LaBarbera insists that he does have fun watching these films, even while he’s picking them apart. “I have an unholy appreciation for ’50s and ’60s B-movies,” he says. “Part of it grows out of a misspent youth in upstate New York. I watched a lot of these films, and they don’t go away.”
LaBarbera has difficulty deciding what his favorite monster movie is—there are just too many to choose from. When asked about the shoddiest example of the genre, though, he doesn’t skip a beat. “‘The Giant Claw,’” he says. “It’s about a monstrous vulture-like creature that came from another dimension to attack the Earth. It has the worst special effects and the least consistent storyline of any of these films. I really enjoy it.”
Despite the pleasure he takes in these movies, there is a serious side to LaBarbera’s work. Galileo, one of history’s great scientific thinkers, devised the principles underlying scaling laws by pointing out inconsistencies in a work of fiction: Dante’s “Inferno.” So, LaBarbera says, he is part of a “noble tradition.” Moreover, he adds, by exploring the physical properties of The Incredible Shrinking Man rather than, say, a shrew, he is able to prevent his students’ eyes from glazing over. “The function of science is to illuminate the world in which we live,” he says, “to help people see the world in a deeper way.”
It’s not only students, science geeks, and genre buffs who have latched on to LaBarbera’s peculiar brand of illumination, however—his film-world victims themselves have sought him out from time to time. “I have been asked to consult on movies, but they’re usually very short-lived interactions,” he says. “I’ll say, ‘I know that’s part of the plot, but it’s physically impossible.’ Then I never hear from them again.”
at the Coolidge Corner Theater
on Nov. 12.
Chris Wright is a writer and editor living in London.