The Iron Giant, Xenophobia, and Learning to Love a “Monster”

What Brad Bird’s film can teach us about projection versus reflection.

Much has been made of the way we humans view anything outside our realm of experience as a threat. Watch any sci-fi movie really ever and notice how rarely the characters consider, even for a moment, that the little green men stepping out of the saucer are just here to check us out, chat a little bit, swap recipes or whatever then skedaddle. No. As we see it, aliens stop by for one of three reasons only: to colonize us, to eradicate us, or to probe us in uncomfortable places. Our instinct is to distrust anything that isn’t like us, and when that distrust is turned onto ourselves as a species you wind up with basically the root of every interpersonal problem humankind has ever experienced.

But back to the stars: why is it we categorize any being or entity from out of this world as a “monster,” and how can the acknowledgement of this tendency alter the practice not just in regards to extraterrestrial life, but also to lifehere on Earth? These are just a couple of the issues at the heart of Brad Bird’s heartbreaking work of staggering genius The Iron Giant.

Released in 1999, The Iron Giant is decidedly more somber than the animated films of its day (Toy Story 2 and Tarzan were the other big releases that year) because instead of presenting children with a lighthearted romp about a boy and his mechanical friend from outer space, Bird instead crafted (from an original book by Ted Hughes) a nuanced story of the perils of xenophobia and the courage of acceptance. Simply because it is different, the Giant – which in behavior, attitude and understanding of our world best reflects the mindset of a small child – is presumed to be a monster in need of containment and study by force, or barring that, elimination. Not because of anything it does, not because of anything it wants, simply because it is here and some folks think it shouldn’t be. Through the character of Hogarth, the little boy who befriends the Giant, Bird explores what it means to be a “monster,” the difference between psychological projection and reflection, and how often times the real monsters aren’t the ones called that, but ones calling them such.

More: The Joyful Cinema of Brad Bird

These themes are discussed in far more detail than I’ve provided in the latest video essay from Mr. Nerdista, which takes a loving look at one of the essayist’s favorite films and how it seeks to bridge the gap between detrimental misunderstanding and unfettered acceptance. Perhaps now more than ever is a good time to revisit the film; you can start here.

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