Friday, May 1, 2009

Biology of B-Movie Monsters

One of the tragedies of the Hollywood movie industry is that they don't make "so bad they are funny movies" anymore. Sure they make plenty of mediocre movies, bad movies, "so bad you want to pluck your eyes out movies" and occasionally even good movies, but the "so bad they are good movies" are a lost art. They were a perfect storm of low production values, wildly contrived plots, abysmal writing, and budgets running into the hundreds of dollars.

Representatives of this genre include The Incredible Shrinking Man, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Plan 9 from Outer Space, Fire Maidens from Outer Space (the "from Outer Space" is a genre of its own), and Fantastic Voyage. A common feature of these movies was a complete and utter disregard for the Laws of Physics, Biology, Chemistry or other intellectual endeavor. If it can be imagined, no matter how fantastic, somebody probably made it a central plot point for a movie in the 50's.

It was to my great surprise that someone actually considered the biological implications of these old B-Movies. I give you "The Biology of B-Movie Monsters" by Michael C. LaBarbera.

Remember the scene in The Incredible Shrinking Man, where our hero fights a giant sized spider. Turns out it would have been no contest.

"As for the contest with the spider, the battle is indeed biased, but not the way the movie would have you believe. Certainly the spider has a wicked set of poison fangs and some advantage because it wears its skeleton on the outside, where it can function as armor. But our hero, because of his increased metabolic rate, will be bouncing around like a mouse on amphetamines. He wouldn't struggle to lift the sewing needle--he'd wield it like a rapier because his relative strength has increased about 70 fold. The forces that a muscle can produce are proportional to its cross-sectional area (length squared), while body mass is proportional to volume (length cubed). The ratio of an animal's ability to generate force to its body mass scales approximately as 1/length; smaller animals are proportionally stronger. This geometric truth explains why an ant can famously life 50 times its body weight, while we can barely get the groceries up the stairs; were we the size of ants, we could lift 50 times our body weight, too. As for the Shrinking Man, pity the poor spider."
Michael C. LaBarbera is a professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy, Geophysical Sciences, the Committee on Evolutionary Biology, and the College of the University of Chicago.


  1. Hi

    I want to propose three other movies to be consider.

    "Them!". Giant ants wants Los Angeles for dinner. Yummy.

    "The invasion of body snatchers" or how a r-strategy alien living form can take control of this planet.

    And of course "The thing from another world", although the old movie is not as faithfull to the novel than the modern one.


  2. Great post! And I love the picture. Have you seen "Night of the Lepus" (giant killer bunnies!) and "Food of the Gods" (giant killer lots of things)? Classics of the genre!

  3. Excellent suggestions! I will have to check out those classics :)

  4. With horror I note that Godzilla is not mentioned at all in his article.

  5. I don't if it's so bad it's funny, but along these lines there's the 2003 movie "Crust" (Dir. Mark Locke) about a giant mantis shrimp that is trained as a boxer and drinks beer. I suspect it is too ironic to fall into the 'so bad it's funny' category, though I've not seen it.

  6. Gracias, me hizo recordar una de las más hermosas películas de Ciencia Ficción que vi en mi niñez, aun recuerdo como unas hadas chinitas se montaban en esa abeja gigante y cantaban, eso quedó en mi retina para siempre
    Que lindos recuerdos