A few years ago, Samuel Cohen died at age 89 in his Los Angeles home. He was the inventor of the neutron bomb – a bomb designed to kill the enemy while leaving the surrounding infrastructure untouched. He called it “the most sane weapon ever devised”.
It seems like summer blockbusters have the opposite problem. In films like Transformers: Dark of the Moon and The Darkest Hour we see entire cities crumbling and destroyed – but what about the humans? These movies still want to rack up a decent bodycount but can’t have bloody bodies lying around. They’ve got to avoid a rating that’d prevent young audiences from buying tickets, after all. And stories about alien invasions don’t get to play the Saving Private Ryan card of historically accurate, ‘important’ violence.
The weaponsmiths of the evil Decepticons of Transformers and the invisible aliens of Darkest Hour reached the same solution: disintegration. No blood, no gore, no bodies left behind. Just show bodies turning to ash, show the ash spiralling in the wind, and then show them gone. Vanished. Now your next cool action set piece won’t be choking on leftover corpses!
Old westerns used to be mocked for the way that cowboys would just clutch their chests and die instantly and painlessly – but at least we saw them fall. They didn’t just flicker away like cannon fodder in a videogame. A PG-rated Hiroshima is its own kind of hell.
Daniel Clowes’ comic The Death Ray is a sort of decoder ring for the violent, adolescent urges behind Michael Bay’s Transformers. Not only does its titular weapon not leave anything behind; we don’t see the disintegration at all. Instead Clowes tucks all the violence into the gutter between panels, leaving only a bloodless there-one-moment, gone-the-next. Andy, the boy who becomes a vigilante named for the gun, has a recurring nightmare:
“There was this street with these big white berries growing on it, and as soon as a person ate one they would start to disappear. This process seemed to be both physically painful and super-terrifying.” He says that no matter what, he “couldn’t get away from the nothingness.”
The nothingness. Most sane. Super-terrifying.
Steven Spielberg made his own post-Private Ryan sci-fi film: War of the Worlds. Its aliens were also fond of disintegration. (Blame H.G. Wells.) But the way Spielberg visually linked the leftover ash to the aftermath of 9/11 gave it gravity – and he was respectful enough to ensure something was left. Even if it was just the victims’ clothes, fluttering to the ground.