When I left the theater after watching Godzilla (2014), I was in awe of the film. I was in awe of the scale that Gareth Edwards depicted the titular Godzilla, one of cinema’s most preeminent monsters. What truly got me to appreciate the film was the painstaking measures that the filmmakers did to hide Godzilla until his full reveal mid-film. They made sure to show that the King of the Monsters could cause tsunamis on his own and even showed the sheer size of his scales before eventually showing him in his full glory. And even when we got our first glimpse of Godzilla and his roar, Edwards only waited to show Godzilla’s abilities in the climax. Some viewers were turned off by Edwards’ strategy, but to me, the slow-burn reveal was able to show Godzilla’s menace in small trinkets. Even in blockbusters, it was shown that “less is more”.
Now what does the previous paragraph have to do with Pontypool (2008)? Well, both films exhibit a “less is more” approach with its storytelling. But more importantly, Pontypool exhibits something that Godzilla only has in spades: A mixture of high art and low art. For this analysis, I will divide my attention to how Pontypool melds high art and low art, its “less is more” approach, and lastly, its musings about language.
For a start, Pontypool embraces its low art aesthetic; after all, it belongs to the much maligned horror film genre. It manages to involve lots of blood and lots of zombies, which can be considered as typical in a horror film. Additionally, it still aims to scare the viewer, with certain subtle moves (e.g. the opening of the window, the presence of hands of the zombies) veering the viewer ever closer to a scream.
However, Pontypool aspires for a high art aesthetic. William Paul writes that higher forms of cinema “operate by indirection”; by this, he means that higher art tend to be more metaphorical and is thus more open to subsequent academic analysis (Hawkins, 128-129). Whereas most zombie movies have an infection based on zombie bites, Pontypool uses language as the method for infection, which I will talk about more much later. Furthermore, S.S. Prawer notes that hybrid horror films, such as Pontypool, “modifies the genre” and “forces us to rethink definitions and limitations” (Hawkins, 130). The film does not stop at just being a zombie film and even melds combinations of radio drama and art-house to the film to suitably increase its thematic reach. Furthermore, the film manages to even include a reference to renowned philosopher and linguistics theorist, Roland Barthes, lending the film with more credence to the academe.
Now, I shall talk about how Pontypool goes on a “less is more” approach. At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to a radio booth which consists of Grant Mazzy (played by Stephen McHattie), a “shock jock” DJ; Sydney Briar (Lisa Houle), the station manager; and Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly), Mazzy’s technical assistant. The film starts with the usual radio show of Mazzy, with limited hitches. But when the terror starts, the film does something inexplicable for a horror movie. Instead of SHOWING the horror, the movie TELLS. Most of the horror is narrated by the radio station’s helicopter reporter, Ken Loney, who narrates the accounts of the terror first-hand. Ken tells the story of people babbling, getting eaten, and eventually, we even get to hear Ken himself turning.
All this time, while the tension is building up beyond the confines of the radio station, Pontypool stays at the radio station. We only ever get glimpses of the horror, such as Laurel-Ann’s zombie transformation or Dr. Mendez (Hrant Alianak)’s exposition. When the horror does catch up with the main characters in the horror booth, it remains to be just part of the horror; the zombie infection has spread beyond the confines of the titular town. Thus, we never get to see the spread of horror in the film. We only hear soundbites of people getting bit or people losing their wits.
And this is what makes Pontypool brilliant. Just as with Godzilla, less becomes more here. By making things out of the audience’s point-of-view, the audience is then forced to imagine just how terrible the horror is; there is nothing more scary than the unknown. Effectively, the audience is equal to the characters in the film in not seeing the entire picture of the situation. By doing this, the horror is then something we inflict to ourselves. Additionally, this “imagine-the-horror” strategy of Pontypool reduces the viewer into a listener, just as how possible listeners of Mazzy can only imagine the zombie outbreak through his telling.
At this point, I shall now talk about the use of language in the film. As stated earlier, language is the mode of infection of the zombie virus. When someone understands a word, the infection process starts; this is then quickly succeeded by the repetition of the “word” until the afflicted “turns” into a zombie. With the help of Dr. Mendez, Grant and Sydney realize that this virus is exclusive to the English language and that the virus can be repelled by ripping the word of its original meaning. The theme of language is not only limited in the spread of the virus. Language is also prevalent in the daily lives of the main characters, being that they are in a radio station.
Here, it can be seen that the “language-as-infection” is a metaphorical representation. It helps to look at Grant’s profession in connection to this. Grant is a “shock jock”, a DJ that makes controversial statements and makes exaggerated extrapolations to elicit reactions from his listeners. Grant justifies that this helps pull in an avid fan base. However, Sydney knows that Grant’s tactics are harmful. Grant believes that what he says do not have any deeper meaning while Sydney believes that his language signifies something.
It may be important then to talk briefly about semiotics, according to Ferdinand Saussure. For Saussure, meaning is constructed through a small unit called the “sign”. Signs are formed by joining together the “signifier” (the sound-image, i.e. the word) and “signified” (the concept represented); their connection may not be salient at first, but what matters is the idea they represent. Roland Barthes also adds that myth adds a second layer to signs. The myth “naturalizes certain meanings by attempting to freeze history in nature”; in other words, myth-making makes certain signs and words seem timeless and unchangeable in meaning. (Englund)
Language is a collection of signs with meanings embedded to them. In the case of the English language, there are many words whose meanings barely changed over the years. Pontypool shows how harmful words can be when deployed carelessly. This happens not only in the case of Grant Mazzy but with BBC News; they release statements about the outbreak without even knowing the full situation from Grant. This misinformation caused by the inaccurate use of language thus creates more chaos, as seen by how armies tried to stop the situation by invading Pontypool. Language may foster understanding but when deployed carelessly, it may breed violence. Quite literally, this violence manifests in the movie through the presence of language-infected zombies. After all, according to Barthes, “Language is a skin”, one that rubs on the Other (Barthes, 74).
Thus, how can violence-breeding language be fought? Grant and Sydney provides a solution: by ripping away the “signifiers” from their “signified”. Grant does this initially by convincing Sydney that the word “Kill” has the meaning of kiss; eventually, when Sydney asks Grant to “kill” her, the latter kisses her instead. Thus, they assign new “signifieds” to the “signifiers”. They rip language of its conventional meanings and creates a new system of signs on the fly.
Eventually, Grant and Sydney release a radio broadcast to tell people of their way to battle the infection. Grant blurts out non-sensical poetry to cure people of their infection. It is here that the film takes a much weirder turn: Grant is threatened with censorship. What is curious is that when he was a shock jock, he wasn’t threatened with this; he’s only threatened when he blurts “nonsense”. As a shock jock, he is able to construct flawed statements that have their own internal logic but as a “savior of mankind”, he only makes statements that are inscrutable to normal people.
To put it simply, people want to control what they do not understand. Combined with the BBC News kerfuffle in the film, it can be intuited that violence happens when true dialogue and understanding are shunned.
To close this analysis, Pontypool truly is in a league of its own, managing to meld semiotics with a good ol’ zombie outbreak. And in the process, the film also manages to be economical in how it deployed fear. Instead of elaborate set-pieces, it chooses to elicit horror through language. And thus, less has in fact achieved more.
Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse. Translated by Richard Howard, Hill and Wang, 1978. Print.
Englund, Robert K. “Signs and Signifying Systems.” Cuneiform Digital Library Initiative. CDLI.com, n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2017. <http://cdli.ucla.edu/staff/englund/m20/saussure2.pdf>
Hawkins, Joan (1999-2000). “Sleaze mania, Euro-trash, and high art.” Horror, the film reader. Ed. Jancovich, M. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.
“Pontypool (2008).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 7 Mar. 2017. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1226681/>