A Decade Later, The Iron Giant’s Weaponized Soul Still Stirs

“Can a gun have a soul?” That’s the question asked by criminally underrated animated film The Iron Giant, which opened 10 years ago to mostly empty theaters and sporadic press coverage.

Combining a relatively infant CGI style with traditional hand-drawn animation, director Brad Bird’s award-winning but critically ignored feature animation debut pondered how a paranoid, post-war America might react to an overwhelmingly powerful interstellar invader. A decade on, the cult classic stands as arguably the most intellectually and emotionally moving science-fiction tale in recent history.

From lampooning McCarthyite government spooks and terrible sci-fi B movies to lionizing comic book heroes like Superman, The Iron Giant touched so many pop culture bases that it made for dizzying cinema. Now, in a so-called post-9/11 era of empty-headed shooters like Terminator Salvation, the movie’s pacifist spirit is needed more than ever.

Instead, Hollywood still has weaponry on the brain. For proof, look no further than G-Force, the recently released children’s CGI spy-fi fantasy starring sentient and armed guinea pigs working for the FBI. Or consider Iron Man. The 2008 movie, based on Marvel Comics’ armored war machine and released during the so-called war on terror, managed to make an arms-dealing billionaire look cool. If you think there’s going to be much more than explosions or jokes in its highly anticipated sequel, due in 2010, I’ve got a subprime mortgage to sell you. And then there’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, the ultimate weaponized fantasy about gas-guzzlers that suddenly become useful for something — and not just carting around Megan Fox. The list goes on.

About a boy and his robot, The Iron Giant flopped in 1999 but remains one of the smartest sci-fi films ever made. This is not to say that the aforementioned films, and the scores just like them that arrived in The Iron Giant‘s wake after 1999, aren’t dumb fun. They are. But they’re also dumb — dumb as bullets.

The Iron Giant was anything but dumb. In fact, it was an intelligent and moving satire of paranoia, weaponry and innocence that was as decidedly antiwar as it was pro-tech. Its robot overlord — a giant, metal machine that falls from space during the height of the Cold War — is, after all, breathtakingly cool. It’s indestructible, fully loaded, can fly and even remotely piece itself back together after being blown to bits. None of this is lost on the film’s youthful protagonist, Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal), who screeches, “I am now the luckiest kid in America!” after making first contact.

The film was not so lucky, although it was smart and touching for its time, an era characterized by a permissive militarism that went viral after 9/11. Warner Bros. didn’t know what to do with a movie about a killer robot who becomes a pacifist with the help of a patriotic kid in love with comics like Superman, the ultimate alien benevolent (and the Iron Giant’s eventual role model).

“When we showed the executives the movie, they didn’t get it,” Iron Giant screenwriter Tim McCanlies said in 2003. One possible reason: The movie has no clearly defined protagonist or antagonist, a must for popcorn entertainment. “Let’s just have paranoia be the enemy,” McCanlies remembers Bird saying, “not the combined armies of the superpowers.” The Iron Giant‘s domestic box office gross of $23 million didn’t come close to recouping the movie’s production budget, which reportedly hit $70 million.

The Iron Giant

Although his movie was a box office flop, Bird’s premise has proven prescient, given all that has transpired since 1999, from the Patriot Act and Guantanamo Bay to military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only thing we still have to fear is fear itself. Well, that and its capitalization.

Brad Bird’s misunderstood robot overlord is electrified on arrival, and spends the rest of The Iron Giant existentially contemplating the soul of weaponry.

It is that capitalization upon fear that motivates The Iron Giant‘s onscreen nemesis, paranoid government spook Kent Mansley (voiced to the hilt by Christopher McDonald). It now infects mainstream entertainment at large: From reality TV to torture porn and G-Force, no one’s bothering to ask if guns have souls anymore. They’re too busy locking and loading.

Big guns and fiery explosions have been Hollywood’s status quo for a long time, with mindless violence selling tickets — and a warlike message, which The Iron Giant stands on its head. Hogarth dons the requisite helmet and BB gun after his future pal wrecks the nearby woods, and the boy even salutes himself in a mirror, armed in defense of America against the Sputnik-launching Russians, before galloping off to meet the “enemy.”

But after watching the Iron Giant (voiced by Vin Diesel) scream in pain while caught up in power lines, Hogarth’s compassion is activated as he realizes that his interstellar visitor can communicate. It is something Mansley could realize himself, if he wasn’t so busy pursuing his wargasm. Yet he does not, and that is Bird’s brain at work: Consumed by what philosopher Theodor Adorno once controversially called the “authoritarian personality,” Mansley is possessed by cynicism and a quest for power. He simply cannot conceive a world where robots fall from the sky to do anything other than annihilate America.

Not the planet, mind you: Mansley believes he’s defending the homeland, and could care less about what happens to the rest of Earth. As Bird and McCanlies masterfully illustrate in the film’s final act, Mansley, who has led the U.S. military into a suicide mission, doesn’t even care what happens to people in America. He launches a nuke on U.S. soil the second he discovers that the Iron Giant is actually a peacenik in an indestructible skeleton, and that he, the patriotic Cold Warrior, is in fact “the monster.”

Like Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant war satire Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, The Iron Giant ends with the threat of mutually assured destruction. In Strangelove‘s war porn, Slim Pickens rides a nuke like a rodeo star down to his doom. The Iron Giant‘s misunderstood, maligned hero heads off a bomb’s destructive descent, eyes closed, ready to sacrifice his life, like his idol Superman — all for a human horde that, moments ago, had forced him to become the very thing he promised not to become: a gun.

The Iron Giant

Although some have shot down The Iron Giant because of its supposedly naive political correctness, they misunderstand naivete and geopolitics. The concept of a purely good, or evil, political actor shatters credulity. The Iron Giant is beyond naivete or political correctness. It’s a hilarious, tear-jerking and sci-fantastic analysis of paranoia on parade, and how it can be stopped when everyone decides to lay down their arms and start using their hearts and minds.

That’s not as easy as spending trillions on guns, nukes and financial weapons of mass destruction like derivatives. Peace, The Iron Giant argues, is hard work. Killing is the coward’s campaign.

Ten years later, the movie’s stature has only grown. Bird has crossed over with a vengeance, directing animated feature films like The Incredibles and Ratatouille, but The Iron Giant remains his greatest triumph.

So happy birthday, Iron Giant. Thanks for reminding us that heroism comes in many forms. And that it doesn’t come from a gun at all, but instead from a machine with its synthetic brain and heart fully charged.

This love letter to Brad Bird’s masterpiece of war and peace originally appeared in Wired.