For an era that has embraced the microprocessor, that has mapped the infinitesimally small building blocks of life, that has broken open the atom and gawked at its floating innards, we are still obsessed with the vast. The never-ending scientific expedition into the tiniest crevices of nature has not dimmed our enthusiasm for the enormous and the epic. The glory of the colossal and the tremendous occupy the same pride of place in our consciousness as they always have.
This is probably why Hollywood loves big things. More specifically, Hollywood loves big things getting broken by even bigger things. This summer alone it has been possible to see Godzilla – who has increased from the ‘why even bother?’ height of 50 metres in 1954 to the ‘now that’s what I’m talking about!’ height of 150 metres in 2014 – batter cities around the globe into rubble with two prehistoric leviathans serving as a convenient pair of cudgels for knocking things down. Elsewhere, director Michael Bay continued his quest to become appointed as the cultural ambassador for destruction on an epic scale by using the final part of his Transformers quadrilogy to prove comprehensively that there’s simply nothing that can beat a massive robot. Apart from other, even more massive robots, which are in turn only vulnerable to a series of massive robots combining to form one utterly unstoppable machine. Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, released in 2013, contains a similar lesson, with a slight twist: nothing beats massive robots which can beat skyscraper-sized, genetically enhanced killing machines except an even bigger killing machine which is in turn… well, you get the picture.
Even Hollywood’s heroes are intent on wreaking havoc on an epic scale. If Superman views himself as a protector of humanity, he should consider whether that role is truly compatible with cutting a trail of devastation across the globe that left me wondering whether we’d actually be better off just letting General Zod take us over; Zod had some respect for architecture at least. And the epic doesn’t stop at solo artists. The vast armies of Lord of the Rings inspired a legion of films fetishising depictions of colossal amounts of manpower. Who remembers Troy, the film that tainted 1,000 careers? The CGI Athenian fleet which arrived on the beaches of the city could have ferried the entire population of Athens several times over, with space left for each page of Homer’s epic to be assigned an individual boat and captain to ensure safe passage.
The ability to bring mammoth numbers of soldiers from the ancient world to life is certainly remarkable, but it highlights how difficult we find it to conceptualise size above a certain point. We love to see the preposterously vast represented on screen, but can we picture it in the abstract? The default heuristic has always been to break enormous things into manageable units and aggregate them again. The trouble is, even this becomes a surprisingly difficult exercise. Ask yourself: what would 1,000 pencil sharpeners look like? What about 10,000? Can you picture how big a bag would have to be in order to hold £100,000 in £20 notes (a hint on this one: it’s much smaller than you think)? How many iPhones laid end to end would it take to reach the moon? How large would a spider have to be to spin a web that could hold a human? If you were an ant, how many multiples of your own body weight could you lift? What begins as an exercise in demystification swiftly becomes a horrible mangling of the familiar into a grotesque tableau of hastily merged everyday objects.
The difficulty of communicating effectively about scale was brought home recently with the christening of the HMS Queen Elizabeth, the UK’s newest aircraft carrier. The largest warship ever to fly the Union Jack, the Queen Elizabeth is an extraordinary feat of engineering. Aircraft carriers are almost certainly something of which Michael Bay would approve, given that they are floating instruments of war, designed to carry flying instruments of war to and from theatres of war around the globe. They are seaborne Death Stars with crews that exceed the populations of small towns, and enough weaponry and soldiers on board to wage war against entire countries on their own, should it come to that. Not content with having just one of these, the UK is building two. A sister vessel, HMS The Prince of Wales will follow the Queen Elizabeth into service.
However, if you are a truculent nation looking for trouble at the moment, these sisters won’t be crashing your beach parties anytime soon. Why? Because the christening ceremony was merely the unveiling of the ship’s constituent parts. The Queen Elizabeth was built in six sites across the country and the pieces were only united for the first time in a shipyard in Rosyth this month. Until then, carrier existed as individual sections of hull scattered around the UK. It now has to spend several years being put through its paces at sea, before finally coming into service around 2020. This means that 13 years will have elapsed from when the contracts were signed to the first of the two carriers becoming fully operational. How big does something have to be to take that long to build? The answer, of course, is that it needs to be 1,000 double decker buses long and 15,000 iPhones wide.
Well, that’s not entirely true. According to the official video released to mark her unveiling to the world, the Queen Elizabeth is big enough to fit over 470 double decker buses onto her flight deck. If that’s not enough information for you, the video goes on to inform you that 370 acres of paint cover her hull. An acre of paint. Has a less helpful unit of measurement ever been unleashed into the world? To be fair, scaled up to this size even feet and inches, metres and centimetres lose their meaning, so it’s a toss-up as to whether any other unit of measurement can restore some clarity to the situation.
This is not to say that we should just give up on trying to put a manageable face onto the unmanageably large. After all, size matters. But perhaps we should go back to trusting people’s imaginations. I had little problem picturing the Orc Armies of Mordor when they were just several paragraphs on a page. Then again, I hadn’t seen the films at that point. Maybe I need to learn to think bigger…