05/27/2014 - 09:04

Why Godzilla matters

John Mecklin

John Mecklin

Before the Bulletin, Mecklin was editor-in-chief of Miller-McCune (since renamed Pacific Standard), an award-winning national magazine that focused on research based solutions to major policy...

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Godzilla is on the fire-breathing march again, its latest silver screen appearance bringing Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures some $93 million in US opening-weekend revenue. The 2014 version of the monster saga puts its nuclear connections front-and-center (although it does seem to suggest that rather than merely awakening the monster, a nuclear test at the Bikini atoll was actually a failed attempt to kill him). A couple of Mosura—flying, nuclear-material-ingesting monsters that create technology-zapping electromagnetic pulses by pounding the ground—emerge from something similar to cocoons underneath a Japanese nuclear power plant and inside a Yucca Mountain nuclear storage facility. They then rampage toward San Francisco to mate, in the process ravaging Las Vegas and Honolulu. For some reason, Godzilla steams across the Pacific to stop them. Once the monsters are all in San Francisco, the almost magical use of special effects allows them to fight in captivating ways across the city, to make amazing noises, and to kill many tiny humans the movie doesn't care about. Godzilla wins, swimming back out to sea, a scary hero who has restored the natural order.

What does it all mean? Don't ask this film.

As many Godzilla reviews note, the movie’s start is an overlong tangle of attempts to explain the monster's nuclear history and to create a human front story surrounding the emergence of the three monsters. Those attempts largely fail. There are no humans to connect with in the current Godzilla, and although a wooden-faced scientist is put on camera every now and again to make proclamations about man, his inability to control nuclear power, and the primacy of nature, his statements amount to garble. When Godzilla grabs the last Mosura standing, pries open its mouth, and breathes fire down its throat until it dies, the audience is clearly meant to (and from the reaction in the theater where I watched the film, does) feel good. What Godzilla's victory means is, to put it kindly, less than crystal clear.

Luckily, the Bulletin's archives provide a couple of distinguished essays that put the atomic-fire-breathing monster of the day in context.

In his August 1985 essay, "The heyday of myth and cliché,"  physicist and historian Spencer R. Weart includes Godzilla in an erudite history of US attempts to put a cultural meaning to the advent of the atomic age. Those attempts have oscillated, sometimes portraying The Bomb as a monster, sometimes as the power behind a coming Golden Age, but seldom as a physical fact "that might be handled with much the same commonsense methods as facts about oil reserves or chemical poisons."

"Most of us persisted in approaching the subject instead with feelings of awe and terror," Weart added, "little different from what we might feel if confronted with a mad scientist's monster or a divine apocalypse."

More recently, in an excerpt from the book Damage Control: Art and Destruction Since 1950, then-interim director and chief curator of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden Kerry Brougher deals with Godzilla films at much greater length and depth. Published in the Bulletin's November/December 2013 special issue on destruction, art, and the Doomsday Clock, Brougher's piece succinctly explains how the original Godzilla grew out of a 1954 hydrogen bomb test gone awry, and how that movie connects to a series of films of the era that have nuclear explosions or radiation at their cores.

Subsequently chosen to be director of the new Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' Museum of Motion Pictures, Brougher clearly knows his movies and his movie monsters, their inspirations, and their symbolisms. And one piece of his wide-ranging analysis of Godzilla's place in the catalogue of humanity's gravest fears stands out as required reading for anyone preparing to watch the big guy, now or in the future:

"Godzilla ... represents the imposition of the new on the old, the inconceivable destructiveness of the new atomic age. But he is a creation of our own making. Like Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, he is our punishment for tampering with nature and defying God. And yet unlike Mary Shelley’s monster, who despite his ungodliness was in fact a mirror of humanity, Godzilla is not human (although clearly a man in a latex suit), not even in the sense of [King] Kong, who is ultimately seen by the end of the film as a Brobdingnagian and tragic version of man; rather, the King of the Monsters is human only in the sense that he symbolizes a dark piece of man’s mind, an unhealthy part, ripped out and expanded to an atomic scale and intent on destroying and killing on an 'inhuman' scale. This is not Kong enraged at being made a Broadway spectacle—imprisoned and chained for entertainment—but pure spectacle as Godzilla attacks without thinking, without cause. He is a physical manifestation of the fear of the dark (most of his attacks come at night in the original film, and he remains unseen in the first several acts of carnage), or, more accurately, the fear of that which cannot be seen, the fear of radiation, of the possibility of sickness and death descending unseen."

There is plenty of time to read Brougher's entire essay. Godzilla will be with us at least as long as nuclear weapons and power are, and not just as a late-night rerun. Yes, a Godzilla sequel is already under way.