Godzilla and Reckless Arrogance in the Nuclear Age

:::SPOILER ALERT FOR GODZILLA (2014):::

The original Godzilla (a.k.a. Gojira) was released in Japan less than a decade after the end of World War II. In 1954, the reality of nuclear annihilation was still fresh in Japanese consciousness after the United States dropped two atom bombs on the already devastated and defeated nation. Gojira (1954), inspired by a real nuclear “accident” in which a ship of Japanese fishermen was irradiated by an American hydrogen bomb test in the Pacific, was a powerful anti-American* film that warned against the rush to use science as a weapon and condemned the arrogance of those who thought they could keep such destructive forces under control. The monster set loose by nuclear testing in Gojira is essentially a living atom bomb.

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Over the years, nearly 30 Japanese Godzilla sequels have been produced, as well as 2 Hollywood remakes, making the franchise one of the most enduring and prolific in film history. While many of the sequels don’t take themselves very seriously, descending into camp with outlandish, silly creatures and bizarre scenarios, there can be no denying the impact the original film has had on society. It was a terrifying but highly entertaining film whose politics were integral to the plot, and its pointedly anti-nuclear stance obviously resonated with millions of people around the world.

When Roland Emmerich directed the first Hollywood remake he openly admitted to not being a fan of the original film, and, not surprisingly, Godzilla (1998) de-emphasized the anti-nuclear theme. While the monster in Emmerich’s film was the result of French nuclear testing (not American), beyond that the morality and politics of nuclear power plays virtually no role in the film. Dr. Tatopoulos, a scientist studying the effects of nuclear radiation (Matthew Broderick) seems to have no qualms with hunting down and eliminating the monster, in direct contrast with the scientific minded characters in Gojira who caution against violent reaction and stress the importance of knowledge and patience.

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For Emmerich, nukes are just a convenient plot device to set the story in motion. Ishiro Honda, on the other hand, used nuclear terror to craft a metaphor of essential importance to the original film. Honda’s Gojira is a walking lesson in the destructive consequences of arrogance and imperialistic greed, and retaliation against the monster only makes him more angry and destructive, while Emmerich’s Godzilla is just an overgrown animal who happens to be inconvenient for mankind’s modern civilization, and therefore must be destroyed without question.

Emmerich’s take on Godzilla was met with harsh criticism from fans and professional critics alike. Many pointed out that the film lacked the “spirit” of a genuine Godzilla film. The heart of this criticism, whether the film’s detractors realized it consciously or not, is that the missing spirit was political in nature. Fans also didn’t like how the monster looked and behaved, but ultimately Godzilla (1998) simply had nothing of value to say. When Emmerich cut out the progressive core of the story there just wasn’t much left. What remained was a sarcastic, militaristic, reactionary mess.

The next Hollywood take on Godzilla was just released on May 16. While Roland Emmerich’s version was perhaps deliberately belligerent to fans of the original franchise, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) is clearly trying to be a crowd-pleaser. It pays homage to the Japanese films by bringing back Godzilla’s “atomic breath” and by incorporating other monsters for Godzilla to battle into the plot. Edwards’ version also restores the iconic monster to his lumbering, powerful, and self-aware roots. Here Godzilla appears capable of complex thought and operates on more than just base instincts, which is much more in line with the original conception of the monster.

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Edwards also brings the nuclear issue back to the forefront. Gojira (1954) was inspired by a real life nuclear incident, and it appears that Godzilla (2014) was similarly inspired by the Japanese nuclear power plant disaster of 2011. The film begins with the meltdown and destruction of a nuclear plant and a government cover-up to conceal the true cause of the disaster. But while Godzilla (2014) dedicates a lot of screen time to the topic of nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the film doesn’t take nearly as strong an anti-nuclear stance as the original film, even if on the surface Edwards wants you to think it does.

The central protagonist, Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is a military explosive ordnance disposal officer. At one point when asked how the “bomb business is going” he says it’s his job to get rid of bombs, not to set them off. However, despite his claim, he demands to be assigned to the team ordered to set off a nuclear bomb in the ocean as a trap for the monsters. Never once does he say that it’s a reckless idea and that exploding nukes so close to the coast should be avoided at all costs.

That stance is left to Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), the man, apparently named after the scientist in the original film, who had been overseeing the study of the newly discovered MUTO monster who had caused the destruction of the power plant. His is the only voice of dissent against the unwise and obviously dangerous plan to detonate nuclear weapons as the first course of action. He proposes that the military should allow Godzilla to battle these new monsters that feed off nuclear energy, thus letting nature take its proper course. Though his view is eventually vindicated, his protests against the official plan are pretty timid, especially for someone whose grandfather was killed in Hiroshima. Of course the military is completely unmoved by his argument until circumstances prove him correct.

It could be argued the film is making a statement against nuclear energy through the MUTO monsters in the same way Gojira (1954) did, by metaphorically making the monsters living nuclear power plants, just as Godzilla was envisioned as a living atom bomb. The MUTOs feed off nuclear energy and then harness that power to create massive electromagnetic pulses (EMP) that cripple society. But while it could be argued the film is creating that metaphor, the association is weak at best, and the point is never driven home with clear intention the way it was in 1954. The difference is a question of priority.

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With Gojira is was obvious that the film makers made the film in order to send a message. “The theme of the film, from the beginning, was the terror of the bomb. Mankind had created the bomb, and now nature was going to take revenge on mankind,” said Gojira‘s producer Tomoyuki Tanaka. The resulting film was raw, powerful, aware of its politics and direct about its intentions. With Godzilla (2014) the priority seemed to be making an entertaining movie that just so happens to include monsters that feed off nuclear energy. They have to eat something, right?

In the end, the strongest case the film makes against nuclear weapons is the way the military rushes to justify their use, and the cavalier way the weapons themselves are handled, easily falling out of their control in a situation they didn’t fully understand. However, the film misses its biggest opportunity drive home this message. While the “nature” plan proposed by Dr. Serizawa is ultimately successful and nuclear weapons ultimately revealed to be unnecessary, or indeed counterproductive, when the bomb does inevitably explode, it’s somehow, inexplicably, harmless.

In Gojira (1954), the monster is defeated with an experimental new technology called an Oxygen Destroyer. However, the scientist responsible for developing the technology, Dr. Serizawa, does not want to use it. He says it needs more research and that if they use it as a weapon that’s all it could ever be, just another weapon for people to kill each other with, as opposed to discovering more beneficial uses after further study. He believes this so firmly that before agreeing to use the technology to defeat the monster he burns all of his research, and then allows himself to be killed along with Gojira, ensuring the knowledge in his head could never fall into the wrong hands.

There’s a similar moment of potential self-sacrifice in the new film, but it doesn’t come to fruition, and somehow in only 5 minutes they are able to escort a nuke from the middle of the San Francisco Bay far enough into the ocean to detonate safely. No mention of damage, fallout, or any ill effects whatsoever. It’s all too convenient and easy, and the film makers passed on an opportunity to end the film with a brutal, powerful lesson in the arrogance, recklessness, and inhumanity of using nuclear weapons. Why not let the bomb explode in the middle of San Francisco after it’s already been established they were never needed in the first place? Imagine the irony of an ending where nature takes care of itself but mankind destroys itself trying to control it. The film wouldn’t have had a comfortable, feel-good ending, but then again, neither did Gojira, which, even in victory, ends on a somber note that forces the audience to reflect on the realities of the nuclear age.

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Godzilla (2014) isn’t a bad film. It’s extremely well made technically, has a plot based on solid character development, and it takes itself seriously enough to provide a sense of realism to the drama. It’s a vast improvement over the terrible 1998 version in every conceivable way, and it was a genuine, visceral cinematic experience, especially in IMAX 3D. But, ultimately, it’s still only a pale reflection of the original’s power and influence, even if it had some good intentions. As fun as it was to watch in parts, its inability to follow through with a cohesive anti-nuclear message and its missed opportunities will always outweigh the positives.

* It should be noted that the original Japanese version, Gojira (1954), was so threatening to U.S. interests that for the the American release of the film a significant amount of footage was cut from the original and new footage starring Raymond Burr was shot and added to the film. This version was called Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) and it largely eliminated the judgments the original film made on the U.S. and its use of nuclear weapons. It is, unfortunately, the version most people outside of Japan are most familiar with, but it should by no means be considered “the original” film, even though it was more widely distributed and popularized than the true original.

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