Don’t let the big budget special effects and eye-popping 3D hoopla fool you, the new Godzilla (2014) is one serious movie packed into a load of fun. With fantastically rendered apocalyptic visual effects, mind boggling radiation-eating monsters from the deep, a giant lizard god, and a whole shitload of unnatural natural disasters, the movie seethes and explodes with catastrophes, monsters, humans scrambling like ants, and a big bad ass primordial lizard stomping through the chaos. The new film is not a remake of the original Japanese Gojira (1954); rather it is a sequel. The original film is an apocalyptic vision of Japan after the nuclear bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Godzilla is a product of radiation, the embodiment of the toxic post-nuclear landscape. The sound of his feet stomping are the sounds of bombs dropping. The new film brings Godzilla back to the world 60 years later, where the entire planet has become a toxic landscape polluted by the reckless plundering of humankind.
The movie begins with a scene at an open pit mine where a radiation eating MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) has been released when the mine digs deep into the Earth’s core looking for the highly profitable uranium, which is used to make atomic bombs (like the ones dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima). The mine represents the marriage between corporate and state interests, mining the Earth’s natural resources to be used for economic profit, military operations and human destruction. In other words, the mine bastardizes the order of things, and this causes a disruption in the ecosystem which releases the MUTO. The MUTO triggers an earthquake in Japan which causes a Nuclear Power Plant meltdown and looks strikingly familiar to the 2011 Japanese earthquake, tidal wave, and nuclear disaster.
Throughout the movie, disasters fill the screen. A tidal wave takes down Hawaii. A MUTO plunders its way through seas of people. Multitudes lie dead and injured on stretchers, like survivors of wars, bombings, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Skyscrapers tumble. Las Vegas is ripped to shreds. A faux Eiffel Tower is toppled like so much human rubbish while Casinos stand like crumbling skeletons with the strains of lounge music pumping through the wreckage. Trains are derailed. Planes and helicopters burst into flame. Sure, these are all visually sumptuous renditions of disasters, apocalyptic cinema at its best. But they could also be taken straight out of news headlines from the past few decades where unnatural natural disasters (hurricanes, earthquakes, global warming, war, and massacre) are everyday facts of life. Man fucks with Earth. Earth fights back. In this case, Earth is Godzilla. As Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) says, Godzilla resides “at the top of the primordial ecosystem.” He doesn’t show up to destroy but to “restore the natural order of Earth.”
The Earth we see in this movie could use some restoring. The MUTOs which Godzilla has come to destroy are the spawn of humankind’s toxicity. They were created by radiation and feed on radiation to survive. But they were not created by Earth’s natural radiation. Rather, they are products of the very bombings that are referenced in the original 1954 Japanese film. MUTOs are enormous towering loathsome creatures that were created by human poison to feed off human poison (nuclear waste and power of all variety). Who created these things? Man. So who is the real monster? Man. But man is nothing compared to the powers of nature. He is a fool to think he can pillage and control nature. The difference in scale between Godzilla and humans shows just how foolish mankind is to fuck with Mother Earth. Next to the feet of the God Lizard, humans are mere specks just like we are specks on the ecological calendar. Godzilla precedes people, and he will outlive all of us as we plunder the planet until we force the human race itself into extinction.
Not that we get to see the big guy right away. He doesn’t appear until nearly halfway through the movie, but that is why the film is so effective. This isn’t just a movie about Godzilla, but about why Godzilla shows up in the first place. Before we see the Lizard King, we witness many scenes of the waste man has made of the planet. The open pit mine is crawling with day laborers like some kind of Hieronymus Bosch painting. The communication room of the nuclear power plant and the interiors of military aircraft carriers show the apparatus of the State at work (and are true to the vision of the original film). All the monitors, instrumentation and control panels reflect man’s attempt to manipulate, control and destroy nature. People manically turn knobs, push buttons, and launch attacks, but their attempts are futile.
The nuclear plant meltdown is sublimely apocalyptic as it collapses to the ground. The camera roams through the gorgeously rendered landscape of Japan’s post-meltdown quarantine zone. Planets, vines, insects and dogs take over the abandoned town showing how nature takes over even after man has been wiped out. Resorts in Hawaii and Las Vegas (places which plowed the earth to create commercial sites for human recreation) are destroyed. A MUTO rises from a vast nuclear waste dump in Nevada, the place where the most toxic residue of mankind has coalesced. In all these scenes, we are given some of the best CGI-generated cinematic catastrophes ever rendered on film, yet the hazy blur of chaos, the running crowds, and the gloom of a world gone wrong maintain the feel and aesthetic of the original film. This is the same world; the catastrophes have just gotten more global.
In the middle of all this chaos, Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston plays the engineer Joe Brody. His rough-hewn serious face and deadpan delivery makes for the perfect 1950s paranoid scientist transposed into the 21st century. Joe inadvertently kills his wife during the initial nuclear meltdown, leaves his son motherless, and dedicates his life to finding the cause of the initial earthquake which he is convinced is some kind of conspiracy between the military and industry. Joe is deemed crazy by his colleagues and family. He insists there is something terribly wrong, yet no one believes him. He ends up being the paranoid who is the most sane of all. Monster movies have often been the visual manifestation of human paranoia turned into horrific creatures. “You’re hiding something!” Joe yells at the state apparatus right before the MUTO is unveiled. Of course the State is hiding something. We have a reason to be paranoid. They have captured the original MUTO and are holding it hostage in the revived and renovated nuclear power plant. Needless to say, man’s attempts to control this beast that is bigger than a thousand football stadiums are ludicrously futile.
When Godzilla does finally appear, witnessing this primordial lizard god is exhilarating. He is a radiation breathing accidental hero. As he swims through the ocean, he creates waves as tall as the fallen Eiffel Tower. His feet are wider than buildings when they touch ground. The swing of his magnificent tail brings down a MUTO in a single swipe. Let it be clear that as happy as we are to see this God Lizard arrive to save the day, he has no interest in mankind. He knocks over military ships like toys and lays waste to people and buildings when he hits shore. He wants to kick the MUTOs’ asses to save the planet that he occupies not to save humankind who have fucked up the Earth. After Godzilla takes down the MUTOs in San Francisco and rises from the ashes, giant TV screens in a football stadium converted to an evacuation center (reference to Hurricane Katrina) broadcast his image with scrolling words reading:
“King of Lizards. Savior of our city.” Sure, the audience champions this “savior,” but his mission is to restore natural order, and miniscule humankind is not part of that order. Saving humankind was a random result. We just get lucky when Godzilla saves our asses while saving his own and the planet’s. Godzilla represents the ultimate power of the primordial ecosystem. He is a giant organic creature that precedes man arriving on this planet and will continue after man leaves the planet.
As a kid, I loved watching the Godzilla movies. I realize in retrospect that they were a way for me to deflect the sense of the toxic landscape I was living in onto the screen. 2014’s Godzilla reflects the toxic horrors of our present day world onto the screen, and we are reminded, like we are in so many traditional monster movies, that man is the real monster. The MUTOs are manifestations of man, created by nuclear refuse and man’s inorganic harnessing of the earth’s resources for power and profit. It is not Ford Brody (Joe’s surviving son) who the audience is rooting and cheering for in the end. It is Godzilla. Somewhere in the depths of our inner primordial beings, we understand that Godzilla is better than we ever will be, and we want him to live more than we want to save the human race.
When Godzilla rises from the city and returns to the ocean, his body heaves like a giant mountain as if he is made of Earth itself. He is a reminder to all of us to stop fucking with the planet or we will go the way of the MUTOs – products of our own poison and doomed to obliteration.
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.