“If Godzilla is not benevolent but merely indifferent, then his mercy amounts to that of a man sidestepping an anthill instead of trampling it under his heel.”
Conventional academic and critical wisdom would have us read the original 1954 Gojira as a post-nuclear allegory on the consequences of playing God. In other words, we read it as a B movie with substance and sociohistorical insight. The problem with this line of discourse is not that it’s wrong or trivial, but that the merit of Gojira hinges on it, as if the only way the film can be discussed is if we tie in an undercurrent of nuclear anxiety. But at what point should a monster movie just be a monster movie? At what point does our appreciation of Gojira have more to do with watching a man in a giant lizard costume stomp across a toy replica of Tokyo than with a discussion on the bomb? In truth, the monster film is a difficult genre to pin down as a writer, because it begs to be a metaphor. However, by interpreting monsters as an expression of our fears made tangible, we give them social import at face value. A monster film can be good or bad, but if it springs up in post-WWII Japan or Cold War America, it will demand meaning without needing to earn it.
Sixty years removed from the original, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla displaces the iconic lizard from its historical mainspring and strips away the nuclear cautionary tale. But if the film is meant to just be a monster movie, then no one told the director. The new incarnation of Godzilla avoids the temptations of camp to create a desolate cinematic spectacle, in which humanity has no real control over their own ruination. At the center of this useless struggle, the atomic lizard king reigns not just as a god amongst monsters but as a god amongst all. Sure, the base thrills of wanton destruction remain intact, the revelation of the creature is still used as a slow buildup, and a feeling of impending doom pervades the early scenes. But the lack of mankind’s agency in the story alters the formula, and with it comes a conscious and deliberate effort to create thematic subtext. In the end, it might be both a blessing and a curse that Edwards’ Godzilla must thrive outside of an ancillary context, but at least the film forces us to make our observations based on what happens on-screen.
Ironically, Godzilla excels when it depicts peripheral action, but unlike Gojira‘s appropriated historical backdrop, here the peripheral has direct and continued influence because it manifests in how the monsters are portrayed. At the start of the film, scientist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) sneaks into a quarantined city in Japan with his estranged son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), suspecting that the Japanese government are hiding something. The two soon find themselves being escorted by armed guards to a secret base built around a derelict nuclear reactor that Joe had once worked at, with a monstrous cocoon now wedged into the facility’s partially collapsed hub. Of course, Joe and Ford’s arrival precipitates a creature hatching from this preternaturally glowing swathe and wreaking havoc – a primordial parasite known only as M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). As the action unfolds, viewers struggle to get a good look at the creature, his dark form barely catching the floodlights trained on his ravaged cocoon, while he snuffs out soldiers and scientists alike in a show of overwhelming force, then flies off into the night. Here, much as in later scenes, the film’s perspective remains rooted to human characters, though all they are given to do is die or survive, while bearing witness to something beyond belief.
As the film builds, Godzilla makes his dramatic entrance in Hawaii and does battle with the flying M.U.T.O., demolishing the city of Honolulu as soldiers fire automatic weapons from rooftops and F-16s shriek through the air and let loose missiles, all in a futile show of strength. Later, a female M.U.T.O. hatches out of the mountains of Nevada – a larger, wingless iteration of the male featured in early scenes – and makes for a collision course with her mate and a pursuing Godzilla, who is still on the hunt for his prehistoric prey. The stage for a drag-out final fight is set in San Francisco, and while the human characters scramble to lure the monsters back into the ocean, their stratagems are dashed before they can come to fruition. Some critics have derided Godzilla for this reason: humanity dominates the screen time, and yet they are, almost to a fault, feckless and superficial. Cranston’s Joe Brody remains the only character with a strong and convincing motivation throughout, to discover the truth behind the nuclear reactor’s collapse, and yet the film inexplicably kills him off just as the kaiju is unveiled. If people are to serve as nothing but a glorified prop, though, their observations can still justify their collective role in Godzilla.
For example, in a scene in which soldiers are transporting a nuclear bomb to San Francisco via train, the female M.U.T.O. intercepts the company and promptly decimates them. However, much of this happens off-screen, while the focus remains on Ford Brody (who inherits his father’s place as protagonist). The scene culminates in Brody lying flat and motionless on a railroad bridge, with the camera peering through the rails to watch the hulking monster wade across the river below. Naturally, the conflict lies in Brody’s strained attempts at silence. Given his inability to influence the monster’s course, his chosen action is inaction, and the careful balance of scale, constructed through a visual contrast between foreground (Brody) and background (M.U.T.O), reinforces his frailty and elicits concern. In truth, Brody has no recourse in this situation but to hide and catch bare glimpses of the monster out of the corner of his eye. Then, when the monster rises up and spies Brody on the bridge, he is forced to move much like a leaf caught in the wind. The scene strips away the illusion of control, reinforcing the narrative’s fatalism. Simply stated, if a character is to die in Godzilla, he or she will do so without having much say in the matter.
With this in mind, it’s not surprising that the human characters have so little depth. The film favors Ford Brody over his father because he is a soldier – essentially a blank slate whose actions are shaded by sacrifice and selflessness. He is an archetype more than a fleshed-out individual, sure, but if he had a complicated purpose in Godzilla, then his powerlessness would be conspicuous. The audience would yearn for him to have some greater stake in the narrative chain of events, subverting the implications of his passive spectatorship. Even so, the film’s conflict must be resolved somehow, so Godzilla adopts the role of deus ex machina, rising up from the ocean depths to restore balance. This is blithely explained away by scientist Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) as nature correcting itself, a lazy storytelling mechanic that nevertheless establishes Godzilla not as a living, breathing monster but as an abstract force of nature. And so, just as gods of old were created to explain the elements of nature outside of man’s grasp, Godzilla takes on the mantle of myth through sheer, disproportionate power.
In the film’s climactic battle, Ford and his fellow soldiers parachute through the clouds and into a razed, downtown San Francisco, catching fragments of a colossal clash through their visors. Amidst black furls of smoke and ash, Godzilla wages an age-old war against the two malevolent kaijus, and the director interpolates the action with stunning wide shots of the soldiers plummeting from the heavens, dwarfed first by the sky and then by the monsters below. In these waning moments, humanity’s vulnerability is so acutely visualized that Godzilla briefly transcends its own spectacle to convey a sense of awe. Meanwhile, the mood borders at times on despair as the city falls to ruins around them. After all, humankind’s survival stands to be decided by the whims of a contest they cannot take part in. Humanity’s fate does not belong to them, but to chance.
This inability to play a part in their salvation begets a misplaced faith in Godzilla, whose characterization as a benevolent savior smacks of desperation. Regardless, once the M.U.T.O.s have been destroyed, Godzilla shuffles off to his eternal slumber on the ocean floor, and the world is saved all the same. The ending comes easy, just as the deus ex plot device would suggest, but an undercurrent of fear must inevitably go with it. Consider, if Godzilla is not benevolent but merely indifferent, then his mercy amounts to that of a man sidestepping an anthill instead of trampling it under his heel. Furthermore, if Godzilla has no interest in humanity’s salvation, then on another whim he could rise back up from the ocean and squelch the whole lot himself. In that case, all that stands between Godzilla and the downfall of civilization is the enticement of a nice nap.