Putting “God” back into Godzilla

Putting “God” back into Godzilla May 16, 2014

Review of Godzilla (2014), Directed by Gareth Edwards

The new Godzilla film comes out 60 years after the original 1954 movie that emerged from the Toho studios in Japan. The reboot is both entertaining and a thoughtful nod to Godzilla’s origins as a commentary on humans meddling with nature. Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is a manager of a Japanese nuclear power plant that is brought crumbling down due to seismic activity. He is convinced that the disaster was not natural, not the result of an earthquake, and takes on the role of the crazy conspiracy theorist that no one will listen to–including his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

Eventually, Joe and Ford discover the truth: two prehistoric parasitic monsters, which the US military awkwardly names MUTOs (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms), feed on radiation and are thus attracted to the nuclear power site. The relationship between Joe and Ford is more interesting than any other in Godzilla, but we are unfortunately robbed of the human interest narrative early on, with Bryan Cranston taking his exit. This is my biggest criticism of the film. After Cranston’s character departs, Ford’s character holds little emotional value and the only thing left carrying the film forward are the admittedly impressive CGI effects. At least the director Gareth Edwards delivers on this.

The dark, foreboding feeling throughout the first 30 minutes of the film is a testament to Edwards’s craft. We do not see Godzilla in all his glory for quite some time, making the first time we behold him quite breathtaking. The return of Godzilla to his role as a hero is also refreshing and makes the film more than a man versus monster action flick. Godzilla has a history of being more than a monster to be feared and killed.

Ishiro Honda’s original Godzilla premiered in 1954, less than a decade after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In that era, Godzilla was tightly associated with the nuclear blasts that leveled the two Japanese cities–his skin resembled that of the victims, his breath was like atomic fire. The 1954 film opened with a reenactment of the Lucky Dragon incident, where fishermen aboard the Lucky Dragon were exposed to radiation after a US hydrogen bomb test in the Bikini Atoll; but this time Godzilla is the one who destroys the ship. Between the original and the new 2014 reboot, there are 27 other Godzilla films, during which Godzilla metamorphosed into a hero who fought monsters (Mothra, Megalon, etc.). Godzilla became a normal entertainment franchise (comics, video games, TV shows), especially during the “Atoms for Peace” period.

In the trailer, we hear the line: “We are playing with nature, and it’s all going to come back on us.” This is a throwback to the first Godzilla, an emissary of nature sent as a response to the unnatural nuclear blasts. In Godzilla (2014), the terrifying lizard is the king, the “god” of the world, who arises to set things back in balance by destroying the MUTOS. In this battle, the humans play little to no role and busy themselves trying to correct their own mistakes. Humans are feeble and helpless, scurrying around, while Godzilla takes on the two MUTOs. Their attempts to kill one of the MUTOs in its infancy fails miserably, only awakening it. When the MUTOs arrive in San Francisco, the US military decides to solve the problem with a nuclear weapon, which ends up being a ticking time bomb, literally, that needs to be disarmed before it blows up the city.

Just as Godzilla was originally a form of commentary on the nuclear age, the new Godzilla is the same. One cannot watch the destruction of the nuclear weapon without recognizing the parallels with the Fukushima disaster. The reboot is one that caters to our times, a time where climate change is regarded as one of the greatest challenges we face. Thus, similar to Ishiro Honda’s conception of Godzilla, nature will repay. Our control is always tenuous at best. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), the Japanese expert studying these monsters in Godzilla, sums it up well, saying, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control … and not the other way around.”

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