When I was young, my dad introduced me to a lot of older sci-fi and horror movies. Films like Frankenstein, Godzilla, and Them! Being the little guy I was, some things scared me. Giant bugs, for example, we’re particularly freaky for me.
And that’s when these movies became a teachable moment.
My dad would talk to me about what the people making the movies were afraid of. In these three examples, there is the common undertone of the fear of science gone out of control; of the consequences of man trying to play God and master the forces of the natural world. This changed how I looked at stories, even from that early age.
And that’s how I approached the new Godzilla. Sure, I went to a screening on the biggest screen I could find and sat almost uncomfortably close (because I’m not a complete unfeeling, analytical film droid. I like explosions.), but I also knew that the original Godzilla has a special place in my film-loving heart. It’s allegory about the perils of the nuclear age and the terrible responsibilities of those who pursue scientific knowledge was part of the Rosetta Stone of my movie-going life.
As the credits rolled, I sat for a moment and thought about what was beneath the surface of this movie. If the original was about the awesome fear of annihilation by our own hand, what was this new vision representative of?
I thought about the shots comparing the scale of objects, and toying with the audience’s perceptions. A roach climbing over a toy tank. Ford holding a small action figure of a soldier that kinda, sorta resembles him. A close up shot of a lizard, followed by soldiers moving behind it, towering over it. And then comparing these moments to the shots of humans the size of pinpoints being washed away by tidal waves, or smashed or dropped from great heights. Or the shots from a human point of view showing pieces of the mammoth beasts, obscuring their full size because they’re just too big to be taken in at once.
And I thought about the moments where the creatures seem to directly interact with the humans. There are few. These aren’t monsters maliciously stomping on buildings or eating people. We’re not even important enough to be their food source (they prefer radiation). There are a few moments when Godzilla himself seems to make eye contact with a human, but it’s implied by all the previous moments that it’s not really contact, but maybe a form of curiosity. The way that a human might look at a small bird, or try to understand the actions of a swarm of insects.
We are not the biggest force in our ecosystem. We, too, are small.
The movie further reinforces this idea with the actual actions of the humans, and how any action they take only makes things worse. Humans accidentally excavated the MUTO creatures from their dormant hiding place underground. Humans created the nuclear resources that give the MUTO a food supply that was no longer a natural part of the ecosystem. Humans moved a MUTO cocoon to a site of nuclear waste disposal, setting up more carnage when what was in that cocoon awakened. Humans attempted to set up a nuclear warhead to destroy the creatures, but in doing so accidentally created a situation where they needed to deactivate that same warhead when the creatures took it to use as an incubator for their young.
We are small. Our actions are insignificant to these larger creatures. We are hopeless against them and must trust that they will strike a balance that doesn’t destroy us in the process.
At this point, my mind shifted to Pacific Rim, another movie in the kaiju tradition. While there is a moment in the opening narration of this movie that seems to mimic Godzilla (2014), where humans need to use multiple nuclear weapons to bring down a single kaiju monster, the movie quickly diverges to a more optimistic message.
Together we are strong. Together, we can become as big and strong as the challenges we face and topple them. The movie reinforces this theme time and again, from requiring a team of pilots in each towering jaeger robot to highlighting the way that isolationist strategies (like the building of defensive walls) are inadequate.
There are other important differences (for example, the kaiju of Pacific Rim are intentionally malicious towards humans and are sent by an invading force as exterminators), but this difference in underlying theme and dramatic purpose is what I kept thinking about. Pacific Rim was about characters learning to work together and sacrifice together in order to protect humanity as a whole. Godzilla (2014) is about humanity realizing it is at the mercy of forces out of its control, and our best option may be to move to Kansas.
And then I think about Dr. Serizawa from the original Godzilla, and how he not only makes the Oxygen Destroyer weapon that ultimately kills Godzilla, but how he sacrifices himself in triggering the weapon to make sure that the secret of his powerful weapon dies with him. It supports the theme of the film that scientific progress can produce things of benefit, but that they can also be used for terrible purposes. The Oxygen Destroyer stops a rampaging monster, but it could have been used to cause even more devastation than the monster itself.
Take this a step further: In the American dubbing, Godzilla, King of the Monsters, the suggestion is that Dr. Serizawa dies with the weapon so that it doesn’t fall into “the wrong hands.” In the original, there are no right hands for a weapon of this power, and Dr. Serizawa believes it is too great a power to be wielded by any human. For an American audience, already entrenched in a Cold War and aware that it recently deployed the fearful atomic weapons that spawned Godzilla, this change shifts the theme to a have your cake and eat it to philosophy that man can create great and terrible weapons that should not exist, but if they do exist, let’s all agree that we know who should wield them.
Putting it all together, this new Godzilla is all about feeling small, weak, and powerless in the face of something ancient and unexplainable. Something natural. Something with as much interest in us as a hurricane or an earthquake does. And there’s nothing we can do about it but surrender.
Except for one thing.
Ford Brody: Indestructible Action Figure
This new Godzilla owes several things to the American dubbing of the original. For one, there’s an American point of view character who just happens to be present for every important moment. In Godzilla, King of the Monsters! this was done by filming new scenes with Raymond Burr and having lots of shots of him looking at things or having an interpreter explain things to him. It’s a clumsy device, but it helped to ground the story for an American audience that distributors thought would be averse to subtitles.
Godzilla (2014) is less clumsy in how it motivates the reasons why Ford is always in the center of the action. He’s at the site of the first monster event because his father lead him there. The second event happens midway between home and Japan, following the path of the monsters. And finally, he volunteers for a mission to try and stop the monsters because it’s the only way to quickly get back to his wife and son. So far, so good.
But in order to balance his ability to act as the audience’s point of identification while also keeping his story engaging, the film puts him in life threatening danger at regular intervals. And he always walks away. After being almost thrown from a train, knocked off a suspension bridge, and being thrown forward by a gas explosion, he winds up with a single crutch and a few scrapes and bruises that fail to suggest that he spent the last 48 hours in a constant struggle for his life.
Because he needs to end the movie kissing the also lightly scraped and mussed Elle Brody, and everybody should look Apocalypse Pretty for that moment… But that’s another train of thought.
By making Ford so indestructible, the movie undercuts it’s own message. “Humanity needs to reconsider its place in the food chain, except for this guy.”
And expand on this to look at a recurring image throughout the movie: families separating and reuniting. If the movie focuses on a family being separated, that family makes it out OK in the end. Every time.
“Humanity needs to reconsider its place in the food chain, except for this one guy… And his family… And any other family we focus on.”
The movie creates a sense that some people are safe by virtue of them having loved ones they are separated from. It undercuts its sense of fear and chaos by suggesting an ordered world that dulls the audience’s sense of pain.
Compare this to Pacific Rim, where not only do characters die, but characters we care about. Their death, and willingness to face it, helps define them. Or the original Godzilla, where time is spent focusing on a woman and her children about to be crushed by the terrible beast.
The woman gathers her children to her and tells them not to be afraid, because they’ll soon be with their father. And we weep for them, because in that one moment we identify with them. Their death has meaning because it touches us. The film focuses on them not to make us feel safe and comforted, but to advance the film’s theme about the horrors of the forces humanity has unleashed, and the human toll.
There are no such moments in the new Godzilla. Humans are either viewed from afar like ants under a boot or focused on so we can feel their relief at having survived.
There’s another thing I learned about watching movies with my dad: skepticism with humor. We were our own Mystery Science Theater for plenty of movies in his collection of 50s and 60s sci-fi movies. A lot of it focused on the rickety and obvious craftsmanship of those movies. Spotting the wires. Recognizing a costume from another movie. Pointing out where you could see the breaks in the illusion.
That had an influence on me, too, but not as quickly. It kept me always thinking about how these are created stories. They don’t just happen. Everything that happens is a choice, successful or otherwise.
Maybe now I snark a little less while watching the movie. A little. But a lot of how I learned to watch movies comes from those days spent on the couch with my dad and his VHS collection.
So when I sit down to watch Godzilla, I think about watching those other movies with him. And I think about how in the near future I’m going to have somebody new to the world to share these things with. I doubt I’ll make them sit through Robot Monster 3D, but at some point they’ll meet Godzilla. And maybe their dad will calm their fears by telling them about why these monsters on the screen exist.
It’s because the people making these movies are scared, too. But we can be a little less scared if we know we’re not alone in our fear.