Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Politics of: Godzilla

Go Go Godzilla!
The second American try at making a Godzilla film is in theaters now and The Omnivore is there! The first section reviews the movie and should be pretty safe from spoilers. The second part discusses the politics and assumes you have seen the film.


Following the incredibly disappointing 1998 disaster Godzilla, which would've been a serviceable remake of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms--the movie that actually did inspire the original Godzilla--it took quite a while for the King of Monsters to return to American studios. Although his debut was a serious--and seriously topical--film (even if blunt and, perhaps, a little silly), Godzilla had become, by the end of the 20th century, something very different than a literally terrifying force of nature. Firstly, he was friendly. Secondly, there were now all kinds of aliens and other monsters of varying goofiness. Thirdly, all the action centered around, well, Japan (go figure)--so there wasn't that much American interest.

Director Garth Edwards directed the indie-film Monsters which also featured giant monsters, a threatened society, well rendered (and that word is key--the movie was all CGI) military hardware, and a plucky set of survivors in the mix. He seemed like he might be the right guy for the job--and he was: Godzilla movies need a few things to make them work:

  • Enough build-up to set the stage
  • A sense of grandeur to the destruction
  • Inspiration of awe and terror for the monsters
  • A satisfying set of giant-monster battles
  • Something for the humans to do
In Godzilla (2014) Edwards delivers these perfectly. The build-up matches some of the longest unseen-monster times in cinema and its tone reminds us of movies like Jurassic Park and some more conventional disaster movies like The China Syndrome. Part of the reason Godzilla needs some runway is that it has to introduce and have us connect with its variety of human stars so we'll care about the massive destruction that's about to come. Specifically, Godzilla movies need three kinds of people: 
  1. Heroic military personnel to try the initial two assaults on the creature: Aaron Taylor-Johnson who is, perhaps, a little stoic but stops short of being wooden.
  2. Scientists to explain the beast: The all-purpose Japanese star Ken Wantanbe and Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranson (who manages to capture most of our interest in the first part of the movie)
  3. Kids, so we can worry about them: Carson Bodle gets most of the screen time--but there are several child-parts for parents in the audience to fret over.
When we get to the destruction, the movie shines. We see massive clouds of smoke that frame the action rather than just obscuring it. Buildings disintegrate in ultra-realistic showers of debris. The Kaiju (the general term for Godzilla-like things) are elemental in their power and the near-silent vistas of devastation stand out against dark skies with an actually artistic tone.

The monsters themselves are more interesting and manage more personality than Pacific Rim's cookie-cutter Kaiju. Godzilla was gigged for not being cute enough (Japanese audiences found him too fat ... well, he is American) but there's enough expression in the King of Monster's face to give us someone to root for. The battles themselves show that Edwards paid a lot of attention to how these things are supposed to go (like super-sized pro-wrestling matches) and he nailed the reversals and ending moves.

In the end, though, we're supposed to worry about and care for the fragile humans caught in the path of these things. That's where Pacific Rim left a lot of its money on the table: while almost all characters contain some stereotypes, Kaiju movies seem to hew more closely to them than others. While Godzilla is no exception, the performances are, to a one, more believable than the other most recent giant-monster movie.

The humans also get at least a shot at making a difference and don't need giant super-mechs to do it.

While symbolism is kind of a Lit 101 thing, in the Godzilla canon it's really quite literal and even ham-fisted. The original movie was a direct call-back to the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as some Pacific Island nuclear tests that sickened and killed Japanese sailors. For the Japanese public this wasn't a flight of fancy: it was a fictionalized vision of a very real human catastrophe. 

Today Godzilla is bigger than ever (this is because sky scrapers have gotten bigger: the original 50-meter lizard would look like an over-stuffed tour-guide in modern Tokyo) and his disasters are still just as pressing. While the director name-checks Global Warming, the images that the screen shows us call out to the Fukishima nuclear reactor, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Notably absent, though, is a direct visceral visual allusion to 9/11. To be sure, buildings fall--but they don't pancake. While there are massive dust-clouds, the iconography is actually not all that reminiscent of actual 9/11 footage (with the rolling clouds filling streets and rushing at and over the camera). 

Does this mean that we've moved past our own personal disaster and can now accept a more globalized perspective? Maybe. It's something to think about anyway. Maybe like wire-fu after the 90's, we've all just become so accustomed to seeing 9/11-alikes that the visuals have gotten old. Then again, we now have a 9/11 tourist-attraction in New York City... so maybe the healing really has begun.

I don't know.

I do know this: Godzilla is a near-perfect giant-monster movie. Wherever it's less than perfect it makes up for it with a sense of scale and power that most of its ilk never even approach. It plays its material perfectly seriously while keeping an eye on its tropes so it remains recognizable.

Godzilla (2014) lives up to its name.

Let's do the politics!

The Politics Of: Godzilla

The politics of Godzilla in general are the politics of mankind's hubris as it leads to disaster (nature) and destruction (war).

The first movie--the 1954 original--gives us war-time destruction by lining up with World War II in ways an American viewer might not catch:
  1. The word--a combination of Whale and Gorilla--is written in katakana (the characters used for foreign words). It could've been done in hiragana.
  2. The progression of events recalls WWII: losses of ships at sea recall losses of vessels to American submarines. The news-blackout parallels what the Japanese did with the battle of Midway, and so on.
  3. Godzilla's attack, first on an island, then the mainland maps to the American assault.
  4. And, of course, there's his nuclear breath.
Our wars today are the wars on terror (and the Iraq and Afghanistan / Drone-war campaigns). Godzilla (2014) doesn't resonate especially with any of that. Instead this version focuses more on disaster. In one scene we get the visual impact of the ocean tide going out as Godzilla approaches. The beach goers realize as well as the audience what's coming next and run from the approaching tsunami. 

Disasters like tsunamis and earthquakes are acts of God, though--and as noted, part of the Godzilla formula is that 'we've brought this on ourselves.' 

To this end, the movie gives us an explicitly western mining company (it's in its name) with hundreds of laborers strip-mining the land in order to set something free. We then have human scientists studying--and accidentally feeding--a growing monster in a secret facility. Another monster is stored with America's nuclear waste. In every case it is human actions or human arrogance that leads to the nurturing of the enemy creatures.

As for the 'friendly' Godzilla? Well, we tried to nuke him a long time back. It didn't take.

The director does explicitly mention Global Warming as his inspirational disaster (we can assume that Fox News in the Godzilla-verse holds the whole thing to be a fake until they decide that San Francisco and Las Vegas were probably targeted for their Godless populaces, that is). To my read, though, I didn't see a lot of specifically warmist symbolism there.

The general boogeyman in Godzilla (2014) was explicitly radiation (either in what attracted the monsters or what made the area around the plant-disaster off-limits) not greenhouse gasses. Godzilla, whose purpose is 'to put things back into balance,' wasn't attacking gas guzzling SUVs, but rather nuclear-powered parasites. While I think Global Warming might be a kind of general inspiration for the movie, I don't see any specific way that it informed it.

In terms of how Godzilla handles other political elements (the government, the military) they do a pretty good job. The military checks with the president before going nuclear (something The Avengers didn't bother with). When the army takes over the operation they don't throw out all the scientists--they just relegate them to adviser status instead of driving. Fair enough: when you have a world-ending monster on the loose it should probably be the guys weapons making the final calls.

There is a set of government cover-ups but the agencies aren't killing people who discover them. The San Francisco evacuation plans are definitely overly optimistic but, then again, one scene shows actual office workers in a dark office who get menaced by a giant monster. What the hell were they doing in there? It's not like (a) they didn't know the Kaiju were coming and (b) they didn't know the power would all be out? What--are they doing PowerPoint by hand? Maybe they work for the company from Die Hard which had its office Christmas party on Christmas eve?

In keeping with todays support-the-troops zeitgeist we see the military as generally good and generally competent (even if they can't beat Godzilla). We should note that at least some elements of the real military think they could take him (yeah, right)--but the US Navy did, in fact, cooperate in making the movie (the Marines, apparently, declined after reading the script). 

Over all, Godzilla (2014) isn't some preachy lefty-fantasy about how we need to all drive Priuses or else get eaten by Kaiju. It sure isn't a right-wing military power-fantasy either. Falling somewhere in the middle of the spectrum it manages to reflect on its real-world inspirations rather than lecture on them.

That's a good thing: Godzilla has a terrible presentation voice.
By 2050 Godzilla Will Be 170m Tall!
For Perspective


  1. Not much about the origins? I think that's why this film is spectacular!

    1. Not sure what you're saying. The film did have a 'history' of Godzilla that was pretty good (shot with 1960's lenses and color-corrected black tones). I liked that.

      -The Omnivore