Different beasts

A scene from the 2014 film, Godzilla

GODZILLA has always had a complicated relationship with the USA. His very first film, Godzilla (1954), was the result of American attentions from above and below – the horrors wrought by Fat Man and Little Boy, dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945, and The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, a 1953 creature feature brought to life by the genius of Ray Harryhausen and stopped by a rifle wielded by Lee Van Cleef.

More direct inspiration came the year of the film’s release, when a Japanese fishing boat with the mildly portentous name of The Lucky Dragon was inundated with fallout from a US nuclear test. The war was over, but radiation remained a persistent spectre; invisible, intangible, insidious.

You can understand the appeal of Godzilla to Japan – here was not just a very visible manifestation of that force, but one that could be fought and harmed. It’s little wonder that he became, and remained, a protector of humanity after Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1965). This was reclamation at its most elemental, the destroyer turned deliverer.

This history makes the USA’s attempts to come up with their own version a truly fascinating exercise in cultural appropriation. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956) had Canadian actor Raymond Burr cleverly spliced into the original film, letting him gravely intone Robert Oppenheimer-flavoured lines as Tokyo was menaced.

Burr’s character is more than just a passive observer, however. Injured during Godzilla’s attack, he is inserted into hospital scenes that show the raw anguish of Japanese victims. This appropriated suffering provided wholly unearned catharsis for the USA, shared injuries proving an effective balm for guilt. A climactic speech by a Japanese character warning that nuclear tests could beget more Godzillas was also cut; there will be no allegorical lecturing here.

In 1998, Roland Emmerich seemed the best possible bet to bring Godzilla to Hollywood. This was a man who had blown up the White House two years before – who better to handle the avatar of destruction? Alas, the film’s soundtrack proved to be the only element that wasn’t monstrously tone-deaf. This Godzilla was a mindless beast stomping around the frames of a live-action cartoon, a minor irrelevance later integrated into canon just so he could be disintegrated by the real deal in Godzilla: Final Wars (2004). 

Emmerich’s film took the iconography of the series – the size, the awe, the fear of nuclear power – but none of its iconology. There was no ambiguity here, no parable, just a naked excuse for the flexing of military might. Worse, the USA’s role in Godzilla’s creation is removed entirely; in this film, he is born from French nuclear testing in Polynesia.

Happily, Godzilla (2014) is a different beast. It is a design at once classic and of the times, evocative of all the Godzillas that have stomped before while being an undeniable artefact of a post-Obama USA.

There’s a separate thesis to be written about the effect an African American in the White House has had on certain demographics in the US, particularly in the erupting popularity of zombie and survivalist culture. These internal struggles for identity are matched by external events; wars abroad still linger, and the economic and military threat of China looms ever larger. Like Japan before it, this is a country unsure of its place in the world, buffeted by forces it cannot understand or control, at the mercy of a (formerly) sleeping dragon. It’s almost too perfect.

This is why it’s a good thing Gareth Edwards is on board as director. His Godzilla is a slow burn that, for the most part, remains dutifully bound to the limits of human perspective. It’s worth pointing out that the film doesn’t peddle the imagery of terrorism; this is all about the scale of a natural disaster. It’s certainly not as grim as the (admittedly excellent) marketing campaign has led on, and when Edwards finally unshackles his camera, the results are spectacular.

There some astonishing visuals throughout, including a shot of Godzilla swimming with intent while flanked by Navy destroyers, and an apocalyptic, Ligeti-scored sequence involving flare-bearing paratroopers that looked like it was ripped from Dante’s imagination. Godzilla himself has thickened into a grumpy, lumbering middle age, but is no less potent. It’s as if a conscious decision was made to ensure his movement, and his fighting style, hark back to the days of a man in a rubber suit. It’s at once cutting edge and deeply traditional, very American and very Japanese.

For all this, there’s still an unsubtle through-line here; Godzilla’s foes crave nuclear warheads, and must be taken down to ensure some mystic natural balance. But there is another, sweeter motivation at play, one that harks back to Edwards’ debut, Monsters (2010). That film was a clever if on-the-nose parable about immigration to the US. It was also a love story, just not the one you expect, and there are shades of that romance on display here.

Pardon the trotting out of Francois Truffaut’s hoary old adage, but there really is no such thing as an anti-war film. We’ll have to make do with films bold enough to illustrate the reasons for conflict, and this is one of them. Some of us want to live. Some of us want to love. Human or inhuman, all living things understand that these impulses are worth the struggle. Let them fight, indeed.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own. 

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Films , Godzilla , disaster films


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