There came a moment in the new Godzilla film where, as I watched a group of nearly identical soldiers (new characters as far as I was concerned) walking down a train track, I realized that the protagonist had been there all along without my noticing. And even then, I couldn’t have told you with much certainty which one he was (before the other ones ended up dead, that is). I was not particularly angry about this fact, more quietly perplexed and disconnected until the GIANT MONSTER swooped overhead and I sort of forgot what I was perturbed about. That is perhaps the best way I can think to sum up a film that I am extremely grateful to have seen for free.
My presence at the premiere came with a certain amount of wonderful symmetry. As a kid I would sit side by side with friend D in a wood-paneled basement untouched since the 70s, and find myself enraptured by the many Technicolor wonders of the 1960s Godzilla spinoffs (we were even at an age wherein Godzuki did not seem like the most embarrassing of all possible franchise choices). Mothra and Mecha-Godzilla were far more the stuff of my nostalgia than the deeply atmospheric piece of nuclear anxiety horror that the original Godzilla was (which I later came to appreciate as a film geek).
Meet the film’s most compelling character. Don’t get too attached
Both of those mindsets went into the new movie, and I’m not exactly sure which of them the movie was trying to appeal to. On the one hand, you have Bryan Cranston as the Scientist Who Knew Too Much (he’s sad that his pleasant but nondescript wife is marked for death in the first ten minutes, because it’s that kind of movie) and his bland soldier son as The Witness of What Science Hath Wrought. On the other hand, the best parts of the movie are the World Weary Scientist (who might be descended from the characters of the original film) and the Cool Monsters Fighting (which is self-explanatory, and requires only the existence of a soul to enjoy). It’s a true Godzilla film in both the strongest and weakest ways: the paranoia and frustrating helplessness of science versus bureaucracy and the id-like thrill of impossibly scaled creatures doing battle right in tandem with the eye-gougingly boring main couple and wonky pacing issues.
What did strike me were the different mentalities that informed the themes of the old versus the new film. One of the great things about horror films (which the original Godzilla certainly is and the new one at least nods toward) is that they become time capsules for the fears and biases of the society they came from: Godzilla and the nuclear anxieties of a post-Hiroshima Japan, Jaws and the burgeoning neo-conservatism movement (witness as the monster almost metaphorically destroys the beloved FOURTH OF JULY), Hostel and the depersonalization of violence (as well as the good old fear of foreign places). The list could go on for days.
I get sad when my expensive action figures sink in the bath too
As I said before, the original Godzilla is a meditation on the effects of nuclear weaponry – that humanity has wrought great destruction and finds themselves facing the fallout (there’s even that whole narrative thread about how the machine necessary to stop Godzilla’s destructive rampage is also too dangerous to be shared with humanity). Using broad strokes, we might say that there’s a determinist air to humanity’s role in the whole thing – the thing that was originally Godzilla existed long into the earth’s past, but man’s actions were the specific catalyst that warped it; therefore, it becomes man’s responsibility to put things back the way they were, with the implication that the destruction would otherwise continue unabated.
The new Godzilla, born as it is from a social anxiousness about global warming and a more relativistic view of humanity’s time on Earth relative to its long existence, is a bit more…ambivalent. Humanity’s inability to leave well enough alone serves as the catalyst for Bad Things here as well, but it’s less anti-science (the runner up most interesting character spends most of the film trying to advise the government based on an entire career of Godzilla-related knowledge that turns out to be the correct path, only to be ignored in favor of the traditional ‘blow it up’ strategy) as it’s generally suspicious of government and its general lack of transparency. Government cover ups make the plot go round, and attempts to fix what’s gone wrong are built on a foundation of half-given information and fear. But beneath it all, there’s a sense that nature will rise to fix itself. Humanity might not survive this upheaval and the reassertion of the norm, but the earth will be just fine. Fill in your own global warming parable here.
One could even argue an angle of the unexpected benefits of past research – despite the great death toll Godzilla racked up in his previous appearances, the world at large would’ve been pretty doomed without him. He’s the real hero of the film, two dimensional and pasty army guy notwithstanding. Partly it’s the influence of those spinoff movies I mentioned, where Godzilla became an icon well outside his original thematic purpose, becoming something of a chaotic guardian for the human race – the devil you know rather than the one you don’t, as it were.
Nonetheless, the difference is a striking one, and ended up staying with me far longer than the actual script (there was…something about radiation. It was blessedly easy to see what was going on despite how much of the film takes place at night. There’s a disheartening amount of character refrigeration. That’s all I’ve got at this point). And with movies like Splice still in rather recent memory, it will be interesting to see if this new mentality proves to be a future standard for creature features and tales of scientific experimentation, or if it will remain an outlier thematically speaking.