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Godzilla 1998: Atomic Nothing

Why is…Godzilla? What is…Godzilla? Who is…okay I watched 1998’s American Godzilla on VHS too many times as a kid. There is no accounting for taste. Clearly any chance to watch a giant monster is an opportunity I couldn’t pass up on. I recently re-watched Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla on Netflix because there isn’t a lot else going on at the moment. But seriously. I watched it again after a gap of many years, and of course it is bad. It’s corny as all hell. The acting, the characters, the story, the monster design, it’s all very corny. But there’s something below all that stuff, something ingrained in the thought of the film which is kind of just barren. It feels like Godzilla forgets itself, or at least, in the transition to an American production it loses what 1954’s Godzilla had.

In August of 1945, America in agreement with the United Kingdom, dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The brutal and unnecessary show of force by America killed between 129,000-226,000 people. The blast of an atomic bomb is such that it vaporises individuals, bleaching the ground and leaving shadows where once humans stood casting them. The original Godzilla is an embodiment of fear of nuclear annihilation and of a planet at odds with its human inhabitants. What is 1998 Godzilla about? Big monster. New York City. Be ruthless, then don’t be. Godzilla in this film is specifically linked to French nuclear testing and the mutation of lizards, it’s keeping with the theme of nuclear weaponry and their consequences but…it kind of feels like the movie is more just blithe spectacle and a Jurassic Park-esque wonder and fear of Godzilla. The consequences of nuclear testing in the film seems of little importance to the overall story beyond acting as an origin for Godzilla. The same goes for the fact that it is the French who are responsible for the testing and therefore Godzilla’s creation, they are sort of a B plot to the film led by Jean Reno. I guess one could argue that the French and Americans working together shows there must be an international effort to combatting disaster and particularly our relationship with nature but…should we talk about the military?

Are they kind of good? Are they bad? Are they competent? Are they inept? I guess in typical disaster fare they struggle for most of the movie with various strategies against the big monster before finally reigning victorious. However, it must mean something that it was written so the military in this film would cause massive amounts of damage to New York City in its fight against the monster. One of the most vivid scenes of the film is of helicopters firing and missing Godzilla and instead blowing up the Chrysler building. The tone of the movie in this regard is so odd; how excusable and almost laughed off disaster brought on by the military can be. It seems like to a degree it’s a product of its time, as Lindsay Ellis outlined in a brilliant video essay, disaster movies after 9/11 kind of took on a much bleaker and sombre tone in many regards than those of the 90s and 80s. Films like Emmerich’s Independence Day and Godzilla have sentiments that seem a bit off. They contrast heavily with 2014’s Godzilla, inarguably a superior product in terms of production, tone, writing, and its ideas.

Whereas in 1998 Godzilla you had a sense of surface level wonder for this monster, in 2014 Godzilla he inspires this sense of almost pure, devastating awe. When Godzilla wades into Hawaii from the ocean, the innocent bystanders watching him do so in silence, even as the flares of the military illuminate and highlight his vastness, the screams only begin when the military start firing at Godzilla over the heads of the bystanders. Films offer introspection at least on some level by their conclusion but what is the introspection of 1998 and 2014’s Godzillas? When Godzilla is defeated at the end of the 1998 film, there is a brief sense of sadness for the death of this creature, but then it kind of quickly moves on. In 2014 Godzilla, after he defeats the two other monsters, Godzilla retreats back into the ocean, whilst humanity tries to make sense of all the destruction, in part hailing Godzilla as an anti-hero.

Godzilla offers a chance for us to reconsider our relationship with nature. In 1998 Godzilla it feels like the monster is slightly misunderstood but ultimately still a threat to humanity, especially with his ability to produce eggs. When I said just before about the film moving quickly on from the death of Godzilla, it does come back to it, like it ends on a surviving baby Godzilla emerging from its egg. I guess this is a cheap way to end a movie and offers the chance for a sequel (it was part of a planned trilogy) but I think it also inadvertently says something bigger than there is a monster people forgot about, almost like in killing off Godzilla and his babies, humanity hasn’t really dealt with the existential threat at all…because it hasn’t really grappled with the concept of what it means to be vulnerable and smaller to nature as much as sometimes nature is vulnerable to our meddlings.

2014 Godzilla answers this failed reconciliation with a Godzilla who is not bent on destruction but inadvertently causes it when he comes into contact with humanity. Unlike 1998’s Godzilla, ultimately this incarnation is at odds with the other big monsters, the MUTOs, and seems to have little to no interest in humanity…so kind of ends up saving it? In this film it feels more like there is a sense of trying to work alongside nature for something akin to a common goal. With Emmerich’s Godzilla I felt cheated, like there was no real meaning behind the film, or if there was one it was diluted by gratuitous spectacle.

I am not trying to put too much meaning into 2014 Godzilla but it feels like the message behind the monster of Godzilla should be one of reconciling ourselves with our past actions, both towards humanity and nature. We cannot revert the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We cannot wipe the slate clean when it comes to our planet and its wildlife. 2014 Godzilla offers a sense of redemption for humanity, that maybe despite our crimes we are able to find for ourselves a place in this world where we co-exist and live with our consequences.

Further Reading:

Lindsay Ellis, ‘Independence Day vs. War of the Worlds.’ Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KioF1sTQFtE

The Japan Times, ‘Britain backed use of A-bomb against Japan: U.S. documents.’ Available at: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2013/08/04/national/britain-backed-use-of-a-bomb-against-japan-u-s-documents/#.V0xHPzYrJyp

Edward McDougall, ‘Spirited Away With Heidegger’, iai news. Available at: https://iai.tv/articles/spirited-away-meets-heidegger-we-killed-the-gods-with-technology-but-the-sacredness-of-life-is-continuous-auid-1104

Geoffrey Shepard, ‘It’s clear the US should not have bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki’, Quartz. Available at: https://qz.com/472146/its-clear-the-us-should-not-have-bombed-hiroshima-and-nagasaki/

Bruce Stokes, ‘70 years after Hiroshima, opinions have shifted on use of atomic bomb’, Pew Research Center. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/08/04/70-years-after-hiroshima-opinions-have-shifted-on-use-of-atomic-bomb/

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