The new Godzilla is amazing. What an incredible look into our cultural moment! I can’t stop thinking about it.
Spoiler Alert for this whole post, deal with it
This new rock ’em sock ’em blockbuster is so much weirder and slower than you could possibly expect it to be. I went into it with mildly high expectations after reading a positive AV Club review, and I was not disappointed. It provides such a funny, sad, bizarre, depressing, and poetic look into Western human life at this particular time in our grim history. I truly think scholars in a few decades will find this movie to be FASCINATING. It will not make sense to our descendants. Just like how Japan and America experienced the first Godzilla movie in such profoundly different ways depending on which of those two cultures had actually recently had an atomic bomb dropped on them (Americans laughed and threw popcorn; Japanese watched in silence and left theaters in tears), future people no longer of our culture will watch the new Godzilla and just be like, “now I understand why global warming happened; FUCK my ancestors”
The nuclear-science-Frankenstein nightmare of the original Godzilla is here completely replaced with a kind of passive acceptance of global cataclysm and a tacit acknowledgement on the part of every character that nothing is really in our hands. The most common emotional state of every character is sort of a “sad shrug.” Every person in the movie just tries their best to deal with whatever is right in front of them at a given moment; there is no grand, global coming-together in the face of crisis; there is no individual heroism to speak of; all the traditional disaster movie themes (Father saving family; army guy vs. scientist; schoolbus full of screaming children) are present, but in a totally muted form. What you care about as a viewer is not the characters, and not even Godzilla himself, but it’s more like you’re thinking, I really wish extinction would hurry up and get here, but not in a negative or really sad way, just like, lets get it over with.
The opening credits imply some sort of government cover-up, using historical footage of A-bomb testing to indicate that actually those weren’t tests, those were us killing godzillas or something. Then we cut to 1999 and see Ken Watanabe go down into a cavern some miners fell into, that turns out to be filled with an ancient fossil of a creature a thousand times bigger than a T-Rex. Then we cut to Japan, where Bryan Cranston has forgotten that it’s his birthday because he’s yelling into a phone about seismic activity and shutting down the nuclear power plant where he works. His wife Juliette Binoche is funny and nice. They have a young, large-eyed, emo son. They all go off to start their days–the parents at the power plant, the son at Japanese elementary school–and then there’s immediately a harrowing earthquake sequence evoking Fukushima, and involving Bryan Cranston having to shut the safety doors closing off a melting-down reactor even though his wife is still in there, trying to outrun a bunch of radioactive steam. They talk to each other through the glass of the door and I totally cried, I’m not made of stone. There’s a great shot of screaming Japanese children running across a beautiful bridge while in the background nuclear reactors collapse one by one into the ground. After this point though, all nuclear drama disappears, never to return really except sort of at the end in an unrelated plot point.
Cut to the present day, and the emo son has grown up into a big buff soldier man who I later said looked like “the Cillian Murphy version of Channing Tatum,” which my old man said didn’t make sense but I think it does. He’s like a skinnier, more sensitive, more wet-eyed/prominent-eyelashed Tatum! Duh. Anyway he is a soldier man and he’s coming home to see his wife Elizabeth Olsen and their own small large-eyed son (less emo than his dad was as a kid though, so things do improve generationally), who live in San Francisco. But then Bryan Cranston gets arrested in Japan for sneaking back into the quarantined zone from the whole nuclear meltdown thing from earlier in the movie, and the son–whose name I think is “Ford”–has to immediately go to Japan to deal with it. It turns out Bryan Cranston has become a haunted raving ol’ crazy man since the admittedly traumatizing death of his wife he unavoidably caused, and he’s got all these kooky theories about echolocation and “it’s happening again” and “the patterns are exactly the same as last time” and stuff, also he does that thing crazy but ultimately correct people in movies do where they tape information all over their walls, like he’s got a picture from like a child’s textbook showing how bat sonar works and you’re like, this is a nuclear physicist studying bioacoustics, does he really need this illustration taped prominently on his wall? Oh no wait, it’s for the viewer of the film. The son is like “you’re crazy” etc. But of course Bryan Cranston is not crazy!!
They sneak back into Fukushima or whatever (it’s not called Fukushima) to go back to their old house so Bryan Cranston can retrieve the floppy disks from 15 years ago that will prove it’s happening again, and his personal handheld geiger counter reveals there’s no radiation there at all!!!! What is the government hiding? Then they get captured and taken to the plant where it all began, and there’s a great scene where Bryan Cranston delivers one of his trademark verge-of-tears scream-speeches (MY WIFE……….DIED!!!!! HERE) and Ken Watanabe is like “I think this raving American man is right SHUT IT DOWN” but it’s too late because Jurassic Park stomping is already occurring and all the computers are shorting out and and anyway it’s confusing but it’s like, it’s not a nuclear power plant at all anymore, it’s this big pit where an enormous creature has been gestating, and it’s sort of unclear but Ken Watanabe and some Americans have been secretly studying the creature and not telling anybody about it, because the creature was “sucking up all the radiation” after the whole meltdown from earlier, and anyway don’t worry about it, because the creature of course comes to life and stomps out of this huge pit and it’s AMAZING and Bryan Cranston is up on this catwalk and Ford is down on the ground and they make eye contact and then Bryan Cranston falls in a pit and then Ford makes eye contact with the great beast and all hell is breaking loose.
The thing stomps off and then everyone is trying to get their lives back together, mainly by zipping up body bags. So there’s a reason I’m telling you all this set up, which is to note that this whole Oedipal dead-mom family drama is NEVER RESOLVED OR RETURNED TO. Bryan Cranston immediately dies with zero fanfare in a helicopter and his son is just like “he was right” and then kind of passively gets put on a helicopter to Hawaii after Ken Watanabe tells him the story of the film, which is that there are these bad monsters like the one that killed Bryan Cranston, but he thinks there’s another kind of monster who “the earth sends to restore balance” and he thinks this monster is coming back soon and then, obviously due to his ethnicity/accent, he gets to deliver the titular line: “we call him…………..GODZILLA.” And Ford is like “okay, is there a phone I can use” and they’re like “no” and he’s like “okay.”
I really want to discuss the themes of helplessness and passivity that this movie explored. It was incredible. I truly have never seen a disaster movie with such a lack of heroism and urgency. Every single character–from the random extras running around, to Ford himself, to Ken Watanabe, to the top army dude in charge of the situation–just kind of reacts with a muted helpless shrug to new events. Even the hint of government conspiracy planted at the beginning is completely abandoned for the rest of the film. Everyone is sort of like, oh, the government knew about this? Oh well, what else is new. Ford wants to get back to his wife and kid, for sure, but the urgency of that boring-ass cinematic trope is completely absent. He tries to take a plane from Hawaii to San Francisco but instead the monsters come and derail the airport train he’s on, and like 20 people fall out and die, and Ford just happens to grab hold of something and save himself, and then a little Japanese kid goes falling by and he grabs him too. But it’s not presented as especially heroic or anything. It’s like, what DOES one do if a giant monster derails the train one is on? You hold on as best you can; you see that lots of people are going to die; if some kid comes close enough you grab him, because it’s a good thing to do, but also nothing really matters, like, you might as well save this kid if you can, even though we’re all gonna die. Later he’s trying to find the kid’s parents but again there’s no urgency–he’s more just mildly inconvenienced but like obviously he can’t just bail on the kid. He and the kid don’t have some special bond or anything; they never even speak. There’s no drama, just a utilitarian attempt to find someone in charge and resolve this one insignificantly tiny loose end among billions of loose ends in the wake of unimaginable havoc. Then while he’s not looking the kid sees his parents in the milling crowd of refugees and runs over and they are reunited and just go away. No thank yous exchanged, no meaningful manly dad-glances shared. Ford’s just like “ok well that’s done, now what.”
Meanwhile David Straitharn, the admiral in charge of the earth, is having his own sort of passive shrug stuff going on. He’s super calm, and never rude to the kooky scientists running around telling him how to do his business; he’s very receptive to what they have to say, so that usual cinematic cliché is also stripped away. He’s like “well these monsters are heading for San Francisco, obviously that’s really fucked up, I guess the thing to do is take our biggest nuclear bomb and lure the monsters out to sea with it [the monsters eat radioactive material, forgot to tell you–ed.] and then blow it up.” Somebody’s like “will that work?” and he’s like “probably not.” Ken Watanabe is like “but I don’t think it is a good idea” and Straithairn says “well do you have a better idea?” and Ken Watanabe says “I think Godzilla is trying to protect us, let him take care of it” which admittedly doesn’t sound like a better idea, but Straithairn is very gentle about it, he’s like, “Doctor, seriously, you must realize that I am an army guy and I can’t just say ‘let a giant monster take care of it'” and then Watanabe wordlessly holds out an old pocket watch to Straithairn and Straithairn goes “it’s stopped…” and Ken Watanabe says “yes. 8:15 a.m. August sixth. 1945.” And Straithairn goes “Hiroshima.” And Ken Watanabe walks away. And Straithairn’s face is like “fuck” but then he gets back on the warhead thing, like what else is he supposed to do
But it’s amazing that even with the big army guys there is no real urgency; no sense that some kooky scheme will work; no real sense of possible success. There’s even a scene where Straithairn takes a call from the president, and even though we don’t hear what the president says, we get the feeling he’s just like “well, we might as well do this warhead thing,” and Straithairn says “I agree sir,” the end. The scope of the problem is SO UNIMAGINABLY IMMENSE—three gigantic monsters who seem barely even irritated by enormous military bombardment with tanks and fighter jets—that you really FEEL each character’s full acceptance of the realization that there is nothing to be done. Each character continues to act only because not acting would feel so lame. Like, you really get the impression that every character would secretly prefer to just go out in the woods and sit down and wait it out, but they choose not to do that and instead keep on pluggin’ away ONLY because it would make them feel shitty about themselves to do otherwise. So even though they know nothing is going to work, they keep trying anyway. But it doesn’t even feel sorrowful or harrowing. It’s like the scope of the problem is so enormous, so dwarfing of human ability and comprehension, that everyone is just sort of in mild shock, half-heartedly performing what should feel like urgent heroic tasks with a kind of numb futility. It is AMAZING. It’s the most realistic movie I’ve ever seen! GODZILLA
Ford continues to try to get home, but like I said it’s not in that irritating “MY FAMILY” way that like a Tom Cruise or a World War Z or that heinous-looking new Christopher Nolan movie presents it. Ford would definitely like to get back to his family, FOR SURE, but he’s also fully just caught up in events and aware of how little agency he has. So somehow he gets himself on a train carrying the big warhead to San Francisco for the sad little plan David Straithairn has to blow up all the monsters, which everybody knows isn’t going to work but what else are you gonna do? The train stops at night on a bridge and then one of the bad monsters shows up (by this point we have realized that Ken Watanabe was right and Godzilla is on our side, somehow, more on this later, and anyway even this realization is not that helpful, because we have no way of communicating with Godzilla and he’s still, like, tearing down huge office buildings just because he’s so damn big) and derails THIS train too, and eats the warhead in two big chomps. Ford wakes up on a beach and somebody loads him into a helicopter and he ends up in San Francisco. Nobody’s like “what happened” or anything; it’s obvious what happened. Everyone’s trying to clean up the tiniest mess because what else is there to do if you’re an army guy.
Meanwhile his wife is an emergency room doctor and he called her earlier and said “I’ll be there by the morning, and I’ll get you and the kid out of there” and she’s like “okay I guess, just do your best.” Then the hospital is being evacuated and her boss is like “you better come with us on this schoolbus, monsters are headed right in this direction” but Elizabeth Olsen is like “Ford said he was coming so….I guess I’ll just wait here?” and the boss is like “sure, I mean, it’s as reasonable a plan as this one I’m undertaking, I guess.” then at the last minute Olsen gives her kid to the boss. The whole thing is just sort of sad, not urgent, there’s no sense in the viewer that any one choice is better than any other. You can totally empathize with Olsen, like, who knows what will happen, I might as well stay here, but also maybe it seems like I should get my kid to safety, that’s what you do right, so here, I’ll stick him on this bus and hope for the best.
Then the entire U.S. military is arranged on the bay waiting for this epic monster show-down, and Godzilla pops up, and the two bad monsters pop up, and they tear down the Golden Gate Bridge and everyone’s like “goddamn what next.” The only person in the whole movie who seems to still believe he has any agency is the dude driving the schoolbus the kid is on; the army is like, “stop! no wait, go! Jesus I don’t know what anyone should be doing” and meanwhile Godzilla is like ROAOOORRRR and then the bus driver is like “fuck you” and floors it and goes toot-tooting past this unimaginably chaotic upsetting scene where this 8,000 foot tall dinosaur is batting fighter jets out of the sky. The bus driver is like, the thing to do in a situation like this is to floor it, so here I go. We never see him again, we just assume the bus made it through ok, but again we don’t really care and it doesn’t exactly seem like anyone in the movie cares that much either. They would certainly LIKE for the bus to make it through but it’s like, jesus, what are you gonna do
There’s absolutely NO sense of people working at cross-purposes, either, which is a common disaster movie trope. There’s no human villain whatsoever. There’s no warmonger vs. peacenik, really. There’s no evil government trying to capture one of the monsters to use as biowarfare. Nobody is mucking up the plans of the good guys; there ARE no good guys and bad guys. There are just these forces of nature, and then all of humanity basically being like “WELL!” The army guys are doing their best; the bus driver is doing his best; Ken Watanabe is doing his best; nobody’s best is really very good at all; but nobody’s mad about it.
Earlier Ken Watanabe and his co-scientist Sally Hawkins LITERALLY SAY that Godzilla is “a god, for all intents and purposes.” Please keep that in mind!!!!!!
So another thing to point out is that this whole movie has deliberately set Ford up as this gifted bomb-defuser. So the whole time you’re waiting for what’s sure to be the climactic issue of him needing to defuse one of these warheads these monsters keep eating but the army keeps helplessly providing to them over and over again because, lets face it, pretty much the only idea the army ever has is to try to blow stuff up with a warhead. David Straithairn is like “ok guys you’re gonna parachute into San Francisco where these monsters are building a nest and you’re gonna defuse that warhead the one monster carried off after our last unfortunate encounter, because we can’t have a billion megaton nuke going off in downtown San Francisco” and the army dudes are like “IT’S WORTH A SHOT, SIR, SORT OF I GUESS” and off they go. Straithairn is like “none of you are coming back alive” and they’re like “OK”. At this point in the film, the notion of dealing directly with the monsters in any way has been completely abandoned. Simply by necessity, they’ve just followed Ken Watanabe’s weird plea and they’re just letting Godzilla handle it. Like now the only thing even reasonably within human control is defusing this stupid bomb they stupidly set to go off earlier. So now the monsters are totally in the background, and the humans are just trying to sneak around to get to this bomb. It’s so incredible!
Now comes the best sequence in the film. Army dudes leap out of a plane, tracer chemicals making long red tails behind them in the sky. On the score is GYORGY LIGETI, king of avant-garde music, dissonant vibrating voices (not incidentally, the same piece that scores the MONOLITH in 2001: A Space Odyssey) creating a soundscape of uncertainty and discomfort. Army dudes float in silence down through the peaceful moonlit sky. Army dudes fall through a cloud and emerge above the hellscape that was once San Francisco; still in silence apart from the Ligeti. Army dudes float RIGHT PAST Godzilla chomping on a monster, like it looks like they’re 2 feet away from him, tiny tiny TINY specks, utterly dwarfed in every conceivable way, helplessly falling, in the hands of gravity only. These monsters don’t even notice the presence of humans, nor would they care if they did. Army dudes just stare as they fall in slow-mo, the Ligeti underscoring the total alienation of this moment, this experience. Army dudes land in an unfamiliar landscape of rubble, lit by the red glow from the monster’s eyes. They sneak silently through the crushed cars and fallen bricks of a once-great city, avoiding massive footfalls as the monsters continue to fight far above them. There is a super slow-mo shot of Godzilla emerging from a roiling cloud of smoke, towering above the merry paper lanterns of Chinatown. The score is completely silent, but as his massive tail goes slowly snaking by, we hear one dissonant piano chord RING OUT.
they find the bomb, but they can’t get the cover off so Ford can defuse it. Their plan B is to get the bomb on a boat and just sail the boat as far out to sea as they can before the bomb goes off. At this point you’re expecting Ford to be like “NO, I JUST NEED MORE TIME FOR MY HEROIC BOMB DEFUSING” but instead he just starts helping carry the bomb down to the wharf. They get the bomb on the boat but then the monster (whose eggs he just blew up, so she’s mad) sees them and chomps them all in one bite, except Ford. Godzilla comes and saves Ford and they make meaningful eye contact, then the boat with Ford and the bomb goes sailing away and Ford passes out. There are five minutes left on the bomb, and you are like, come on son, the whole movie has been building you up as the one man in America who knows how to defuse this bomb, lets get on the stick here! But instead he passes out, is rescued by an army helicopter, and then as the helicopter is flying away, we see vaguely in the distance a huge mushroom cloud. NBD
So no one fulfilled his cinematic destiny. Even Ken Watanabe, who ultimately was proven right, mostly just spends the movie staring and thinking about Hiroshima. Nobody makes any decisions that prove to be useful. There isn’t even that trope of disaster movies where people are trying to get information desperately to one another. It’s like, individuals learn information but it doesn’t really matter that much. Ford sees that the female monster has an egg sac dangling under her, but like, oh well, we’ve got our hands full with all this other shit going on. And in the end, the egg sac didn’t matter anyway.
I can not BELIEVE that a huge summer blockbuster has such a passive, dismissive view of humanity. It was AWESOME.
Disaster movies are always a place where cultural anxieties are presented in the rawest, most obvious way, as I have demonstrated many times. The first Godzilla was a self-evident nuclear nightmare; the monster is created by radiation from the atom bomb, and emerges from the sea to wreak havoc on humanity. In this new Godzilla, the monsters are all OF THE EARTH, remnants of the distant prehistoric past, who have been dormant for millions of years. The bad monsters are activated by radiation, but Godzilla is activated by the activation of the bad monsters. He literally, explicitly, represents THE EARTH ITSELF “restoring balance.” The message of the film is that the scope of the problems facing us as a species right now are completely beyond us, out of our control, and our only hope is that a massive God of Olde will show up and fix things. The message is literally “Oh well, probably Nature will take care of this whole climate change thing.”
E.G. after Godzilla defeats the monsters, he slowly collapses on the beach, as behind him we see the power go back on. The lights go back on in all the buildings; the streetlights come back on. Human scale has been restored–thank god all the factory farms and BP oil platforms can continue functioning now. No lesson to be learned; no ways to be changed. The disaster we caused is too big for us to fix, so the best thing to do is just continue on, without any new wisdom, or new way of life, because probably if something bad happens again a giant monster will show up to save us again, or if not, oh well.
GODZILLA: “Maybe God will show up and save us from ourselves”
Best movie ever