Nature Points Out the Folly of Man

Nature Points Out the Folly of Man

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by Sean T. Collins

“Of all my childhood obsessions, I think about Godzilla the least. Which makes me sad, because I loved him so much you guys. I still have a fondness for giant monsters, and for things that come out of the sea, and for MAYHEM, but Godzilla’s specific combination thereof appears to be a relic of a particular time and place in my life rather than something that continues to cast a shadow the way even something as seemingly silly as He-Man does. What can you do? Not everything you liked in elementary school can survive the journey to adulthood unscathed.”

I wrote this in 2013, at the last day job I ever had, with the Book of the Month Club company. I worked on the Science Fiction Book Club spin-off deal, and I pitched them a column called “Roots and Beginnings,” about the things that kindled my childhood love for the kind of genre work we sold, sci-fi and fantasy and horror. It’s one of the best gigs I’ve ever had, filled with some of my favorite writing, and I was in the middle of thinking up the next column when they laid me off. That was my third layoff by age 35, and that was enough for me. I’m ever so happy to say I’ve paid the entirety of my own Social Security taxes ever since. 

But I sure did like that column, and I sure did like the chance to revisit my childhood interests from an adult perspective. This was valuable to me both as a critic and as a comics writer working largely within those genres, albeit in a somewhat earthier fashion than the Spider-Man comics my parents used to buy me at Te-Amo if I behaved myself in church. And in general, for whatever reason, I have almost no childhood or teenage loves I don’t continue to love, art-wise. I still buy everything Trent Reznor does, and I’ve read my own kids The Lord of the Rings aloud in its entirety. So the project was rewarding, and Godzilla’s place in it, strictly as a relic of the past, was unusual.. 

Hashing all this out in December 2023 feels rather like investigating the archives of an entirely different writer, now that I count two recent Godzilla movies among my favorites of all time. Not my favorite Godzilla movies of all time — my favorite movies of all time. Not one but two straight-up blood-chilling heart-racing mind-reeling cold-cocking horror masterpieces, starring a radioactive lizard the size of a football field, in the space of seven years. 

It shouldn’t be that difficult to countenance when you consider the source material. Ishirō Honda’s 1954 original is a savagely bleak atomic allegory featuring a creature on a scale never before attempted in film history. If you subscribe to my theory that genre and spectacle are the languages art uses to communicate when everyday words are no longer commensurate with the emotions we feel, then Godzilla is the killshot: the largest, most unstoppable monster ever filmed, representing the largest, most unstoppable weapon ever used. Composer Akira Ifukube’s Stravinsky-inspired score is urgent and harrowing, and the roar he developed for the beast (by slowing down a recording of him rubbing the strings on a contrabass with a leather glove) remains instantly recognizable. Eiji Tsubaraya’s innovative visual effects (the shot when you first see the monster, with its deliberate use of a line of terrified refugees for scale, is still frightening, and Masao Tamai’s black-and-white cinematography looks coated with ash. It’s a beautiful, desperate horror film.

Beauty and desperation didn’t remain the big green guy’s stock in trade for long. In most of the Godzilla films I grew up on, and most of the ones you’re likely familiar with, Godzilla morphed from destroyer to protector, from a vengeful chthonic god to a benevolent earth spirit. Godzilla was a guardian of the planet and its people from still more dangerous monsters, whom he’d battle like a superhero or professional wrestler in giant-sized slugfests with King Kong, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Mechagodzilla, Hedorah the Smog Monster, and so on. (Don’t sleep on Gigan.)

This is the mode in which Godzilla has remained for the American revamp of the franchise, kicked off by Gareth Edwards’s so-so 2014 effort Godzilla. The so-called MonsterVerse established by the film is currently being explored in Chris Black and Matt Fraction’s Apple TV+ series Monarch: Legacy of Monsters. It’s a game enough show, trying like many genre series in their early going to make the jump from “solid” to “inspired.” Judging from its surprisingly sweet and hot romantic material and — this is just a guess at this point — its examination of whether a massive intelligence agency dedicated to monitoring the Godzilla threat is a cure worse than the disease, it may yet get there.

So I’d given up on Godzilla ever being scary again; that seemed beside the point. But I never gave up on his potential to be scary again. Other giant monster movies of recent vintage, Cloverfield and The Host and The Mist for example, proved that the scale and relentlessness of a threat do indeed remain flight triggers that will leave you coiling up in your seat. The misleadingly edited trailer for the Edwards Godzilla made it look like a film about Bryan Cranston trying in vain to stop Godzilla from wiping out human civilization; that’s not what we got, but boy did I have fun imagining it until the opening credits rolled. Imagining it was all I could do.

Sometime last week my wife returned home from an appointment to find me sitting on the floor in front of our open refrigerator, surrounded by the groceries I hadn’t finished putting away, sobbing into my hands. I was crying, hard, because I was listening to the song “Last” from Naoki Sato’s score for Takashi Yamazaki’s Godzilla Minus One, released the weekend prior. I was crying because the song is a sonic last stand, the musical expression of a distant final hope for the survival of some beautiful doomed thing. In Yamazaki’s film the beautiful doomed thing is the population of World War II era Japan — fed into a meat grinder by a government so indifferent to their lives it had an entire program dedicated to killing its own pilots on purpose, subjected to the fires of creation itself by their swaggering conquerors, horrifically traumatized by what they saw on the front and what they survived in the rubble of their homes. An enormous monster that kills everything it sees is on its way to add more misery, destroy more families, rain more pointless death upon an exhausted people. And some of those people will give up their lives — instantly, reflexively, without thinking — to save the lives of others.

The main characters of Godzilla Minus One are a kamikaze pilot living with the shame of refusing to kill himself to kill others, a survivor of the Tokyo firebombing who found herself caring for the baby of a woman she watched die, a sailor who wishes he’d been old enough to fight and a crew full of navy veterans who tell him he should be “proud,” in their words, to never have fought at all. I cried when the traumatized pilot twice had mental breaks in which he was convinced Godzilla had actually killed him years earlier. I cried when the orphaned little girl asked for her dead mother. The day I was found sobbing in front of the open produce drawer I had cried in the shower earlier over a different song from the score, “Resolution,” which sounds like all of humanity inhaling and exhaling as one. (I hear Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and Bernard Herrmann’s Taxi Driver “Main Theme” in the song just for starters.)

Yamazki’s film is the best and worst of humanity refracted through a radioactive green lens. It’s uranium glass. It makes you feel the colossal weight of the crimes committed by both sides in World War II, embodies them in the form of Godzilla, and unleashes it on people who do not deserve to suffer and die. What more could you possibly ask from a horror movie?

Released in 2016, Shin Godzilla — another standalone reboot of the concept from Japanese movie studio Toho, this one from Neon Genesis Evangelion creator Hideaki Anno — takes a different approach to the same set of concepts. Removed from the immediate post-war context, this Godzilla is an avatar of Fukushima, climate change, and the smothering presence of American imperialism and Japanese governmental CYA bureaucracy. Its Godzilla has been made once again alien and unknowable by Anno, who transforms it from a large fire-breathing dragon into a constantly evolving biological menace — kaiju as body horror. When he finally breathes fire his mouth unhinges into three separate jaws and flames explode from all over his body. After he is finally stopped, we see that the next stage in his evolution would likely have been humanity’s last. 

The horror here stems from the almost inconceivable threat presented by this Godzilla, and the fact that dithering small-c conservative politicians will be sitting around talking over the next move in committee meetings as death consumes us all. When I finally caught up with Shin Godzilla earlier this year, I walked away thinking, in so many words, that this is exactly what I want from a modern-day Godzilla film: a return to the allegory, the terror, the viciousness, the awe. I never dreamed that I’d get it a second time just a few months later. But Godzilla rose up from the sea of my childhood to raid again.

There’s a conceit in the films that Godzilla and creatures like him feed off the radiation dispersed by atomic bombs, and that atomic testing is what transformed him from whatever he was into whatever he is. He owes his life to an existential threat to all life; that threat helps him grow strong. What this tells us about an era in which a Godzilla movie very comfortably stands alongside Oppenheimer or Killers of the Flower Moon or May December on the year-end best-of lists of people worth respecting I leave to you the reader. 

The Oppenheimer comparison is a valuable one. We’ve already had one chilling spectacle about the horrors of nuclear war at cinemas this year, an excellent one at that, as even this Nolan skeptic will happily admit. What we didn’t have until Godzilla Minus One is a film about how the horrors of nuclear war hurt normal people. Oppenheimer’s protagonists are the people directly responsible for the bomb, people with famous names and high-level government clearances; Godzilla Minus One’s protagonists are soldiers and sailors and survivors. They very literally live in the rubble the war left behind. For a long time they view themselves as the rubble the war left behind. Rebuilding, physically and psychologically, is as hard for them to do as defeating the monster.

Do the heroes of Shin Godzilla and Godzilla Minus One succeed in stopping their respective iterations of this existential threat forever? I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to point at the ever-growing list of Godzilla movies and say “Don’t bet on it.” More pointedly, look out your window: The environmental and humanitarian catastrophes for which the monster is a metaphor are ongoing and intensifying. As long as the Earth needs to scream at us for what we’re doing on it and to it, Godzilla will be its SKREEEEEEEEE-ONNNNKKing voice.

That said, whether these films’ versions of Godzilla return for sequels, or whether he just keeps getting rebooted every few years, or whether we never see him again at all, is immaterial. The characters in Godzilla Minus One and Shin Godzilla don’t and can’t know if their plans to defeat the creature coming to kill them — plans pointedly devised and executed en masse by groups of equals in both films — will work. Nor do they have any real idea if their grief and terror can ever truly be healed. There’s no certainty when dealing with giant monsters, any more than there’s certainty in dealing with the human brain. But they want to prevent further grief and terror among other people who did nothing to deserve it; they want to make sure there are fewer people who have to face the monster. So they try. That’s what I was really crying about, sitting there listening to that song in front of the open fridge. They try.

Sean T. Collins is a critic who has written for The New York Times, Rolling Stone,Vulture, Decider, Pitchfork, and others. He is the author of Pain Don’t Hurt: Meditations on Road House, published by Mutual Skies in 2021. Together, Sean and Julia Gfrörer are the co-editors of Mirror Mirror II, an anthology of horror and erotic comics and art, published by 2dcloud in 2017. They live with their children on Long Island.