To Americans, Godzilla seems like the ultimate out-of-context problem.
An out-of-context problem is a problem you don’t know you should be worrying about. You’re a savvy functionary in Tenochtitlan, engaged in all sorts of high-level political chicanery, you know the three marriage alliances you want your house to make in the next year, etc. etc., when all of a sudden these bearded corpse-looking guys show up. Genghis Khan is an out-of-context problem for late 11th-century Russia and Eastern Europe. Perry’s black ships are an out-of-context problem to 19th century Japan. Butch and Sundance’s “Who the hell are these guys?” is the out-of-context problem question. (Though of course out-of-context problems don’t need to be guys, or sentient. Plagues, shifts of climate, and meteor strikes also qualify.)
So far, so good: What could be more out-of-context than a skyscraper-sized giant lizard?
But the degree to which a culture (or a reader embedded in a culture) sees a phenomenon as out-of-context depends on how comprehensive they believe their own context to be—or, to put it another way, how permeable the world’s boundaries seem to that reader. One of the fascinating things about Godzilla’s first appearance, in 1954, is how in-context he seems.
In 1954′s Godzilla, nuclear testing has driven the eponymous giant monster from the deep. H-Bombs have destroyed his habitat, scarred him, and (probably—it’s open to debate) given him the ability to breathe radioactive lasers. When Godzilla makes landfall, the Japanese treat him as a threat, which is natural: blundering about in a storm he’s already destroyed a small village. Who knows what would happen if he were to strike Tokyo? But the film also takes seriously the objections of an elder scientist: this creature is a miracle, and should be studied, not fought.
Each attempt to destroy Godzilla only makes the problem worse. The military makes a coastal fence of electric barbed wire (which doesn’t work), blasts him with tanks (ditto), and harasses him with fighter jets (which at least serve to frustrate him). Godzilla wreaks unknowing and tremendous havoc on Tokyo. At the end of his rampage, the entire skyline’s ablaze.
If you haven’t seen the first Godzilla film, you can get much of the same effect by imagining the plot of Independence Day, minus Will Smith and the Anthony Daniels muppet: weird being shows up, starts wrecking shit, is neutralized by scientist with miracle cure. But 1954′s Godzilla is missing something else from ID: the supernatural terror of the Other. Godzilla’s conceived in purely scientific terms (however ridiculous), and he’s even presented as being a (marginal) part of Japan’s history and culture, having been worshipped by island villagers throughout the medieval period. Nor is Godzilla mindless or motiveless. Both Godzilla puppet and suit are enormously, sometimes comically expressive—at one point, Godzilla approaches a radio tower with a Kermit-esque expression of consternation. “What’s this doing here?” If Godzilla stomps on people that shoot him, well, wouldn’t you?
Even the destruction 1954′s Godzilla causes is treated as knowable by the film and its characters. There’s no supernatural awe of the disaster itself, no fetishization. Nurses and doctors use Geiger counters to conduct triage on children. Fireman put out fires. Construction crews rebuild. The nation assembles a massive children’s choir to mourn the dead. The knowable monster creates a knowable tragedy and people respond in a knowable way.
Which should come as no surprise given the date of the film.
Just before Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo, a fashionable young woman on a bus utters a critical line of dialogue (which I’m re-creating from memory here, so give me a small break on accuracy): “If I survived Nagasaki, why should I worry about this?” World War II wasn’t exactly kind to the Home Islands—while there was no land invasion of Japan, bombings both nuclear and non- left their scars, especially in Tokyo. The city’s immolation in the 1954 film carries distinct echoes of the real damage nine years previously. The destruction Godzilla incurs is not alien—every one of the film’s speaking characters is old enough to remember the Tokyo bombings.
Compare, then, Godzilla’s 2014 appearance on American screens. Godzilla is not presented as any sort of understandable phenomena—he and the MUTOs are remnants of an earlier age of monsters, pieces of nature beyond human control or comprehension. Godzilla and the MUTOs barely interact with human beings for most of the movie, focused instead on their own battles. We don’t see any effective evacuation of Godzilla- or MUTO-targeted areas—in fact, we see a number of excellent shots of Americans going about their daily business as if utterly unaware of a giant monster threat, until, say, their casino is can-openered by a preying mantis the size of Disneyland. The monsters, and the damage they do, are presented as firmly outside the American context. Godzilla’s appearance, and the MUTOs’, is a sudden intrusion of a wild and incomprehensible reality into our fantasy-land.
I’m reminded here of Slavoj Zizek’s essay “Welcome to the Desert of the Real,” written in the wake of this millennium’s great American out-of-context problem, the 2001 World Trade Center bombing. In the essay, which I hope I’m not going to butcher in my attempt to summarize, please read it for yourself—anyway, in the essay Zizek observes that for people around the world, images of destruction and civic violence are real—things that happen in their context. Americans, by contrast, tend to experience violence as something that happens (a) elsewhere, like, over-oceans elsewhere and (b) in action movies. These two locations tend to blend together into “stuff that happens on the other side of a television screen.” So, for Zizek as of this essay written more than a decade ago, the choice confronting Americans in the wake of September 11 was: either to accept that this sort of thing truly happens, everywhere, that tragedies we reflexively consider fictional were in fact real, that we are all part of the same world living with the same set of concerns—or else reclassify our very own reality as a kind of action movie, and start acting accordingly.
In place of the 1954 Godzilla’s overtones of war and tragedy, the 2014 filmmakers try, in their own way, to demonstrate this dynamic confrontation between reality and fiction. Godzilla 2014′s constant cuts from first-person observations of monster action to news footage—coyly interrupting city-crushing smackdowns with cuts to the same events shown on CNN half a continent away—are a clever use of this same “media-tion” of reality. The most important narrative element of the early monster fights is not the fight itself, it’s the moment when the CNN report about that fight draws San Francisco viewers into the world of the monster. (No matter how disappointing it may be to cut away from that first bass-rumble punch.) Unfortunately for them, the American people in Godzilla 2014 follow Zizek’s latter path, at least at first—they believe they’re in a movie about fighting giant monsters, and act accordingly. The US military in the film continues to think that giant monsters are a problem to be solved with nuclear warheads, despite ample evidence that nuclear warheads only make this particular problem worse. If Our Heroes were in, say, Pacific Rim, this would be a perfectly logical solution! Their trauma has pushed them into the wrong movie.
It’s for this reason that, pace laser breath, the film’s real emotional climax is a strange, quiet, almost silly interlude in the final battle. Our Hero, a US Navy Lieutenant who we’ve followed off and on through the kaiju chaos, is fleeing down the streets of a city under monster attack. Godzilla’s thrown through a building mid-fight and falls into the street. Our Hero turns, looks up—into Godzilla’s eyes.
I kid you not. They share an honest-to-God moment amid crunching steel and falling glass. Due to the magic of cinema, that beat probably lasts five seconds, but it exists. Godzilla is there. Our Hero has seen him, and been seen in turn by him. The whole movie relies on the degree to which that moment lets Godzilla into our main character’s, and by extension our, world. There’s even a brief instant when Our Heroine gets the same level of contact.
(If I may be insane for a moment, I even think the movie goes a step further, by equating Godzilla, in plot logic terms, with Bryan Cranston’s character in the film. Cranston’s character, Our Hero’s father, is a conspiracy nut investigating a nuclear disaster that he thinks was caused by monsters. He, Cranston, SPOILER ALERT dies in the first monster attack—killed by the giant bugs Godzilla later fights in the movie. Godzilla shows up immediately after Cranston’s death, with a mind to hunt down and kill the bugs. Cranston’s soul might well have transmigrated into Godzilla. There’s even a slight resemblance, though I acknowledge that I’m getting into Epileptic Trees territory here:
All of which makes the movie stand out, especially when you think about the tendency of American horror, creature features, etc. to use the out-of-context Creature as a sin-goat upon which to hang our anxieties and fears. (The Shark in Jaws is a perfect example, which point I steal with joy from Zizek’s The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology.) Godzilla 2014 gives us a monster tailor-made for our fears—it comes from abroad, and from the past, and from nuclear power, and was a victim of American military aggression during the Cold War, but it also stands in for global warming and climate change and Nature Pointing Out The Folly of Men—but then the movie includes the monster in our context. It connects us to the kaiju. Even if you think my Bryan Cranston theory’s nuts, that shot of crossed eyes in a collapsing city stands on its own. Nor is Godzilla the only inhuman force with which this movie gradually brings us to understand and sympathize: the insectile MUTOs also have recognizable motivations and drives—to reproduce, as well as to defend and avenge their young. The giant insect-nuclear warhead courtship scene was the most touching relationship I’ve seen on the big screen so far this year.
Make no mistake—this is still an action movie, which the 1954 Godzilla really isn’t. And in that respect it’s more conservative than, say, the giant monster movie that I imagine takes place in the aftermath of Cabin in the Woods. But even so I think what we’ve received here is pretty remarkable. The 2014 Godzilla is a movie that, for all its flaws, allows us to connect with the monsters, rather than styling them as Enemies from Beyond. (I loved / continue to love Pacific Rim, and / but it’s structured around a basically Lovecraftian message: Weird Stuff will come to you from Beyond, and when it does, kill it with fire, if you can.) If only more movies did the same with their characters—human as well as scaly or chitinous.
Most of the movie’s other flaws (and there are many) are standard-issue Godzilla problems, though Our Hero and his hapless family are far worse than the mortals of the ’54 Godzilla. Allowing for that mess, though, we’re left with a giant monster movie that nudges us, however gently, toward the real.
And I think that’s pretty cool.
Also, come on—doesn’t he look like Bryan Cranston at least a little bit?