Point of View

‘Godzilla’ and lessons unlearned about human-caused horrors

May 24, 2014 

Horror and disaster films show us our deepest fears. They let us see what’s worrying us and what we might do about it. As the “Godzilla” films summon the prehistoric creature from the depths, each holds a mirror to the concerns of its moment.

The original version by Ishiro Honda emerged from the psychological, if not literal, fallout of nuclear war. Honda’s 1954 Japanese audience couldn’t miss the echoes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the decimated landscape of post-rampage Tokyo. Nor could they fail to see, in the fishermen and islanders who are showered by Godzilla’s radioactive vapor breath, the allusion to the crew of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 or the residents of atolls exposed to fallout from H-bomb tests.

In Honda’s original, humankind has awakened a primordial force against which all of our weapons and military know-how prove useless. His monster gives living form to the fear we will bomb ourselves “back to the Stone Age.”

But Honda’s film has a positive lesson as well: We need to learn from the careless use of science to respect its destructive power. Science has awakened Godzilla, but it can also destroy him. The brilliant young Japanese scientist, Dr. Serizawa, refuses to repeat the mistakes of his American colleagues. He reluctantly agrees to use his terrible invention – an oxygen destroyer that turns aquatic living organisms into skeletons – to destroy Godzilla. But fearful of its subsequent misuse, he destroys his research and chooses to die in the depths with the creature.

Honda’s “Godzilla” is about the dangerous power – and terrible cost – of scientific knowledge.

Sixty years later, “Godzilla” still reminds us of lessons unlearned. In Gareth Edwards’ new reboot, the opening catastrophe at a Japanese nuclear plant shows us the hubris of believing we can harness even the peacetime uses of nuclear power without incident. Or that it’s a good idea to keep secrets.

Did you think the Bikini Atoll detonations were military tests? Wrong. They were efforts to destroy monsters – not just Godzilla, but Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms (MUTOs) – lying dormant in the depths.

As it turns out, MUTOs feed on radiation. And when the MUTOs awaken – the result of nuclear power plants, strip mining and other abominations to which we have subjected our planet – they’re hungry. And sexually ravenous. The part-organic, part-machine creatures of our detritus wreak havoc as they careen around the world in search of food (radiation) and each other.

For his part, Godzilla is oblivious to the destruction in his wake as he pursues his MUTO prey.

There’s a new Dr. Serizawa, older and calmer. He carries around his father’s stopped watch from the nuclear blast at Hiroshima as a reminder. And he is deeply respectful of the power of nature. “The arrogance of man,” he intones, “is thinking nature is in our control, and not the other way around.” He recognizes Godzilla not as a foe of humanity, but as a force of nature, part of the balance, and he urges the U.S. military to let the creatures fight.

At the end of the film, a CNN newsfeed hails Godzilla as a “hero” and “savior.” But that’s the problem. If a chastened respect for the power and danger of science is the message of the original “Godzilla,” Edwards’ reboot tells us to be more humble before nature. It also tells us to get out of the way: Nature will restore its own balance.

But it won’t. A recent proposal in geology tells us why. The proposal is for the designation of a new geological age – the Age of the Anthropocene – which recognizes humankind as a geological force. Advocates of the new designation believe if we acknowledge that we’ve become a geologic force, we may finally realize we have to take responsibility for environmental crises like climate change. We’ll see that we’re destroying the planet, and we’ll change our behavior.

The new “Godzilla” reflects those concerns about the environment. But when it tells us to get out of the way while nature balances itself, the message is as dangerous as the MUTOs.

The new movie got the problem right, but we need to reboot the message. Science isn’t going to save us; nature isn’t going to balance itself. And we don’t need another hero. We can’t begin to solve the problem we’ve created until we recognize ourselves in the MUTOs.

Priscilla Wald is a professor of English and women’s studies at Duke University.

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