The Existential Horror of “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”
Since at least Theodore Roosevelt, humans have felt guilty about our outsized impact on the other living systems on our planet. But we are metaphorical creatures; we have difficulty aligning our efforts behind chronic problems with only incremental solutions. To convince us to make sacrifices, even necessary ones, we must be able to see that these sacrifices are part of a clear narrative that leads to a place that we want to go.
Originally we made the kaiju as symbols of the awe-inspiring terror of nuclear weapons, and the monsters quickly became shared cultural icons of the unintended consequences of our species flexing its technological might to its fullest extent. Over time, as our fears have decentralized away from this one particular tech, these creatures began to stand for larger, more pervasive concerns about the whole enchilada: humanity is the weapon we should all be afraid of. It is not what we do in war that will devastate the planet and our species, but rather what we do without thinking about it, or when we think we’re doing good.
But to just come out and say that is at best preachy, and at worst counter-productive, alienating the very audience that needs to hear such a message. To be willing to engage with this kind of counter-intuitive, long-range eco-philosophy requires a brand new emotional pathway into the human brain. For years, films with ecological messages have played to our compassion for furry creatures and our innate appreciation of natural beauty to try to evoke in the audience a sense of Earth as something we need to give a shit about. But by 2019, everyone that was going to be converted by that message has already been converted, and it still wasn’t good enough. Fortunately, the Japanese have been perfecting a new cinematic weapon to deliver the payload: giant terror.
The reason I’m using the first part of my review of Godzilla: King of the Monsters to mansplain the history of its symbolism is because this film is the first time I really got it. I’ve always kind of understood intellectually that Godzilla, one of my favorite characters of all time, was an ongoing metaphor for the bomb/climate change, and 2014’s Godzilla did a really good job restating the Gaia Hypothesis for a modern audience, reminding us that regardless of our intentions humanity has neither the capability nor the perspective to try to maintain complete planetary harmony (whatever that means).
We do, however, have the ability to make this automatic re-balancing, which is going to happen anyway, way harder on ourselves. Making good decisions (ecologically, or as metaphorized in these films, militarily) means getting out of the planet’s way. But “getting out of the way” is not a passive act, nor is it without deep costs.
It took the full 2014 film to make this point convincingly, and so this latest film is able start with it as a premise and begin to ask much more interesting questions: If humanity can’t be the rebalancer all itself, what part can we play? Where do the moral burdens for the suffering that will occur across all species lie? How would a fully eco-woke human society have to reshape itself, from the organization of world governments down to the nature of the nuclear family?
These questions are forced to mind by the sheer power of the images of this film, not animated polar bears failing to find an ice floe or tap-dancing penguins, but terrifying mythic tapestries that strike at primordial regions of the human brain stem. These are not “action scenes”; they tend to obey the trope that the larger the spectacle, the slower it moves. But in their languid violence, we feel awakened in ourselves the proper emotions for the contemplation of our planetary survival: dread and horror.