The King of Monsters and the Hubris of Men

The new Godzilla is great fun—and a reminder that the Universe is very big and we are very small

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Reel Rating: (4 Reels out of 5)

Godzilla films can be placed in two camps. The first involves Godzilla as a destructive force of nature leveling retributive justice on humanity for the sin of nuclear proliferation. These Godzilla films, such as the original Godzilla (1954) and Return of Godzilla (1984), are better loved by film critics, historians, and college-aged theologians who need to write a paper but want to do it on something entertaining. The second camp presents Godzilla as an almost messianic figure who marches in to trumpet fanfare, saving the day when the Earth is threatened by other monsters. These Godzilla films, which make up the majority, are better loved by eight-year-old boys consuming bags of sour patch watermelon candies in the theater.

The 2014 American reboot, directed by Gareth Edwards, begins in the first camp but lands squarely in the second by the middle of the film. Godzilla is a fantastic monster brawl with some important ideas. At the very least, it’s incredibly better than the previous 1998 American version, starring Matthew Broderick, which I will not mention again in this review and which will be, hopefully, eventually wiped from the collect consciousness of mankind.

The slow reveal of the monster is one of the film’s great strengths. A mining team in the Philippians accidentally awakens some large creature, which promptly makes its way to a nuclear plant in Japan. One of the nuclear engineers, Joe Brody (the always amazing Bryan Cranston) detects a biological signal shortly before a large seismic disruption destroys the plant, killing his wife in the process. Fifteen years later, Joe and his son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), sneak into the remains of the plant, only to discover an international organization hiding a deadly secret. This secret isn’t what might be expected based on the American trailers, and it’s an impressive reveal.

After the buildup, the middle section of the film is rather dull, mostly because it involves a lot of talking, planning, more talking, more planning—all while remaining surprisingly calm in the face of the greatest natural discovery of all time! The bottom line is that Godzilla is best when we see lots of Godzilla, and the end, thankfully, has lots of Godzilla.

However, a film such as this carries a sixty-year history, and it would be impossible to appreciate Godzilla without looking at the big, big picture. The 1954 film was so arresting because it squarely faced the fears of the Cold War. Godzilla was a product of nuclear radiation who came back to haunt those who split the atom. Subconsciously, it was also a cathartic way for Japan to deal with its responsibility for the Second World War.

If 2014’s Godzilla was to be topical, he would have been a product of genetic engineering. Instead, howevrer, he isn’t created by anyone but is a remnant of the very distant past with mythological overtones similar to the Titans or the Nephilim. He is a reminder that the Universe is very, very big, and we are very, very small. Most of the traditional elements of Godzilla are preserved, and there are even a few small homages to the other films, although Akira Takarada’s cameo was removed, unfortunately, from the final cut—a sign that whatever may have come before, this film stands on its own two monstrous, clawed feet.

Although the fear of imminent nuclear war has died down in recent decades, there are still monsters under our collective bed that Godzilla manages to tap into. Godzilla stands 300 feet high, nearly three times his size in the 1954 version. He overshadows mankind’s technology, architecture, and artificial hubris. A Japanese scientist remarks that “the arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control and not the other way around.” In classic fashion, the military tries to solve the situation but succeeds only in endangering innocent citizens.

It is Godzilla who saves the day. While nature can bring destruction, it can also provide life-giving resources. Forest fires may destroy, for instance, but they allow new life to grow. There is even a moment when Godzilla shares a brief yet compassionate gaze with a human, providing a brief, if vague, insight into his own psychology. Action/fantasy/sci-fi films are not always known for their profound moral content, but every story has a message, intended or not. Popcorn movies emphasize general values rather than specific ideas, values including kindness, loyalty, endurance, faith, hope, and love. Ford, for example, acts selflessly at tremendous risk to himself to save someone else’s child. Mankind is taught humility in the face of nature. Above all, courage is needed to face the monsters outside and within.

Godzilla towers over both humans and this film like a vaguely divine force reflexive of his name. He may be only looking for his next meal, but there is a sense that he cares about the plight of humans and only kills them accidentally due to his size and clumsiness. The film also reinforces the sense that although God seems absent, he will show up when needed. However, God is neither under man’s control nor dependent on him; he has his own divine plans and mysterious motivations.

Godzilla isn’t the perfect reboot it could have been but feels like an excellent precursor to an even better film, a Batman Begins to The Dark Knight. If there is one major flaw, it’s that there was no post credits scene setting up Mothra, Rodan, or even King Ghidorah. There will surely be more films on the way, and that is a good thing.

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About Nick Olszyk 185 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online at his website, Catholic Cinema Crusade.