“You’re a monster!” screams Madison Russell (played by Millie Bobby Brown) in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. She screams this at her mother, Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga), who has just made the decision to awaken huge, dormant beasts in an attempt to solve the problem of human depredations against the natural environment. As with many movies of this genre, the question of who or what is a monster drives the plot of the surprisingly clever, but ultimately troubling, Godzilla: King of the Monsters. If human beings are the monsters, as we fear, then we ought to expect judgment and wrath.
Control, kill, or coexist? History, nature, and the folly of man
Godzilla: King of the Monsters utilizes Blue Öyster Cult’s 1977 rock song “Godzilla” during its closing credits. That song features the refrain, “History shows again and again how nature points out the folly of man. Godzilla!” Godzilla: King of the Monsters takes the playful rock lyrics and treats them with deadly seriousness. In this case, the history in question is the history of human ecological devastation, which calls into question our own place in the natural order. A “monster,” in its original appellation, is a being or event that is unnatural. The most obvious candidates are Godzilla and the film’s other “titans”; but Madison Russell’s horrible epiphany about her mother shows who might be the real monsters—the humans who have wrought untold devastation on the planet (the litany of sins should be familiar: overpopulation, global warming, pollution, killing the coral reefs, harming the Amazon rain forest, etc.).
The main plot of the movie involves the efforts of Monarch, a secret zoological association responsible for containing and studying the huge beasts that have been discovered lying dormant all around the globe. Monarch must stop the rampaging “titans,” who have been awakened and released by an eco-terrorist group working together with Dr. Emma Russell, a rogue Monarch scientist. Emma believes that human beings are an “infection,” the spread of which must be checked by the titans, the “rightful rulers” of our world. Emma has engineered a way to exercise limited control over the titans using a sonar device, named an “Orca.”
Opposing Emma are her ex-husband, Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), and Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). Mark, still scarred by the death of his son Andrew in the attack on San Francisco depicted in the 2014 Godzilla film, thinks that Monarch ought to be finding ways to kill the titans, which he believes are beyond human control and will always be a dangerous threat. Both Mark and Emma, in their own ways, agree that humans ought to be the apex beings in the world.
Dr. Serizawa, on the other hand, theorizes that the titans are forces generated by the Earth to bring balance to nature. His preferred approach is to act as an auxiliary to Earth’s own balancing agents, the titans. He even finds evidence in Godzilla’s underwater home that prehistoric humans had learned how to coexist with the titans: Godzilla’s refuge is a temple filled with carvings of humans and titans, leading Serizawa to observe, “The titans really were the original gods.” But Serizawa’s “coexist” option also requires a shift in the balance of power on Earth: human beings must cede their place as “alpha” leader and apex predator to nature’s champion, Godzilla. When a congressional panel asks Serizawa if his plan is to keep Godzilla as a pet, he responds, “No. We will be his.”
The return of the old gods
In Greek mythology, the Titans were also “the original gods,” rulers of the world who were overthrown by the new, Olympian gods. If Godzilla’s beastly titans are the Monsterverse’s old gods, then the new gods are, the film implies, the creations of human beings: Western science and technology.
In one key exchange, Serizawa pleads with a general not to launch a prototype superweapon at Godzilla as he battles his nemesis, the three-headed dragon-titan, Ghidorah. Instead, we should have “faith in Godzilla,” as the agent of the Earth capable of bringing balance to nature. Faith in Godzilla, for Serizawa, really entails faith in nature itself as self-correcting, independent of human interventions. When Serizawa does intervene, he only does so to reverse the damage done by our advanced weaponry.
The revival of the old gods is fearsome; their return is triggered by our own misdeeds in assaulting nature. Godzilla: King of the Monsters echoes the most popular “cinematic universe”—Marvel’s—in its villain’s judgments. As I wrote in my review of Avengers: Infinity War, “Thanos presents himself as the only being in the universe bold enough to take the harsh steps necessary to save people from themselves. The problem, as he sees it, is a problem with life itself: left unchecked, life outgrows its own resources, leading to poverty and untold suffering for most people.” Thanos, too, seeks to restore an imbalance in nature; Thanos, too, is an old god, a titan (called “the mad Titan” in Marvel comic books).
This confluence between the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the Monsterverse points out our increasing anxiety that our world’s problems are all because of us. But there is a shift between Godzilla: King of the Monsters and its source material. In the source material, Godzilla is awakened by nuclear weapons tests. Our fate was avoidable, because to avoid destruction all we needed to do was to cease a certain set of irresponsible actions: nuclear weapons use. But in the new movies, the introduction of a laundry list of ecological sins—including overpopulation—strongly implies that our very existence in the world is the problem.
There is another agent of imbalance in the film. The first titan Emma Russell awakens is Ghidorah, a three-headed dragon that is depicted in mythology as “falling from the sky.” It turns out Ghidorah—unlike the other titans, who are natives of Earth and agents for balance in nature—is an alien. Human beings through their technology may have made themselves into monsters, but Serizawa’s desire to coexist—let’s call it the “Godzilla Option”—holds out hope that they can re-integrate with the rest of nature by cooperating with Godzilla. Ghidorah, on the other hand, is unremittingly alien and is therefore Godzilla’s natural rival.
After emerging (mostly) unscathed from the military’s superweapon attack while Godzilla is critically injured and forced to retreat, an ascendant Ghidorah vaunts while perched on a Mexican volcano overlooking a town crowned by a cross. The Satanic figure is triumphant as Godzilla, the mediator between man and nature, slumbers in his subterranean tomb, seemingly defeated. Our heroes realize that Ghidorah is an alien only after the attack, and then make the further realization that they have (apparently) killed the only titan powerful enough to defeat him. To paraphrase Nietzsche, “Godzilla is dead,” and “We are his murderers.”
Fortunately for the humans, there is a technical fix when a radiation-powered god is out of commission: blast it with a nuclear torpedo. Even for the sage Serizawa, the solution to a theological problem ends up being the right application of power. If only Nietzsche had known! Our Monsterverse heroes gaze into the abyss and nuke it.
But Godzilla: King of the Monsters is not using Godzilla as a Christ-figure; it is not drawing on Chesterton’s Everlasting Man or Tolkien’s “true myth,” in which human mythology is pointing inchoately toward fulfillment in Christ. Instead, Jung’s archetypes seem more operative, since there is no sense in which Christianity might be true or even relevant to the outcome of the movie. One soldier makes the Sign of the Cross before battle against Ghidorah, but it is not Christ who wins the victory; it is Godzilla.
King of the Monsters
By the end of the movie, Mark Russell has been won over to Serizawa’s side and Emma Russell’s scheme to control the titans fails due to Ghidorah’s aggression. What remains to be determined are the details of the Godzilla Option. Will human coexistence with Godzilla allow them friendship and partnership, or will the humans also have to bow to the king, the old god ascendant?
The movie unfortunately and troublingly leaves its overarching question unresolved: are human beings fundamentally monsters? Are we, like the otherworldly Ghidorah, alien to terrestrial nature because of our unnatural science and technology and our thirst for control? Do we throw nature off balance merely by being who we are and doing what it is characteristically human to do? Are the murderous eco-terrorists with whom Emma Russell makes common cause right, that human beings are an infection needing to be contained or, more likely, eliminated?
The film itself is incoherent on this score. Emma doesn’t seem to consider herself or her daughter an infection. As a race, Emma thinks we are wicked; however, her judgment about the race has not trickled down to how she treats the people around her.
But Serizawa’s Godzilla Option is only possible if you have a Godzilla, whose proximity apparently is able to regenerate shrunken coral reefs and heal all manner of ecological disasters that we with our technological, overpopulating, polluting ways, have caused. Without a Godzilla to bring balance, the strongest arguments in the movie seem to support Emma’s conviction that the human race is an infection. While it is good to see the film’s heroes ready to fight and die for humanity and for individual persons, without a reason to think that human life is good—and it is not clear that the movie’s eco-cosmology is capable of providing that reason—how long will we continue to fight and sacrifice for a human future? It may be that we have only begun to see what kind of monster a hopeless human race can become, or what sorts of old gods we may summon to bring upon ourselves the wrath we already halfway believe we deserve.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!