Warning, a few spoilers ahead.
As odd as this sounds, the most telling quote about the latest incarnation of Godzilla isn’t from this year’s epic Godzilla movie, but was spoken at the end of the last Godzilla film released in the U.S. (Godzilla 2000). Just before Godzilla turns and walks off toward the ocean, a woman asks, “Why does he keep saving us?” A man replies, “Maybe because there’s a little Godzilla in all of us.”
The exchange is meaningful because it captures Godzilla’s evolution over the last 60 years. When he made his debut in 1954, in a low budget Japanese film called Gojira (released in the U.S. as Godzilla: King of the Monsters), Japan was still reeling from the twin nuclear blasts that ended its role in World War II. Godzilla was the personification of the terrible and relentless power unleashed when we learned how to split the atom. He was remorseless and unforgiving—a force of nature conjured by our desire to master nature. In another interpretation, Godzilla is our nature. He’s the dark side of us, power-hungry and selfish, as were the forces that threatened world domination resulting in war.
But over the years, Godzilla’s arc changed. Across the course of his 29 feature films, he’s alternated between malevolent force and defender of the earth against other malevolent forces. At times he’s the lesser of two evils, and humans have determined that it’s better to harness his terrible power and direct it against even worse powers that would cheerily demolish every city on the planet.
In his latest role, directed by up-and-coming director Gareth Edwards and starring notables like Ken Wantanabe, Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston, Godzilla is again—more or less—on our side. We don’t seem to know exactly why, and the idea that he might help us doesn’t stop earth’s collective military forces from wanting to bomb him out of existence. But as in many previous Godzilla flicks, there are bigger monsters to fry—if not as physically menacing as Godzilla, every bit as angry and, worse, bent on kicking us “back to the Stone Age” (quoting Joe Brody, played by Cranston).
This time around, the scientific seer role is split between Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Watanabe), a Japanese scientist who knows more than anyone else about Godzilla and his primordial adversaries—which may not be very much—and Joe Brody, a brilliant engineer pushed to the edge of his wits, who’s damn sure something is going on.
Serizawa’s confusion-laced tutelage is best captured by the old saying, “In the valley of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” He’s certain we shouldn’t be looking a gift Godzilla in the mouth, but has a hard time selling his theory to military types who, for whatever reason, seem intent on using nukes to destroy monsters that feed on nuclear power. This brutal bordering on brutally stupid single-mindedness of the military is consistent with its portrayal across the pantheon of Godzilla movies. The guys with the guns just don’t get it.
Joe Brody gets it, though he’s unsure about what “it” is exactly. But he knows it’s big and it talks to other it’s, and he’s particularly sure that there’s a cover-up going on that even Wikileaks couldn’t unravel.
Serizawa and Brody are the two sides of speculative science, one quietly skeptical, one vocally so. They seek knowledge, they want the truth, and they’re pretty sure we’re headed toward imminent destruction—even while everyone ignores them.
But no one can ignore Godzilla. He’s the grand leveler of perspectives, and the crystallization of all that should be feared from our dangerous dance with nature. Quoting Serizawa, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control… and not the other way around.”
And Serizawa should know, since his grandfather was the scientist from the very first Godzilla movie in 1954 who developed the Oxygen Destroyer bomb that eventually put an end to the monster’s reign of terror. That Dr. Serizawa wasn’t a fan of using the bomb, even to stop Godzilla, fearing that once the bomb was used it would become an even bigger threat to humanity than Godzilla himself (not unlike the nuclear bombs dropped on Japanese cities). He felt so strongly about it that he committed suicide after the bomb was used, so that his Oppenheimer-esque knowledge would die with him.
Are you catching the theme here? Godzilla is, for lack of a better word, a corrective. Humans are chronically off-course in our use of potentially earth-ending science, and whether he shows up to kick our derrieres or to assist us (for whatever reason) in stopping other threats to our species’ survival, he’s one gigantic roaring reminder that we know much less than we think and are less powerful than we imagine. If Godzilla could speak, I’m fairly sure he’d tell us, “You down there, you’re not really in control.”
Whether or not that theme is smoothly delivered in the latest movie is a matter of interpretation. So many questions remain unanswered (like the origin of the monsters Godzilla prevents from knocking us off the food chain – are they the result of mad science or just nasty remnants of another age?), it’s less clear what motivates the Big G to pass on opportunities to crush us while staying focused on the epic rumble. Perhaps it’s because, as Serizawa intimates, he’s an “apex predator” hunting his prey. Maybe we’re just too small and insignificant to count as prey. Or maybe it’s because we need him to stay on task for a sequel.
Whatever you’re left with from this movie (the effects of which are truly fantastic—you will feel your bones rattle when Godzilla delivers his signature roar), the question asked at the end of Godzilla 2000 remains salient: “Why does he keep saving us?” Maybe the answer is simply that he doesn’t hold out much hope that we can save ourselves. Surveying the world from his vantage, it’s not terribly hard to see his point.
You can find David DiSalvo on Twitter @neuronarrative, at his website The Daily Brain, and on YouTube at Your Brain Channel. His latest book is Brain Changer: How Harnessing Your Brain’s Power To Adapt Can Change Your Life.