British director Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Hollywood reboot of Toho’s Godzilla franchise re-imagines the atomic-breath fuelled-beast as a symbol for the devastation wrought by large scale-disasters, expanding the creature’s subtext beyond it’s traditional nuclear power metaphor.
Edwards argues that his film is ‘about the power of nature, and how we sometimes abuse that power’. Godzilla hammers home this message by evoking and resonating with media imagery of countless horrific events over the last two decades from 9/11 to the Japanese tsunami. A stark warning to its audiences that we are helpless before the annihilating forces of the natural world.
Man Versus Nature
Edwards sets up his ‘man versus nature’ subtext right from the film’s opening scene. Two scientists arrive at a mine in the Phillipines to investigate a mysterious giant skeleton. They swoop over the mine in their helicopter and watch the miners hurrying up and down the surrounding hills. From the perspective of the scientists in their helicopter the miners appear almost like ants in a colony as they scramble through the hills. Edwards sets up this helicopter view as a neat parallel with the perspectives of the film’s monsters. Humans are nothing more to Godzilla and the MUTO than insects scuttling around their arena of conflict. The devastation these apex predators inflict on us is just collateral damage in their epic struggle for dominance.
After this quick exposition, Godzilla’s plot kicks into gear and the film begins to assault its audiences with endless waves of scenes saturated with powerful imagery evoking recent large-scale disasters. Footage of 9/11 is recalled heavily throughout the movie. The catastrophic destruction of the Janjira nuclear plant as seen from Ford’s classroom is reminiscent of the towers collapsing as depicted in footage shot from the coastlines of New Jersey and Brooklyn. Later shots in the film show characters fleeing through smoke-filled streets while passenger planes hurtle from the sky and smashing into towers, resonating even more profoundly with the real-life tragedy.
The devastation wrought by tsunamis like those in the Indian Ocean in 2004 and Japan in 2011 also seeps its way into the film’s horrifying visuals. The emergence of the MUTO from the sea sends terrifying walls of waves crashing through Hawaii. Locals and tourists watch from high-ground as the water sweeps up everything at ground level. The waves rush through the city and fill the streets, turning buildings into concrete islands within an ocean of destruction reminiscent of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
‘Mommy, look! Dinosaurs!’
Edwards takes advantage of a wide range of perspectives through which to filter the wreckage wrought by these god-like mutants upon the world’s cities. One of the most common point of view shots that crops up is the conflict’s coverage on 24 hour news stations. News crews beam the spectacle worldwide on the television sets that lurk in the background of multiple scenes. Olson’s character Elle Brody watches the footage of Godzilla and the MUTO crushing Hawaii in helpless horror. She desperately tries to make contact with her husband Ford as he fights for survival within the conflict’s epicentre. In moments like these Edwards provides a clever mirror of our own complicated real-world relationships with mass media coverage of tragic events.
Scenes like Elle’s panic-viewing, or the terror of the kid on the subway separated from his parents, depict the horror we experience when ripped from the safe clutches of friends and family during a disaster. Yet Godzilla also offers a small glimpse into the solidarity people are capable of in times of crises as the characters pull together to help save one another as best they can in the face of all the unreleting destruction. The film delivers emotionally upbeat moments too, like showing the relief of finding those you thought lost when Ford reunites with his family at the film’s end.
‘Back to the Stone Age’
This imagery of devastation builds up relentlessly over the course of two hours with hardly a moment’s rest. Edwards argues that the images serve as ‘little seeds that grow all over the course of the film’. Yet it’s important to note that he doesn’t exploit this imagery for cynical box-office gain. The director stresses that these images are used within the film ‘respectfully’. Such powerful images are so widespread within media culture that ‘the whole world knows these images; they can’t really forget them’, and it’s ‘inevitable that they get reflected and affect movies like this’. We live in a world that’s regrettably familiar with horrifying large-scale disasters. Godzilla acknowledges that fact by resonating with our shared media experiences of these events.
The eventual cumulative effect of these images hits the viewer like a thematic fist to the face. Edwards wants his audience to realise that Godzilla’s struggle with the MUTO is the embodiment of ‘man versus nature’. We are trapped in a never-ending battle as old as life itself that nature ‘is always going to win’. We are at the complete and total mercy of the natural forces around us. For all of our advanced technology and military might we can still be sent, in the words of Cranston’s character Joe Brody, ‘back to the stone age’ with the swish of a mutated tail.