In the beginning, Godzilla was about us. The monster was made to show the ways in which we fail ourselves and harm each other. 1954’s Gojira, directed by Ishirō Honda for Toho studio, was the first in a franchise spanning more than 30 films. Gojira famously drew on Japan’s recent experiences of nuclear horror: the city-destroying, unfathomable monstrosity of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.
More than 60 years on, Toho’s most recent foray into Godzilla territory, Shin Godzilla (2016), showed a resurgent anxiety of nuclear threat and American political aggression. In the shadow of the Fukushima nuclear plant disaster, it presented a political satire of dangerous bureaucratic ineffectiveness in response to crisis – that just so happened to involve a kaiju. The resolution, as noted by Katie Rife of the AV Club, is ‘very Japanese’, as the day is saved not by the sacrifice of a lone hero, but instead ‘the successful execution of a coordinated team effort’.
With 2014’s Godzilla, Director Gareth Edwards rebooted this franchise for an American studio, intending for the films to be considered among their Toho counterparts. His Godzilla represented ‘the wrath of nature’:
You can’t win that fight. Nature’s always going to win and that’s what the subtext of our movie is about … He’s the punishment we deserve …
If Edwards’ Godzilla posits that we deserve to be punished, 2019’s Godzilla II: King of the Monsters suggests instead that we deserve to be saved. This newest Godzilla has echoes of the Japanese monster that evolved in the Showa period (1954–1975) – which became a protector and ally against other kaiju threats.
King of the Monsters opens several years after the events of the first film. Without delving too much into a loose and poorly considered plot, our bad guys are ecoterrorists intent on saving the world from climate change at any cost. Their solution? Let there be monsters – so-called Titans – to wreak destruction as a new apex predator and bring nuclear regeneration in their wake.
The good guys are Monarch, the secret inter- and extra-governmental organisation. This group is seemingly beholden to no actual government process, answering to no democracy, conducting the highest level of secret scientific research funded by God-knows-who-but-probably-taxpayers, and are shown to be the subject of US Senate hearings. The fact that these are our heroes is telling – pointing to the American (and the West’s) post-democracy faith in billionaires and maverick individuals for solutions. Although the ecoterrorist plan is condemned by our heroes as immoral, the end-credits sequence indicates the positive effect Titans have on environmental survival. How fortunate that this could be achieved without political mobilisation or social responsibility!
This film suggests that in 2019, on the brink of the end of the world, we deserve to be saved – by miracles and by monsters, no collective global action required. Indeed, the narrative of the film reflects a reality in which we can remove responsibility and ignore environmental ethics.
While ostensibly a film about climate change, KotM shies away from debating or tackling real issues, and unwittingly reveals the true core of our inadequate response to climate apocalypse. The film halfheartedly condemns mankind for our anthropocene climate disaster; but it pays mere lip-service to the crisis, reflecting the general moral apathy we collectively hold.
Compare it to the earlier Godzilla films, where humanity was morally culpable for war, for bombs, for political failures and irresponsible nuclear experimentation. Yet King of the Monsters lacks genuine conviction – because, for many, environmental destruction isn’t something that gnaws at them. For the average Westerner it’s an occasional pang, but it doesn’t twist like the complete apocalypse of mankind should.
KotM also depicts the awful truth of how our slow apocalypse will go down. Turncoat paeleobiologist-cum-ecoterrorist Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) makes an impassioned broadcast on secure Monarch channels for those few watching to find their way to the organisation’s secret bunkers and wait it out. The scene of Gidorah’s destruction of a Mexican city is an uncomfortable reminder of how even now the global poor – those beyond the walls of the West – are destroyed for the comfort or wellbeing of those who can afford to cause this destruction. Raise the storms, the seas, take food and poison the water table, and let people die. As the world, our real world out here, ends, the rich can scuttle to temporary safety.
The solutions in King of the Monsters are never democratic, but always individualist, whether it’s Monarch’s scientists or the ecoterrorists. The few – or even one – deciding for the many. Even though the Titan plan is presented as flawed and amoral, it is still an effective Deus Ex Machina (Godzilla out of the machine, if you will) that takes responsibility and power away from the collective.
It’s the easy option – the one that holds neither governments nor private megacorporations to account for their crimes against the environment. Because, of course, this is us beyond the screen: we refuse to hold them accountable. We still act like voting is about franking credits and the day-to-day when in fact politics should be our response to the near-future destruction of life as we know it. We share hopeful memes about imperfect individual recycling but refuse to accept that governments and corporations are responsible for an overwhelming proportion of emissions to date. So much, in fact, that individual action – like recycling your tins and cleaning with vinegar instead of chemicals – is unlikely to make any discernible difference. You can keep a compost bin, but now that the Queensland Government has approved another coal mine, it’s largely meaningless.
Only a Godzilla-level change could fix this situation, but Godzilla isn’t coming. Secret scientists in a submarine will not save us, and we will die with our eyes fixed towards some magic solution from individual tech-bros or unspecified, underfunded scientists. Unless grassroots movements like the Extinction Rebellion capture the hearts of a wider populace, we can only surmise that the world-death that should unite us is failing to do so.
The threat of global annihilation – whether kaiju or climate change – should unite us. We face this common extinction as a species. Indeed, we face it with every other species on earth. This was the major plot point of Alan Moore’s Watchmen. An alien attack faked as a villainous (or not?) master plan to bring about world peace. When the planet is threatened, the reasoning goes, countries will put aside their differences and divisions to fight back. Mutually assured survival.
Who ever would have thought one day we’d call Moore an optimist?
We see the reality of this now that the end of the world is nigh. Far from human intervention awakening hitherto unseen monsters of the old world as in the kaiju films, each year our planet is supporting fewer and fewer species as the anthropocene extinction rolls on, gathering pace. We do not awaken Mothra, but instead kill the bees and face the collapse of insect populations that support vital ecosystems.
In its bumbling rhetoric and attempts to grasp at a greater concept than ‘big monster, brave heroes’, King of the Monsters does come close to hitting the unintentional point: humans – more specifically, humans of the ‘developed’ industrial countries – are the monsters. We are the many-headed hydra that proliferates and sprawls and consumes, leaving wasteland behind. We are the beast in the night that every other species would tell horror stories about, if they could.
Looking out over the end of the world, I feel we are beyond salvation.
No Godzillas. No kings. Not even mankind, at this point. We’re cooked.
Godzilla, as he has always done, shows how we are monstrous.
He shows us why we will die.