We took the kids to see Godzilla today. They loved it, mostly because they got to see a movie rated PG13 (they’re 8, nephew is 9). Judging by our many trips to the lobby, they really weren’t so much engaged with what was on the screen, as with the entire theater experience, which is good, because I regret their seeing Godzilla. When my daughter leaned over and said the words “good that he killed all those babies!” I started thinking and still can’t stop thinking about the movie that inspired that sentence.
The basic plot is that supposedly there was an earthquake near a Japanese nuclear power plant (Janjira, the only power company evoked at all in the movie, and it is defunct about 10 minutes in), which triggered a meltdown and quarantine of the area. One surviving scientist can’t get over it, and he pursues his theory that it was not a natural disaster but something else. Turns out he was right. It was an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) from something alive. The pulse is repeating and getting stronger, so a repeat of the earthquake event is imminent. The ultimate EMP disrupts power. All electric things go dead, even cars stop running.
Joe, the aged scientist and a Japanese scientist named Serizawa discover that a massive unidentified terrestrial organism (MUTO) is awakening, it eats nuclear power and waste, is hungry, and also is trying to signal a mate. The MUTO emerges, Godzilla follows him. The MUTOs search for more nuclear meals and his mate take him and Godzilla through Hawaii and towards Nevada. Joe dies and his grown son takes over in the role of scientist who understands what is happening and how to stop it. So, these MUTOs are after our nuclear power and waste, and they are Godzilla’s prey. At this point, my daughter pointed out that the female had babies in her belly, which was uncomfortable for me. Wait, what? A pregnant female is the biggest menace in the movie? Cue heightened awareness and now mama is watching for subtext.
The military decides to attack the MUTOs with nuclear warheads, which doesn’t work several times, since the MUTOs just eat them. The Japanese scientist, Serizawa, notifies everyone that Godzilla is hunting the MUTOs and will restore balance to the earth if just allowed to follow through. The military hesitates a little too long to adopt this philosophy, attacking good Godzilla for a good while. The lady MUTO lays her eggs underground, but the military, led by Joe’s son, firebombs them and burns them up. Godzilla first kills the male MUTO and then the female. Godzilla is knocked out for a while and then gets up and returns to the sea.
My most immediate concern is that no person, no American is being attacked or threatened. These unidentified terrestrial organisms (just to see what happens, I’m leaving out massive) are just hungry. They happen to eat nuclear power and waste, and it just so happens that US power companies have lots of that, so they are coming for it. Since Godzilla has historically worked as an extended metaphor for fears, is it logical to see this as a metaphor for America’s xenophobic attitudes around immigration? Yes, especially since the biggest menace, being a pregnant female, has laid her eggs on U.S. soil. Luckily/sadly, as my sweet, innocent daughter pointed out, all the babies have been killed so we won’t face a “dreamer” dilemma around those MUTO babies in the future.
Now, to the unbearable memory of having to look at the profiles of my son and nephew as the glow of scene after scene of beautiful, godlike soldiers doing cool looking military things washed over them and they, unprotected, absorbed the cell changing rays that said; you could be a soldier! Being a soldier is cool, if they are saving and protecting people. But in Godzilla they are not protecting people. People are not being attacked at all. The soldiers are protecting the interests of power companies (unless, in this movie utilities have been nationalized; there is no evidence either way). Nuclear power is sort of conflated with the U.S. in general in Godzilla, so we are supposed to just think of it as “ours” I guess. Are we not to question the use of the lives of our most precious young people to defend nuclear power? Dying in battle is sold to little boys as the greatest thing you could do. The troubling thing here is that the enely does not pose a direct threat to people.
Never is the existence of nuclear power questioned or alternatives posed and I guess that is okay, this is a Godzilla movie after all, and nuclear power is essential to the story. So, this would be okay, but the movie goes just one step outside the realm of remaining neutral about our nuclear situation. One scientist, I can’t remember which (Sally Hawkins?) lectures during the movie and tells us that radiation loving Godzilla is a vestige of life long ago, when the earth was very radioactive, much more so than it is today, suggesting that radiation is natural. This is a convenient truth, right? Maybe so, maybe when the planet was young it was radioactive, but the threat that radioactivity poses today is not the same thing. Today, nuclear threats exist due to military paranoia, corporate greed, and the deregulation craze we are currently enduring. It is definitely not natural, and we could take steps to minimize and eventually eliminate it. That little blurring of the line, suggesting that this all is just the way that the earth is, is the tactic of climate change deniers. It is just slipped in there to plant in our minds the idea that nuclear power is natural, just like climate change. Human activity has had nothing to do with it.
Next, I want to address the many children separated from their parents in the movie. First, the young scientist’s son is separated from mom and dad during the nuclear plant crisis in 1999. Next the protagonist’s young son is separated from his parents for much of the movie. We also see a young boy separated from mom and dad on the train in San Francisco, and in Hawaii a little girl and her father are separated from the mother during the tsunami. As manipulative and political as this movie is, this cannot be an accidental element. American families get used to the idea; you will suffer for the causes of and convenience of the powers that be.
Finally, just so you know America, the worst thing that could happen is a power outage. The EMPs disrupt all power, even batteries. The film maximizes the effect. Over and over, we see the progression of lights going out and hear the powering down chunk chunk and silence that accompanies a total power outage. The panicked faces, the screaming and running hordes, the paralyzed traffic, it is overwhelming and horrifying, and it inspires the soldiers to give their all. These episodes function as mini-crises throughout the movie. Like so many other contrived situations in Godzilla, this is a manipulation, because I can think of worse things than power outages; for instance, another Fukushima style nuclear incident or a nuclear or any other type of bomb.
I shouldn’t have brought such young kids to a PG – 13 movie, so I take full responsibility. I just thought, well its Godzilla, it’ll be fun and how much damage can it do? Turns out, it did a lot of damage. The vilification of women and foreigners, the normalization of nuclear power, the sneak recruitment of bomb fodder, the lowering of expectations for quality of life, and all for what? So that we accept, even become grateful for a world full of nuclear power and perpetually engaged in war to defend our sources of it.
In the wake of the experience, I take comfort in three things: First, my kids, like so many out there are critical thinkers who will be able to read this movie for its subtext and analyze the heck out of it, when they are older and engaged in film study. Second teachers have embraced Common Core and will churn out careful readers and writers who will critique and create all kinds of exciting films in the coming years. We are in an educational renaissance that is real and exciting. Third, I realize that as usual, I may have over-reacted, as the discussion in the back seat on the way home was; who would win, Godzilla or King Kong? The twins’ dad chimed in with “Historically, King Kong wins that fight.” I didn’t know, and wouldn’t have guessed that that was the answer, or that sweet Rick knew it. But I’m comforted by the old school little kid perspective and apparently genuine deflection of subtext.