Reptilian Revisionism: A search for meaning in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla.
Troubled by Hollywood’s habit of putting style over substance, Oliver Balaam searches for meaning in Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla, but finds little more than a giant lizard.
Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is a beautiful, and fiercely entertaining film that I’d recommend watching on the biggest screen you can get your hands on. It’s a triumph of style, but it sorely lacks the substance that made Godzilla such an enduring pop-culture icon in the first place.
With Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Lucky Dragon 5 incident still raw in Japan’s national consciousness, Godzilla was conceived in 1954 as a metaphorical warning against nuclear proliferation. One character in the original goes so far as to call the lizard an “illegitimate child of the H–bomb”, referencing the fact that he was awakened and empowered by the fallout from American nuclear tests. More than fifty years on though, Edwards lets the U.S Military off the hook, and trades rumination on nuclear trauma for trailer ready destruction porn when he suggests that all those nuclear tests in the Pacific weren’t tests, but efforts to kill an amphibious dinosaur.
In a recent interview Edwards stated: “Our film is not about Fukushima. But it does have those questions in it.” Beyond an offhand reference to Mother Nature keeping the world in balance however, his film offers little texture or insight. It deliberately echoes iconic images of recent cultural traumas but, passing without comment, these vignettes are little more than emotional spread betting. There are falling papers and crashed planes for the Americans, exploding trains for the European audience and aerial shots of landslides and tsunamis for the Asian markets. In some UK marketing material, Godzilla is even shown towering over Big Ben, although the lizard never sets foot in Europe during the film. It’s as cynical and empty as it sounds.
Another interviewer noted that “as we talk, he [Edwards] keeps circling back around to the phrase, “I love monster movies”: a mental tethering post around which he trusts his thoughts to amble.” Edwards is clearly a fan of Kaiju movies but, hailing from Nuneaton rather than Fukushima or Chernobyl, he isn’t haunted by the specter of nuclear war as his predecessors were. Tasked with reinventing Godzilla, and approaching the project as a fan rather than a survivor, he has (perhaps understandably) produced a very well-made Kaiju fantasy, but one without higher aspirations.
What the film definitely has going for it is scale. In the original 1954 film “Gojira” was fifty meters tall, and looked uncannily like a man in a rubber suit. He grew in later iterations in order not to be dwarfed by Tokyo’s avidly expanding skyline and he’s grown again in Edwards’ film, now standing at a whopping 107 meters,more than double his original size.
Capitalism is synonymous with Hollywood in the eyes of many critics, and just as it’s capitalism that pushes skyscrapers skyward, it’s also capitalism that demands unparalleled massiveness from our blockbusters. Capitalism, I think we’ve established by now, is very good at giving people what they want, but not so great at what they don’t know they need.
Over the past few years even Hollywood’s greats have expressed fatigue as the stakes, both on and off screen, have been raised at an exponential rate. Last summer Steven Spielberg, the father of the modern blockbuster, predicted that an industry that makes only blockbusters, will eventually collapse under the weight of its own gigantism.
Screenwriter Damon Lindelof calls this predicament “story gravity” and argues that, while action set pieces makes for great trailers, they limit his ability to tell a compelling story. “Once you spend more than $100 million on a movie, you have to save the world,” explains Lindelof. “And when you start there, and basically say, I have to construct a MacGuffin based on if they shut off this, or they close this portal, or they deactivate this bomb, or they come up with this cure, it will save the world — you are very limited in terms of how you execute that.”
Godzilla isn’t so much limited as crushed underfoot by “story gravity”. As Paul MacInnes puts it: “The story has been told so many times that you can call it with your eyes closed. America is living happily, America is in peril, America confidently thinks it can solve its problem with guns, America can’t, America panics, America is saved by a single bloke.”
Nobody wants a small Godzilla, and I’m definitely not advocating that, but I do think we should demand a Godzilla that has something to say. Recent science fiction films have dealt, to varying degrees of success, with apartheid (District 9), the 9/11 attacks (Cloverfield), the Iraq War (War of the Worlds), the Israel Palestine conflict (Elysium), and America’s border politics (Edwards’ previous film Monsters), but this new Godzilla isn’t about much at all.
I’m by no means saying that action cinema is duty bound to provide social commentary, and I recognise that some films just aren’t well placed to do so. I definitely didn’t need Captain America: The Winter Soldier to explain to me that “the 21st century is a digital book” for example, and I think I sicked up in my mouth a bit afterwards. It’s disappointing though, to see Edwards, a director who proved with Monsters that he has things to say and can do so subtly, take on such a storied and historically significant franchise, only to deliver a film so bereft of subtext.