What elevates a lot of concepts from good to great is how well they can be reinterpreted outside of their original presentation. While we often decry Hollywood remakes of movies that don’t need to be remade, or see them as signs of a movie industry that has run out of ideas, there are those wellsprings that really do reward us by going back to them again and again, each time trying something a little different than before. And Godzilla is the granddaddy of those in the movie world. Introduced in 1954, the “King of Monsters”—a richly deserved title if ever there was one—has appeared dozens of times on the silver screen. And over the years, it has been a colossal metaphor for nuclear weapons, the environment, political conditions, and even humanity itself. In 2014, an American version of it landed that finally seemed to get what Godzilla is all about, and provided a kaiju movie that was trying to say something, rather than just dazzle us with the destruction of cities and a clash between titans. We get that in spades, of course, but we get something more, too.
After an extended prologue, the story takes place in the modern day, some 15 years after an accident at the Janjira Nuclear Power Plant in Japan kills the wife of scientist Joe Brody. Obsessed with discovering the cause of the accident, Joe recruits his son Ford, a Navy EOD specialists, to explore the plant’s quarantine zone for clues. There, they discover a government conspiracy to conceal the existence of massive creatures that have been walking this planet long before human civilization. Chief among them is a reptilian sea monster dubbed Godzilla, which last appeared in the 1950s, when it was accidentally awoken by a deep-sea mining effort. All those nuclear tests in the South Pacific back then were actually an attempt to kill Godzilla, and merely put it back to sleep. Now, other creatures just as large are awakening in the Philippines and the desert outside of Las Vegas, setting up a titanic showdown between these new monsters and Godzilla in San Francisco…that is, if the military doesn’t just nuke the whole city first. As cities crumble and giants clash, Ford works desperately to help tip the battle in Godzilla’s favor while trying to get back to his own family trapped within the monster’s battleground.
You can’t make a Godzilla movie without acknowledging nuclear power. The creature was originally created with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the irradiation of Lucky Dragon 5 still fresh in Japan’s collective memory. And at first, it might seem like a dodge that in this version of Godzilla, the monster is not created or awoken by our nuclear folly, but is actually temporarily sedated by it. Are we really going to get a Godzilla movie that somehow praises nuclear power? Thankfully, no. Our nuclear technology very much gives rise to a pair of insectoid MUTOs— Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms—and the more we try to deal with them with nuclear weapons, the stronger the damned monsters become. This is a kaiju movie where the more humans try to solve the problem, the worse they make everything. Our best bet is to simply let Godzilla take care of business, and not because Godzilla is some kind of hero, but because Godzilla is a predator, these MUTOs are its prey, and we must acknowledge just how much higher the planet’s food chain extends beyond humanity.
As the story continues, we begin to see that the typical pattern of a kaiju movie, with spectacular monster scenes in between lots of interludes of humans running around and talking about the problem because nobody can afford to put monsters on display for the whole running time. But what matters is how that human screen time is used. Of course, we get a lot of planning by the military and scientists to understand the severity of their problem, and the various plans the military has to intervene. But the more the experts discuss the Godzilla situation, the more we come to understand that this is not a problem created by human hands. This is something that predates humanity, and simply exists within a different context than anything we can create, end or modify. When Godzilla and the MUTOs trash a human city, they’re not doing it to exact vengeance upon humanity. Our cities have simply gotten in their way, much like we might accidentally flatten an anthill underfoot while walking through the park. When we bring our nukes to bear, the drama isn’t if they’ll work, but whether we can turn them off in time. Seldom have we seen a kaiju movie where its human cast matters less, and where the story is made stronger for it. Throughout Godzilla, we get an acute object lesson that our notion that we are the masters of this world are dangerously inaccurate, and that we are ultimately at the mercy of powers we cannot fully understand or contain. We are wily enough to invite our doom, but not enough to save ourselves from it. But even then, Godzilla will awaken someday whether we disturb him or not. And the results will still be the same.
The moment of truth comes after the climactic showdown between Godzilla and the MUTOs in San Francisco, as they brawl and level entire city blocks. For much of the 2-v-1 battle, Godzilla is outmatched until Ford tips the balance just barely by distracting the MUTOs long enough for Godzilla to catch a second wind and end things conclusively. But then the giant falls, and we wonder: is he dead? Of course not. He rises again, roars victoriously at the sky and returns to the ocean, and the smartest thing anybody does all move is get the hell out of his way. This is Godzilla’s world. We’re just living in it.