This has been a big year for religious movies. Not only was there a big-budget adaptation of the story of Noah, but a pair of independent Christian movies have been pulling in impressive box office numbers. The trend continued earlier this month with the release of what I consider to be the most thought-provoking and interesting religious film of this or any recent year. That’s right, the one with the giant nuclear death-monster.
Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” is more than a summer-tentpole American remake. We’ve seen what happens when American filmmakers take the concept of Godzilla and strip-mine it to create a blockbuster popcorn movie. The 1998 “Godzilla” took the name and the idea of a giant beast run amok and eliminated anything else that made the titular monster an enduring concept. Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein haven’t just restored many of those elements – they’ve used them in the service of a film that puts forth a very clear religious theme. If the purpose of religion is to explain mankind’s place in the universe, then the new “Godzilla” is more of a religious film than the overtly pious likes of “God’s Not Dead.” On the surface, “Godzilla” follows a stock monster-movie outline. Human activity awakens a monstrous form of life, which wreaks havoc on civilization. The heroes develop a last-ditch plan to defeat the creatures, culminating in a final showdown between the monsters and humanity. Even though the toll is heavy, mankind survives and the destructive beasts are dispatched with the help of Godzilla. What makes this new version of the story interesting isn’t how it tells that same old plot, but in how it deviates from it while still following the same general beats.
The plot centers on three men – nuclear power plant technician Joe Brody (Brian Cranston), his military son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), and scientist Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). After a nuclear accident in Japan kills his wife, Joe becomes obsessed with exposing the real reason for the disaster, which he believes has been covered up by the Japanese government. Ford has moved on and lives a soldier’s life in San Francisco with his wife and son. Serizawa is part of a secret organization called Monarch that works to research and cover up giant monsters. The so-called “accident” that killed Joe’s wife was caused by the emergence of an enormous insect-like creature that feeds on radiation called “MUTO,” and its awakening draws the attention of the only predator on Earth capable of hunting it down – Godzilla, of course. Joe wants humanity to know and fear the monsters, Serizawa wants to learn from them, and Ford wants to see them destroyed. (It’s probably not an accident that the key family in the movie is named “Brody,” as the Joe-Serizawa-Ford triad mirrors the Brody-Hooper-Quint dynamic in “Jaws,” where one character fears the sea, one seeks to understand it, and the third tries to conquer it.)
Strangely, for a big-studio franchise-starter, “Godzilla” is not an origin story. Previous introductions to the monster have been careful to explain that Godzilla is some kind of prehistoric beast either awakened or mutated by atomic bombs. Although Serizawa’s main purpose in the story is to introduce the other characters to Godzilla, there’s no attempt made to explain where he came from. Serizawa names the monster “Godzilla,” but presents it as a matter of fact, with no explanation of where the name came from. Atomic testing in the Pacific, he says, was just a cover-up for the military’s attempts to kill Godzilla after he was discovered. In this telling of the story, mankind is not responsible for Godzilla – the implication is that Godzilla simply is, has always been, and always will be. This may seem like only a slight deviation from the original movies, but it makes all the difference in the world.
A lot of the early reaction to the film on the Internet has been highly critical of “Godzilla”‘s human drama. Specifically, much of the negative reaction has centered on how little the people of “Godzilla” matter in the end. Joe’s warnings go unheeded until it’s too late, Serizawa’s years of study have produced no almost useful information about Godzilla or the MUTOs, and Ford’s expertise as a bomb disposal technician ultimately means nothing to the military operation to kill the monsters. Yes, it’s true that mankind has absolutely no impact on what happens in “Godzilla.” However, this is not a flaw. It’s central to the movie’s main argument, and the basis for a cosmological thesis that makes Edwards’ “Godzilla” unique not only in the Godzilla series, but also summer blockbusters in general.
The original 1954 “Godzilla” placed the blame for the monster squarely at our own feet, and in doing so created an allegory for nuclear war. Man creates Godzilla by playing God, but defeats the monster the same way. The moral of the story, as in most sci-fi tales of the period, is that the human race is capable of reaching beyond its capacity, but there will be a price to pay.
The Dissolve recently posted an article by David Ehrlich calling the 2014 “Godzilla” “the first post-human blockbuster.” Because what the human characters do in the movie amounts to nothing as far as Godzilla’s concerned, he argues, “Godzilla” is a movie in which the human race doesn’t matter. It’s a disaster movie that reduces the human characters to a base unit used to indicate scale. Ehrlich isn’t wrong about that, but that’s only part of the movie’s message. While the original “Godzilla” warned humanity about the danger of playing God, this new “Godzilla” warns humanity that we only think we’re playing God.
Edwards establishes this right away with overhead shots of workers swarming around a mine like ants. Our insignificance is already clear, before a single giant monster looms in the frame. Serizawa explains that Godzilla and the MUTOs come from a time long before life as we know it existed on Earth, implying that everything the human race has accomplished has occurred between heartbeats for these undying creatures. Wherever the monsters appear, humans and their weapons are little more than annoyances. A naval flotilla is able to keep pace alongside Godzilla as he swims to the mainland most likely because he barely notices them anyway. The MUTOs only concern themselves with finding radioactive food sources and reproducing, and it’s only because they’re trampling us in the process that humanity tries to fight back.
As Ehrlich writes, it’s bold to make a monster movie in which there is no hope of defeating the monsters. Instead, humanity has to stand back and allow Godzilla to “restore the balance of nature,” as Serizawa puts it. Even though Godzilla creates just as much destruction in his wake as the MUTOs, San Francisco cheers for him as he returns to the Pacific. Godzilla becomes an object of worship simply because he leaves after killing the MUTOs. His indifference to the human race is read as benevolence. Godzilla allows us to live, and in that sense he is a god in the oldest sense of the word.
There’s an element of modern spirituality that posits faith as its own victory. The recent surge of movies made for religious audiences put this idea front and center – those who have faith in a higher power are rewarded, those who do not are either punished or given reason to change their minds. But faith by its nature is passive. Having faith means we stand back and believe in something greater than ourselves that will see to it that everything turns out right. Having faith alone does nothing to change the outcome, and “Godzilla” understands this. When Serizawa says, “Let them fight,” he does so in the belief that Godzilla and Godzilla alone will decide mankind’s fate. Humanity holds its breath and watches after the efforts to nuke the monsters fails. When the dust settles, a news channel feels comfortable enough to ask if Godzilla is our “savior.” I believe it’s also significant that Edwards chooses to score the HALO jump into San Francisco with the same music Stanley Kubrick used during the monolith scenes in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The eerie chorus of voices swells as Ford and his compatriots drop through the smoke and they are eye-to-eye with Godzilla for just a moment. The musical connection to Kubrick reinforces the idea that like in “2001,” here mankind is brushing against the divine. Recognizing and accepting that there are more powerful forces than ourselves at work in the universe is a core tenant of practically every religion, and “Godzilla” foregrounds this concept in a way that most religious movies take for granted.
Edwards and Borenstein limit humanity’s victories to a very intimate scale, but again this is not a flaw in the movie’s story but the core of its theme. The heroes of “Godzilla” do nothing to stem the tide of destruction caused by the monsters, but they do demonstrate courage and compassion in helping each other. Ford may believe his father is crazy, but he travels to Tokyo to bail him out of jail anyway, ultimately helping him prove his theories and repairing their strained relationship in the process. Ford also rescues a small boy in Hawaii and puts himself in danger to save the lives of his teammates during the military’s doomed mission. The movie makes it clear that mankind amounts to little on the scale that Godzilla operates, but how we treat each other becomes all the more important in that perspective. Unlike the original, the 2014 “Godzilla” believes there is a limit to what we can accomplish, and beyond that we have to have faith in something bigger – something much, much bigger.
2014 is shaping up to be a big year for movies aimed at religious audiences, but it’s unlikely “Godzilla” will be included among them when the end-of-the-year summaries are written, and that’s too bad. Because, unlike movies like “Heaven Is For Real” and “God’s Not Dead,” which announce proudly in their titles that they are only interested in preaching to the choir by proclaiming that religion still exists, “Godzilla” steps back and tells us why.