Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In the Shadow of Godzilla

The human characters in Gareth Edwards' masterful interpretation of Godzilla are small, frightened creatures who barely make a difference in the film's outcome - and that's as it should be. When faced with a natural catastrophe of this nature, we are as ants before a brushfire; this movie is all about the monsters, who show more personality than the people. 

Some might see this as a weakness, but I wonder if Edwards' made an intentional choice here - and even if he didn't, it works in the context of this film. 

It turns out that our experiments with nuclear energy have awakened Goliaths millions of years old, alpha predators of immense power. Two such awakened creatures will soon mate and doom the world. Another, Godzilla, is a counter-acting force of nature, a thing of balance. 

The humans in this film behave realistically and with intelligence and valour. Their efforts simply don't matter - except, perhaps, at one juncture. That single act raises the possibility that people can have an impact if they make the right choice at the right time. But for the most part, all the guns and planes and boats and science in the world are as useless as stone knives would be against threats of this magnitude.

Edwards uses the by now ho-hum fear of nuclear apocalypse as a lens through which to grapple with today's existential horrors. The giant beasts cause tsunamis that wreak utter havoc, just as the rising oceans are likely to do in decades hence. They also threaten the end of technology, taking away the tools we've used to dominate and perhaps cripple the planet. 

Godzilla and the two other titans he faces represent the two ways in which we fear the world might react to our stewardship: with obliterating wrath or harsh but compassionate correction. 

The film makes it clear that had humans done nothing at all, the outcome of the film would have been the same as with our hapless intervention. (With perhaps - and only perhaps - the one exception I mention above.) It is a film that reflects our current anxieties. We're not worried about nuclear apocalypse so much any more (although we should be), but we do worry about being diminished, losing control. As the world has grown smaller, so, it seems, have we. Compared to the forces around us - economics, governments, nature, a growing understanding of cosmology and evolution - we struggle to find meaning in our lives. And we realize that all our hopes and dreams and aspirations could be swept away at random, as though we mean nothing, the billions of years leading up to and extending beyond our flickering existence so gigantic, so heavy, that we are as singularities, crushed to a point smaller than we can comprehend. 

And yet Godzilla itself, at two moments in the film, regards humans with just enough respect (unless we are merely imagining it) that we wonder if we do matter, just a little, to a universe so vast and cold. 

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