Godzilla, King of the Nightmares

Here We Go Again


A new trailer dropped this week for the May 2019 release of Godzilla, King of the Monsters. It appears to do what every good reboot should, keep what works and boot the rest. Of the new stuff, 2019 Rodan  manages to fly like an actual winged creature, not a balsawood glider. I couldn’t see any strings. Mothra, too, appears less like a puppet and more like a liquid butterfly from Sergeant Pepperland. And what was once gold about three-headed King Ghidorah, from what we can see briefly, remains so now. All respect is due to the filmmakers who kept the king canon. The trailer also appears to update, with our own nightmares, the horrifying reality that inspired the original Godzilla (1954).

In 1954, when Ishirō Honda co-wrote and directed the first Godzilla (aka Gojira in Japan), its inspiration was obvious: The atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945. To set a mood of large-scale nightmare, Honda opens on the Toho Studios logo with the sound of Godzilla’s seismic stomping and iconic roar. After several Godzilla attacks, Professor Kamane (Takashi Shimura) realizes that hydrogen bomb testing brought forth a mutated dinosaur shooting a radioactive steel-melting heat ray from its mouth.

Takashi Shimura, it should be noted, that year racked up the greatest one-two punch of any actor in film history–and, yes, I include the year of Brando’s Godfather (1972) and his creepier and creepier Last Tango in Paris (1972). Godzilla arrived in November 1954, a genre-defining franchise debut still with us. Shimura’s other masterpiece came out that April, arguably the greatest war film ever made, also first of its own genre, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954).

Shimura, then 49, occupied a special place in 1950s Japanese cinema. At 49, already gray, he projected a calming, wise, humble, yet resilient on-screen presence. In Seven Samurai, he’s the leader, a veteran strategist and tactician, creating a cohesive fighting unit from seemingly nothing. Takashi plays a similar role in Godzilla, a paleontologist, a wizened elder. He argues that Godzilla cannot be defeated, and so should be studied to learn the secret of its resistance to radioactivity. But this is a nightmare, so, unlike Seven Samurai, nobody listens to him.

Ishirō Honda doesn’t deal in allegory or metaphor in Godzilla. It’s a post-atomic war night terror. “I barely escaped the atomic bomb at Nagasaki and now this,” says a commuter on a train. Survivors of Godzilla attacks get radiation poisoning. Toddlers set off Geiger counters in hospitals. Godzilla sets cities ablaze, a powerful image in a nation whose firebombing was a fresh memory. A new weapon eviscerates Godzilla to his bones, along with anything else alive in Tokyo Bay. We leave Shimura staring forlornly into the ocean, knowing that this Godzilla may be dead, but hydrogen bomb testing will create more. Like any good nightmare, it ends before it gets better. Or as Blue Oyster Cult told us, “History shows again and again/How nature points out the folly of man–Godzilla!”

And how does 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters contemporize what keeps our era up at night? If Honda chose nuclear fire, the new trailer emphasizes “mass extinction” as our nightmare. These kaiju are not the stomping rubber men of Monster Island, but forces of nature: Storm, air, fire, and sea gods. Those of us who just lived with or survived California’s wildfires saw walls of smoke rise up to meet the clouds. Those on coasts where hurricanes and tsunamis have hit also know these elemental terrors first hand.

And that wall of smoke, from the first Godzilla, King of the Monsters trailer, it’s clear they’re also still using 9/11 imagery. It opens with a teen on a rooftop watching as the wall comes toward her, taking us back to Lower Manhattan on 9/11. American movies, and audiences, haven’t shown much interest in reliving 9/11 onscreen. Substantial films, like Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Paul Greengrass’s United 93, and Stephen Daldry’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, won critical praise, but the public that lived through these events stayed home.

That wall of smoke coming towards us, though, it pops up every summer. It’s the nightmare we’ve been having for 17 years. War of the Worlds (2005), The Avengers (2012), Avengers: Infinity War (2018), Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), Man of Steel (2013), Cloverfield (2008), it’s always set in a huge city, with tiny us helpless, and that monstrous cloud engulfing everything in its path. The movie industry gets derided for this. Big dumb Hollywood, why won’t you ever grow up? You’re selling tickets to our trauma, how do you live with yourself? Very profitably, as always.

So what awaits behind that wall of dust? Bin Laden? General Zod? Loki? King Ghidorah? Or something even more sinister?

9/11 was horrible–people jumping from buildings, planes crashing, first responders running in and not out. But on 9/12, and every day since, it’s been an argument on how to manage our “forever war.” Invade? Torture? The NSA? It’s unsettled history.

We never know what’s coming, but we all agree on the nightmare. Ishirō Honda dealt with atomic war again and again until Japan moved on and his kaiju turned into silly rubber giants. This is how we nightmare. We obsess, set our trauma on replay, and keep scaring ourselves until we’re not scared anymore. Some feel solemn Oscar-bait drama is the only respectable way to honor 9/11. And yet, that wall of smoke coming towards is what we keep going back to see. I prefer to think of these films the way Italo Calvino wrote of facing his own unresolved past:

It was as if no one could escape the inexorable stare of Medusa. The only hero able to cut off Medusa’s head is Perseus, who flies with winged sandals; Perseus, who does not turn his gaze upon the face of the Gorgon but only upon her image reflected in his bronze shield. Thus Perseus comes to my aid even at this moment, just as I too am about to be caught in a vise of stone–which happens every time I try to speak about my own past. Better to let my talk be composed of images from mythology.

And so, May 2019, our recurring nightmare, Godzilla, arrives again. Hope we don’t see the strings.


 You May Also Like

Ben Schwartz

Ben Schwartz has written for Billy Crystal, David Letterman, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *