Godzilla: The Biggest Blockbuster

[8 May 2008]

By Mike Ward

Pop Past revists some of the best writing on PopMatters on topics in pop culture history.

This essay is one of 14 published in a special feature section on the auspicious occasion of Godzilla’s 50th birthday.  See more entertaining and illuminating essays on The Beast at “Godzilla at 50”

“Bring ‘em on — I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around.”—Han Solo, Star Wars

In junior high school, my friends and I would sometimes take a break from pulling the wings off insects to speculate about the prowess of fictional superheroes. This speculation usually took the form of debates over who would win in wildly improbable confrontations, spanning genres, decades, and media, and they are the reason why I know that in a fair fight the Terminator would beat Robocop, an Imperial star destroyer would destroy the U.S.S. Enterprise, and Bugs Bunny would outsmart Jerry the mouse.

Of course, in hindsight it’s hard to say what might constitute a “fair fight” for the purposes of such speculation. These characters and machines come from such disparate fictional environments that imagining them ever meeting, let alone fighting, requires quite a liberal flight of fancy. Fine points like this are often lost on 12-year-olds, though, and certainly never stopped us from, say, comparing the combative skills of Rocky Balboa and Bruce Lee until we’d nearly come to blows ourselves.

Fortunately, these childhood debates have given me the critical acumen needed to assert, with the aid of supporting evidence, that Toho Productions’ Godzilla could whip Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla back to the Jazz Age. By “Toho Productions’ Godzilla”, I mean the impossibly formidable Japanese original — the god-on-Earth who absorbs missile explosions as though they were mere bites from horseflies. By “Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla”, I mean the stripped-down, American version of the beast, which is vexed by a taxicab and eventually done in by a mere 12 conventional missiles. I know that in saying this I again invite someone to ask what constitutes a “fair fight” between critters that are the products of studios some 7,000 miles apart. But it turns out that to a grownup this question is far more interesting, anyway.

The first monster was called “Gojira”, an amalgam of the Japanese word for “whale” and the English word “gorilla”. In his translation, Emmerich retains some of the earlier creature’s simian characteristics, but his beast is more of a pure amphibian. Where Gojira dog paddles gracelessly on his unstoppable advance toward Tokyo, Emmerich’s Godzilla is an athletic swimmer who gracefully outmaneuvers torpedoes and tricks a pair of submarines into destroying each other.

The new Godzilla’s spry dexterity resembles the monsters’ tactics in the Alien and Jurassic Park series more than the Toho movies. Gojira didn’t have to worry about maneuvering; he had the luxury of wading casually through Tokyo Bay because everything the military could dish out bounced off him, anyhow. His approach is as inexorable as the Allied Pacific offensive late in the war must have looked to the Japanese” advancing in plain sight, without guile or subterfuge, its primary protection being its assemblage of superior force. Emmerich’s monster, taking after those of Spielberg and Ridley Scott, instead appropriates what’s popularly understood to be the tactics of the Viet Cong. After his initial attack, he hides out in the Hudson until Manhattan is evacuated, then evades detection in the island’s labyrinth of skyscrapers and its cavernous sewers and subway tunnels.

Roland Emmerich knew that to reinvent Godzilla, he would need to look at the way the original series has come to be interpreted. By now we’ve all heard the conventional wisdom that Godzilla personifies Japan’s nuclear-age anxiety and stems directly from the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. Since the United States was the country to drop these bombs, it’s easy to wonder whether an American spin-off of the 1954 Godzilla would insult the Japanese, who might see it as the aggressor appropriating the victim’s catharsis. Emmerich’s response to this looks to stem from a simplistic analogy: as Gojira is to the Japanese defeat in World War II, so Emmerich’s Godzilla is to the American defeat in Vietnam. Like the VC, Emmerich’s Godzilla is no match for the U.S. military in a fair fight — if only he’d come out into the open like a good sport, and let himself get bombed flat.

Hollywood has vituperated like this more than once since the Vietnam war ended. The Sands of Iwo Jima‘s (1949) clear line of scrimmage is muddied in the Vietnam war movie, where the wily VC isn’t afraid to bite, scratch and kick to win. Vietnam war cinema typically gives us an enemy that lurks and hides in jungles, sets up scurrilous booby traps such as mines baited with dolls, and divides and conquers feckless American soldiers with judiciously executed ambushes. Many films ostensibly unrelated to the war still use these tactics: the salivating critters in Aliens (1986), for example, snuff out a cadre of Marines by striking and withdrawing, coming down from above, stalking, reorganizing, interpreting landscapes to best advantage, planning, and waiting — in short, by not fighting fair.

Lost in Emmerich’s rendition is the most compelling theme of the Toho series: the splitting of the atom as an act that transcends national borders once it is committed, as a knowledge that, once learned, can’t be forgotten.

As in the remake, in the original movie humans trigger the nuclear explosions, but the process by which the radiation creates the monster is never revealed. The atomic explosion is nearly a sentient thing, born out of the Manhattan project but obeying a logic and volition beyond the understanding of the physicists behind it. Perfectly intractable to reason and unyielding to any opposing force, Godzilla is finally stopped only by a weapon just as lethal as the bomb, the vaguely defined “Oxygen Destroyer”, which succeeds in vanquishing Godzilla but, like Kurt Vonnegut’s Ice-Nine, could also render the Earth uninhabitable. Its inventor commits suicide at the film’s conclusion to keep the knowledge of the terrible weapon from proliferating.

From the outset, audiences in America have tended to speak of the Japanese monster film series in the same breath as science fiction films made stateside — a confusion prompted, at least in part, by the Raymond Burr voiceover, cut into the original film for its American release to distill its allusions to Hiroshima. This tendency has obscured some key differences between the two traditions. For example: in the American monster movies tactical knowledge is typically the key to humanity’s triumph over the invaders.

In It Came From Outer Space (1953), Invaders From Mars (1953), War of the Worlds (1953), Them! (1954) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956), the bad guys are turned back either when their hiding places are revealed or when it’s discovered that they have some quirky but basically unremarkable weakness. Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’ seemingly invincible spaceships are vulnerable to an anti-magnetic beam weapon that, once invented, takes care of things in short order. H.G. Wells’ Martians, as everyone knows by now, simply forgot to get flu shots before they saddled up.

Toho took a more direct route. Unlike Earth vs. the Flying Saucers’ anti-magnetic beam, which has no effect on anything terrestrial (an enduring American fantasy is that its weapons only kill the guilty), the Oxygen Destroyer is potentially as destructive as the creature against whom it’s directed. In the Godzilla series, technology might save us, but it can never quite redeem itself; or exorcise its own blind violence. Likewise, the first movie’s Godzilla — a product of the A-bomb and so, by extension, a product of technology — knows only wholesale carnage. He refrains from diplomacy and espionage; could care less about conveying messages to humanity; and suffers from no hidden vulnerability to any seemingly harmless contagions. Godzilla is wholly surficial, in his body and in his motivations. His compulsion to destroy is like a glandular anomaly or a substance addiction, articulated beneath the threshold of rational thought. He has no interior.

Humanoid inhabitants of Planet X

See more entertaining and illuminating essays on The Beast at “Godzilla at 50”

When I see a rabbit
crushed by a moving van
I have dreams of maniac computers
miscalculating serious items
pertinent to our lives.
— Jim Carroll, “A Fragment”

In the past 40 years there have been — not counting Emmerich’s version — 23 sequels to the original Godzilla. Initially, Toho was content to pit the monster against various foes, so that in the early days, Godzilla made three more attempts on Japan but was repelled each time: by the previously mentioned Angilas; then by King Kong; then by a giant moth. By the mid-‘60s, audiences had become familiar with this formula. Toho knew variation would be needed to sustain the still-lucrative series. So they reinvented him as a protagonist and in his fifth film, Ghidrah: The Three-Headed Monster (1965), Godzilla defends Tokyo rather than attacking it.

Like the monster of the film’s title, the Godzilla series split off in three directions after Ghidrah. Once Godzilla had been recreated as a good guy, subsequent films could destabilize his allegiance to humanity and then re-establish it to achieve closure. In Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (1968), alien invaders use magnetic waves to control Godzilla’s mind and enlist his aid for their attempted colonization of Earth.] Meanwhile, Toho was creating two other categories of monster films: one aimed at its domestic audience base (primarily Japanese children), and another for export to America, where the films were mainly shown on television. Son of Godzilla (1966) and Godzilla’s Revenge (1969) are flat-out kid’s movies. They revolve around the exploits of Godzilla, Jr. — an apelike critter named Minya who speaks in a Barney-the-Dinosaur style dopey affectation and belches ineffectual radioactive smoke rings.

Aside from the dalliance into children’s fare and the films in which Godzilla’s troubled allegiance with humanity is called into question, Toho also continued to explore the general story form that had supported Ghidrah: The Three-Headed Monster either on his own or with the aid of another monster, Godzilla battles, and ultimately defeats, at least one invading creature bent on the Earth’s conquest or destruction. With Godzilla as a protagonist rather than a menace, these films stopped revolving around nuclear-age anxiety and instead co-opted some of the Cold War-related themes of their American counterparts.

In Destroy All Monsters (1968), Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, and Godzilla on Monster Island (1972), for instance, the monsters are pawns in an alien invasion force. In Godzilla vs. Megalon (1976), the underwater kingdom of Seatopia reluctantly dispatches the insectoid Megalon to destroy humanity after nuclear testing has laid one-third of Seatopia to waste — a nod to movies like The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951), where superior societies call Earthlings to task for their frivolous use of atomic energy. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster (1972) introduces a beast created not by atomic energy but by pollution; this is a common theme in American movies around this time, take Frogs (1972) — with which Smog Monster was double-billed — as well as Squirm! (1976), Humanoids From the Deep (1980) and Prophesy (1979).

Along with the Hiroshima metaphor went the idea that the creatures were completely beyond intelligent control. Not only can technologically advanced civilizations bend the monsters to their will, in at least two of the movies, Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster (1974) and Terror of Mechagodzilla (1978), aliens build a robotic facsimile of the monster from scratch. More recent incarnations, as in 1993’s Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, are forged by human hands, making Godzilla comprehensible, replicable, and banal. No longer an “Other”, a mystery at the limit of knowledge, the monster is now simply one of us.

Nowhere is this more true than in Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, in which Godzilla turns in probably the most accessible performance of his career. In fact, after winning an early scrimmage with Ghidrah on the surface of Planet X, he does a kind of half-victory dance, half soft-shoe routine. In the late-‘60s and ‘70s, people took the once-mighty Godzilla a little less seriously than in the early days, and retaining the illusion of his size had lost some of its importance. So it was okay to have him leap into the air and rub his head like a performer entertaining children (which he was), or a professional wrestler (which he also was). By then, we knew him.

Not so the aliens from Planet X. Godzilla vs. Monster Zero‘s bizarre bad guys repeatedly put the movie’s heroes off with their inveterate strangeness, doing things like assigning the monsters serial numbers instead of naming them, and making decisions based not on individual acts of will but on computations conveyed via a supercomputer with which they were all telepathically linked. Indeed, the antenna-headed denizens of Planet X seemed to have lost touch with reality entirely, assuming instead that their supercomputer’s cogitations could control and alter the natural world that the computer really only observes. They set into action their plan to conquer the Earth and then give status reports phrased not, “Everything is going according to plan,” but, “All computations are normal.”

When the attack goes awry and one of the Planet-Xers tells the Controller (Yoshio Tauchiya) that something is wrong, he demands that it be “corrected.” This is certainly unhelpful in any case, but the Controller’s specific word choice implies that the situation can be righted by fiddling with the way the computer number-crunches, which is like thinking you can change time by moving the hands on a clock. “Fools!” the Controller barks when it becomes clear the attack on Earth is foiled. “The computers are always invincible! Adjust them to normal!”

The tragedy of Planet X is its people’s willingness to abandon their individuality to the mechanistic status quo; an observation all-American astronaut Glen (Nick Adams) makes to his alien girlfriend Namikawa (Kumi Mizumo) in a grand oration when she begs him to ask the Earthlings to surrender:

Look, Namikawa, we’re not robots. What kind of peace would it be if we were controlled by machines? In defense of Earth we’re gonna fight to the last man, baby. Now where’s your conscience, or have you turned that over to your computers too, huh?

All the women on Planet X — but not the men — look identical. Glen learns that Namikawa is a citizen of Planet X when he meets a pair of dead ringers for her on the planet, even though he has left her behind on Earth. When Glen confronts the Controller of Planet X about how creepy this is, the Controller just smuts about like an interplanetary pimp: “I should think that you, Glen, would agree that our girls are attractive.” But by now Glen has become the film’s mouthpiece for the American (or, in this case, Terrestrial) Way: “Beauty is more than skin deep,” he rejoins. “Beauty is also what’s in the heart.”

On the one hand, all of this makes Godzilla vs. Monster Zero seem like a riff on the anti-communist anxiety of Yank Cold-War movies like Invaders From Mars, where, too, the bad guys are drones who’ve been brainwashed by the metaphorical Reds. But Godzilla vs. Monster Zero‘s main twist on the Cold War theme — the fact that the replicants are guided by computer — navigates the film past issues of national (or terrestrial) sovereignty, and into a more epistemological realm. Namikawa has been sold on Glen’s rugged individualism. “With you, I have found a love beyond all computation,” she says, by way of renouncing her society’s oppressive regime. Though Namikawa bungles her assignment to spy on Glen by falling in love, her real crime is to claim that there exists something “beyond all computation.”

Computation is the Planet-Xers’ be-all and end-all. The Controller deals with Namikawa’s transgression by zapping her with a ray that conveniently winks her out of existence. “Actions are controlled by electronic computers, not by human emotions,” he explains. “When that law is violated, the offender is eliminated.” Namikawa is vaporized not so much to punish her as to keep Planet X’s paradigm from being dislodged. The essence of their project is the categorization and digitization of the entire physical world. They create an “exact facsimile” of Glen and Fuji’s rocketship by “recording all the information, to the smallest detail”, but if they happen across some information they can’t assimilate, they aren’t above fudging the rules a bit by zapping it into oblivion.

Their attack on Earth promises to be the coup that brings about their epistemological paradise: “Everything has been computed?” the Controller asks when the attack is launched. “Yes, sir,” comes the answer. “Everything.” But they are foiled and with their failure to conquer Earth comes the fall of their electronic philosopher king, the dashing of their hope that the universe can be fully known, and in this way possessed.

The Beast in 1985

See more entertaining and illuminating essays on The Beast at “Godzilla at 50”

After 1978’s Terror of Mechagodzilla, Godzilla would slumber in Toho’s vaults for seven years before resurfacing, a little slicker in his newly designed rubber suit, for Godzilla 1985. The film’s narrative is structured as a sequel to the original Godzilla: King of the Monsters and avoids mention of all the other films released in the interim. Raymond Burr even reprises his role as Steve Martin, though his full name is never uttered since by then he shared it with a famous comedian.

Thirty years is a long time for the original movie’s intimations to sink in, so that what Godzilla: King of the Monsters merely hints at, Godzilla 1985 says flat out. When it appears eminent that the monster is going to attack Tokyo, American and Soviet ambassadors offer to help by launching nuclear weapons at Japan. The offer is respectfully declined. Nevertheless, a dying Soviet frigate commander triggers a missile launch from an orbiting platform, and we are told that the accidentally fired missile will detonate over Tokyo with the explosive force of “fifty Hiroshimas.” As if that weren’t clear enough, the scientist who ultimately manages to put Godzilla back to sleep likens him to “a living nuclear weapon.”

Get it?

Having survived the original film, Steve Martin is equipped to remind the American military that conventional weaponry doesn’t work against Godzilla. In point of fact, though, it comes pretty close: by shooting off flares, an experimental jet called the “Super-X” keeps tricking the dopey monster into opening his mouth so that the jet can shoot “barium bombs” down his throat. Said bombs knock Godzilla cold, and for once it looks like the army has taken care of things. But unfortunately, when the errant Soviet missile is intercepted and destroyed, its electromagnetic pulse wakes Godzilla up again. He is eventually disposed of in what is, for the Godzilla series, a more “conventional” manner: he is lured into the maw of a volcano by birdcalls. But his initial loss to the Super-X is the first chink in his previously impregnable armor. Godzilla is vulnerable to conventional weapons after all, so long as they are used in conjunction with an appeal to his stupidity.

After the monster’s plunge into the volcanic abyss, Steve Martin goes into voiceover to helpfully interpret the scene’s symbolism for us:

Nature has a way, sometimes, of reminding man of just how small he is. She occasionally throws up the terrible offsprings of our pride and carelessness, to remind us of how puny we really are in the face of a tornado, an earthquake, or a Godzilla.

Maybe in Godzilla’s case, overtly stating the theme is the same as contradicting it. If, in his unknowability, Godzilla stands in for the inexpressible horror of the atomic bomb, then expressing this metaphor outright — he’s a “living nuclear weapon” — robs it of its force. This is why mysterious quantities like the Oxygen Destroyer are no longer needed to defeat him. A volcano is now Godzilla’s equal; which puts him into a known category, along with tornadoes and earthquakes. Godzilla is just another disaster.

Although he is transformed from atomic enigma into the more trivial category of natural phenomenon, it doesn’t take long for Godzilla to start playing Mother Nature to his advantage. In Godzilla vs. Mothra (1992), a meteorite strikes the Earth and plunges its ecosystem into upheaval. Godzilla is given up for dead after being sucked into an underwater volcanic eruption, but he springs out of a subsequent eruption at Mount Fuji none the worse for having passed several days in smoldering lava. Indeed, he makes the trip from the South Pacific to the Japanese mainland by swimming through the 1,500-degree magma. “This is beyond our present knowledge or understanding,” one of the observers at Mount Fuji points out. How true.

The movie opens as the meteorite cruises into the Earth and the National Environment Planning Commission scrambles to assess its impact. “It’s made sea levels rise,” muses one of the NEPC scientists, “creating several large typhoons and severe rainstorms. I’m afraid it looks like we may be headed for doomsday.” As he talks, several computer displays blink past the film screen, illustrating the approach of doomsday via esoteric bar charts and impossibly complex 3-D graph plots. Lest all this pseudo-science baffle the lay-viewer, one of the displays is a map of Antarctica. Even the scientists don’t quite know what to make of all these data. They pepper their comments with qualifications like “I’m afraid that,” “it looks like,” “we may be” — but everyone knows what to make of Antarctica, home of the ozone hole and emblem of our climate’s unpredictable and immeasurable complexity. No one can comprehend these simulations, not even the engineers who create them.

Godzilla understands, though. Despite his walnut-sized brain, he can read currents of molten rock as a sorcerer divines the future from a goat’s entrails. Mount Fuji’s eminent eruption is revealed to him beforehand, and he knows this is his ticket to sweet Tokyo, now as always the object of his irrational lust. “Go on!” goads the CEO of the evil Maratomo Company as the capitol city is smashed to rubble. “Destroy the city! I’ll build it again! You’ll see!”

Just as Godzilla 1985 makes the atomic metaphor literal, Godzilla vs. Mothra makes a plot point of what has been submerged up to now. It’s a narrative convenience but also an irony that underscores Hiroshima’s irrevocable horror: the fact that in the Godzilla series, Tokyo bounces back unscathed from each battering it receives, ready to be decimated anew.

Godzilla gone modern

See more entertaining and illuminating essays on The Beast at “Godzilla at 50”

“Being from Kagoshima, I studied the style of fighting known as jigenryu. This is an attack-and-destroy style. In olden times, while the samurai were over-concerned with beauty and form, jigenryu was only concerned with winning. The Heisei Godzilla style is jigenryu style; it is merciless destruction. Nakajima’s style is always with his hands in the air, but I never do that. My Godzilla is very violent. He is full of rage.” — Kenpachiro Satsuma, in an interview with Fangoria, Issue 173, June 1998

The popular belief is that there is no one inside Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla. That he is an amalgam of digital keyframes, a technological hypnogog, a ghost that a computer might imagine before nodding off to sleep. That is to say, he’s thought to be rendered entirely via computer animation. It’s easy to wonder if this computer animation is what went so terribly wrong with the American Godzilla. In shaking one’s head at its sheer awfulness, it’s easy to be nostalgic for the series’ salad days, when Kenpachiro Satsuma’s personal presence graced the silver screen, his expressive art rendered in the medium of rubber suits and toy helicopters.

Despite this impression, Emmerich and his visual effects supervisor, Volker Engel, actually used a number of techniques to bring their Godzilla to the screen. Along with computer animation, a more experimental process known as “motion capture” was brought to bear in his more performative moments, for example. The effects team also constructed one-sixth-scaled, mechanical dummies for certain scenes, evoking the expensive methods used so notoriously in the 1970s in movies like King Kong (1976). And there was even room for the occasional actor-in-a-suit in brief inserts, particularly when the chunks of debris became so numerous that they outstripped the computer processor’s ability to track them. This time around, though, Emmerich arranged for two suits: one a stunt suit, the other a “hero suit” for use in the climactic Brooklyn bridge scene.

Motion capture is like virtual puppeteering. A performer is fitted with electrodes called “markers” that track his or her movements and map them onto a computer-generated image. Like Harpo Marx doing his doorway-as-a-mirror routine, the computerized Godzilla echoes the performer’s every move. Each on-screen moment is recorded. The resulting footage can then be mapped via blue-screen onto a previously photographed background, or — as computer processors become faster and more sophisticated — onto a moving landscape in real time. The only problem? “Motion capture tends to look too human,” Engel tells us.

It’s as if the aliens from Planet X had assimilated into Hollywood and decided to make a movie. By “recording all the information, to the smallest detail,” Emmerich and Co. could now make Godzilla’s “exact facsimile”. One watches the 1998 Godzilla and thinks, yes, if an enormous lizard took to destroying Manhattan, this is probably what it would look like.

Which is largely why the newest Godzilla is so different from the ones that came before. This Godzilla’s reason-for-being is the verisimilitude of its special effects (“I always look at this as the T-Rex sequence in Jurassic Park as a 90-minute movie,” Engel confessed in an interview). These same special effects, though, put the film at rhetorical odds with the earlier series, whose twin pronouncements — that reality cannot be duplicated, and that we attempt to do so at risk of losing our humanity — implicitly condemn Emmerich’s project as somehow alien and imperial, a vie for conquest.

But Emmerich is not solely to blame for doing injustice to the anti-computer-hubris ethic of the original Godzilla series. Our bold, genome-mapping society now seems less fearful of technohubris than of its likely fate at the hands of elementals. That’s why in Godzilla’s day Hollywood also showed us global destruction by fire (1996’s Independence Day), wind (Twister, released the same year), earth (Starship Troopers, in 1997) and water (Deep Impact the following summer). Except in their composition, these cataclysms are a lot alike: in both Independence Day and Deep Impact a wall of destruction rages through Manhattan’s streets, upending high-rises while onlookers stare in mute terror or scurry ineffectually away like fleas.

Aside from a fascination with the prospect of millennial apocalypse, these movies also have in common the liberal use of synthetic imagery — special effects — to render their spectacular cataclysms. But to what end are the methods of CGI employed? What, exactly, is being imagined? I call these SFX cataclysms “spectacular”, but for the characters in the movies they are anti-spectacular. Those who see Deep Impact‘s tidal wave are generally annihilated by it shortly afterward; a video feed to Buenos Aires goes dead the moment an asteroid slams into the city in Starship Troopers; the flower children who congregate on a high-rise to witness Independence Day‘s other-worldly visitors catch only a brief peek into the alien ship before they’re snuffed out for their enthusiasm.

This is how the movies usually handle apocalypse, and those lesser disasters that evoke or augur it. When the White House goes up in flames in Independence Day, it forebodes the burning of the whole planet, a contraction of our world’s spectrum to include only the color of fire. And who could picture Deep Impact‘s alternative conclusion, in which the six-mile-wide Wolf-Beiderman comet envelops the Earth in two years of darkness and chokes away its life? It is unimaginable. Not just emotionally — the way the bombing of Hiroshima is unimaginable, for the scope of its horror — but also in a more mundane sense, because it takes place in literal darkness and so lies beyond the ability of cinema, a medium of vision and movement, to dramatize.

The movies of a more cynical age often asked us to imagine such cataclysm, anyway. Take Soylent Green‘s (1973) apocalypse, which is if not dark then at least monochromatic, as escalating environmental contamination is made visible through the use of a clay-colored filter, and one presumes an unrevealed conclusion in which details can no longer be made out in this ashen haze. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) conjures its human-less future by ending with a shot inside a human mouth.

Cataclysmic endings require that the visible be suspended in favor of signifiers pointing toward the unseen. Today’s CGI-happy movies would rather just show it. As this causes the sphere of that-which-can-be-made-visible to expand and the sphere of that-which-can-only-be-imagined to contract, the stake of the mass media gradually shifts from the “mythological” to the “hyperreal”. Jean Baudrillard describes this as a shift in which the fantastic and the only imaginable are traded in for the illusory fidelity of the photograph:

It is this fabulous character, the mythical energy of an event or of a narrative, that today seems to be increasingly lost. Behind a performative and demonstrative logic: the obsession with historical fidelity, with a perfect rendering . . . this negative and implacable fidelity to the materiality of the past, to a particular scene of the past or of the present, to the restitution of an absolute simulacrum of the past or the present, which was substituted for all other value — we are all complicitous in this, and this is irreversible. — Simulacra and Simulation

An emerging infatuation with the “perfect rendering” may account for many of the differences between Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Independence Day, between Soylent Green and Deep Impact. In the earlier movies, things sometimes happen in the periphery, without being shown. They can’t be pictured but that doesn’t stop the films from saying that they happened, at least in the frame of the films’ fictional narratives. But in fin-de-siecle Hollywood, generally more concerned with the perfect rendering, no place lay outside the camera’s territory, or, to be more precise, the spaces outside the camera’s territory tended to be effaced in a series of happy endings: at the last minute our heroic astronauts manage to blow up the comet, and our brave troops turn away the bugs. Once again, this is Planet X’s wishful thinking: whatever threatens the paradigm is either ignored or simply winked out of existence.

Evil computers of the Planet X variety also create havoc in the 1991 proto-uberblockbuster Terminator 2, a progenitor of the CGI disaster genre perpetuated with the Emmerich Godzilla, Deep Impact, and the rest. American villainhood finds probably its closest cousin to Toho’s unbeatable 1954 creature in the silver-mercury T-1000, a featureless automaton unstoppable by conventional means. Like its brethren, the T-1000 advances through brute force rather than guile or artistry, and has no inner workings that anyone can discern. It kills without mercy or reflection, jigenryu style. Its intelligence is cool and vast. But it cannot think.

The T-1000’s featurelessness is what the movie uses to describe the incomprehensibility of Skynet, the movie’s faceless and malign master computer. But the T-1000’s spartan design also took care of a more practical problem for the moviemakers in 1991, since it helped mask the limitations that dogged computers of the time in animating the human form. In retrospect, the processors that rendered the T-1000 scarcely seem Skynet-esque in stature, so that like Godzilla, who is at once a great blight and a tiny man in a rubber suit, the T-1000 has its humble side. More than a decade on, it often looks like a posable wooden sketch model, or an animated mannequin.

If Baudrillard is right in saying that Western culture has a fatal weakness for the perfect rendering, then Terminator 2 — as an early sortie in the Hollywood blitz to digitize pretty much everything — is certainly complicit in this. We see this in how the movie treats computers. Schwarzenegger’s Cyberdyne 101 is a benevolent father figure, using its capacity for total understanding to protect and sanctify human life. As when John Connor (Edward Furlong) orders it not to kill and so, in a subsequent gun battle with police, it studiously directs its rapid fire with the precision of a smart bomb. “Human Casualties: Zero,” the 101’s heads-up display reads as he surveys the aftermath. This is a common fantasy these days; that weapons can be wise and can be taught to kill only the guilty. The only way to sustain such a childish illusion is to suppose that everything has been digitized, that everything worth knowing can be quickly recalled to the computerized mind. Hence the frequent shots from the 101’s point of view, which lets us know that he can discern someone’s pulse rate, age, even underwear size, just by looking.

True as far as it goes. But Terminator 2 also warns about the grief that computers can bring on, going as far as to imagine a computer-generated apocalypse. Consider the movie’s fascination with the human form suspended between the heat flash and the blast wave of a nuclear explosion, a vision that haunts Sarah Connor as she foresees the fiery demise Skynet will mete out to humanity in 1997. This is one of Terminator 2‘s many allusions to the forensic research on post-blast Hiroshima, where it was first supposed that the different velocities of light and force meant many victims of an atomic explosion would be turned into hot ash that momentarily retained their human form before the explosion’s winds blew them into the atmosphere. This may or may not happen in real life. No one will ever see it, because any witnesses will be too busy meeting their own ruin.

Skynet is just as explosive in the medium of computer technology as Godzilla is in the technology that split the atom. Explosive to reason and coherence, that is, like an M.C. Escher print translated into a movie premise. In Terminator 2 we learn that Dr. Dyson (Joe Morton), the scientist most responsible for Skynet, is working from the remains of the terminator sent back from 2029 in the first movie. In other words, Skynet was created in the past because it had already been created in the future. Logically it’s absurd, but in the movies, absurdism is often another word for “magic”. It makes perfect sense that Skynet would spring out of a paradox that looks like a cold reboot, just as it makes sense that Godzilla would emerge as an indivisible unity from the splitting of the atom, that most fundamental unit.

The most vital kinship between Godzilla and the Terminator: both are creations that turn against their makers, whereas in the CGI-fests Terminator 2 helped inspire — Deep Impact, Starship Troopers, et al. — the threat falls out of the blue sky on us unsuspecting, guiltless, and generally righteous mortals. The more we control the image, the less we see our role in its creation. Like the Planet Xers, we believe, more and more, only in our own fantasies. And like them too, we seem prepared to keep that faith until the very end.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/godzilla-the-biggest-blockbuster/