PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Getting Down, Deep Down, with 'Godzilla'

Godzilla takes us "down there". Down there in corporate cover-ups, down there in human greed and fear, down there in immorality and militaristic overreaching.


Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Wantanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston, Richard T. Jones
Rated: PG-13
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2014
US date: 2014-05-16 (General release)
UK date: 2014-05-14 (General release)

"This was not from a natural disaster." So insists nuclear physicist Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), pointing to a set of seismic readings he took 15 years earlier. A cut to his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy lieutenant just this day returned from almost two years' deployment in the Middle East, shows him standing amid the clutter in his father's apartment in Tokyo, forlorn and flummoxed. "What are you doing?" he asks.

In fact, Ford knows just what his father is doing, because he's been doing it since he lost Ford's mother Sandy (Juliette Binoche), also a nuclear researcher, to an accident in the Japanese facility where they both worked. As frustrated as Ford appears, you might feel some empathy for Joe, as just minutes before, at the start of Godzilla, you've seen the moment Ford never did, as Sandy's pale face hovers in a tiny secure door window, knowing she's about to die a horrible radiated death, only asking that Joe look after their boy.

The trauma has shaped Joe's relationship with Ford in ways made invisible by a "15 years later" intertitle, but that you can see instantly here, in the apartment: the son feels angry and abandoned, while the father is overwhelmed by guilt. Tearing up he insists, "I sent her down there, son."

Ford, unencumbered by that image of her face but traumatized in his own way, insists that he, unlike Joe, has moved on; he's married to the perfect Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), with whom he has a perfect little boy (Carson Bolde), in San Francisco. But still, Ford can't begrudge his father all, and so he agrees to help him on one last effort to understand what happened "down there".

As you know because you're watching a Godzilla movie, "down there" in the deserted facility is also "down there" in many other senses: down there in corporate cover-ups, down there in human greed and fear, down there in immorality and militaristic overreaching -- all hinted at in the movie's evocative opening credits sequence, offering up footage of vintage submarines, sea monsters, and nuclear explosions. You also know, long before Joe and Ford might guess, that this mix of material and metaphor will find form in creatures that emerge from down there, the humungous Godzilla (350 feet tall) and also a couple of monsters for him to fight, the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms).

Even as the story of Godzilla is familiar, director Gareth Edwards' version is scaled to the present moment. The MUTOs and Godzilla are both causes and effects of the accident that killed Sandy (see: the enduring specter of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster). Yet they're opposites, as assessed by the in-place expert, Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). Where the MUTOs consume radiation (literally, they chomp on assorted warheads and stored waste containers in Nevada, creating appropriate chaos wherever they go), Godzilla, he says, will deliver balance.

While the US military, incarnated here by the stern Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn), means to shoot the monsters, Serizawa sees the futility of such endeavors. It's easy to share his view, as the film repeatedly shows little human soldiers lined up with weapons that seem to bounce off the hulking forms of the MUTOs, who are decidedly slick and mechanistic, like H.R. GIger's Aliens by way of an equally odious drones technology.

That's not to say it's as easy to share Serizawa's faith in the good fight to be brought by Godzilla, if "good" might be used to describe to the destruction of whole cities in order to save human populations (it's appropriate that so much of the movie's action is rendered in muted tones, long or too-close shots that leave the landscape dark and obscured, thrilling in what you don't see). This Godzilla doesn't provide much in the way of humans who deserve saving, though the reaction shots include the faces of Japanese nuclear facility workers flailing as structures collapse and Caucasian children on vacation in Hawaii, suddenly fleeing from a tidal wave. (That the film also features a couple of preposterous reunion scenes makes clear the practical exploitation of supporting characters: their sentimental emotional arcs as flimsy as they can be.)

While Serizawa and his (underused) assistant Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins) share glances across briefing rooms or scurry into hallways to check on data the military folks won't understand, you understand that his understanding is built on the same myths you've heard, that Godzilla the King of Monsters will come through, with fire breath and eyes that indicate recognition of others, if not precisely a soul or intellect.

It's these eyes, not glimpsed until late in the action, that reveal the film's most compelling notion, a notion that's not so much about the monster as it is about what an action hero might be. For Godzilla's eyes are not revealed to everyone who gazes up at him, surrounded by wreckage and scared of his fire breath or giant stomping feet (not incidentally, the movie's seemingly simplest and best effect). Instead, Godzilla looks at Ford and they share a moment. In this moment, you're reminded that Ford has spent the movie not shooting, not rushing about and jumping and yelling, but instead, defusing. Or more accurately, trying to defuse.

Defusing is his expertise, and again and again, he reminds people of his preferred title, explosive ordnance disposal technician, dedicated to preventing explosions and mayhem. More than once, he offers his services to various commanders, on the ground and in control rooms, who inevitably misgauge time and access to destructive weapons, and so end up putting their soldiers and the populations they mean to protect in one dire situation after another.

Ford's ability and inclination to take bombs apart makes him the opposite of these commanders, the opposite of the military apparatus and, at last, a lot like his father despite all the estrangement and tragedy between them. Where Serizawa has faith in Godzilla to deliver balance, it's Ford who seeks to deliver it himself. And that makes him at once strange and welcome, at the beginning of the explosion movie season to come.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Peter Frampton Asks "Do You Feel Like I Do?" in Rock-Solid Book on Storied Career

British rocker Peter Frampton grew up fast before reaching meteoric heights with Frampton Comes Alive! Now the 70-year-old Grammy-winning artist facing a degenerative muscle condition looks back on his life in his new memoir and this revealing interview.


Bishakh Som's 'Spellbound' Is an Innovative Take on the Graphic Memoir

Bishakh's Som's graphic memoir, Spellbound, serves as a reminder that trans memoirs need not hinge on transition narratives, or at least not on the ones we are used to seeing.


Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.