Godzilla: The Biggest Blockbuster

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.