Godzilla: The Biggest Blockbuster

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.