Godzilla: The Biggest Blockbuster

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.