Let’s talk about science fiction. Again. One of the things I’ve said I love about good science fiction is its way to address things without overtly addressing them. That is, science fiction can often be seen as a sort of allegory, or even to write out things that wouldn’t work otherwise. You can read the short stories in Olivia Butler’s Bloodchild and get a very real sense of alienation and the idea of The Other. Which makes sense, given that she was essentially the only African-American woman writing science fiction in the ‘70s. District 9 deals, rather bluntly, with Apartheid, fitting South African director Neill Blomkamp.
In Star Wars the good guys are under the threat of being obliterated in one fell swoop by the bad guys, courtesy of the Death Star. It seems nondescript, until you remember that Star Wars came out in 1977 — during the Cold War. Impending annihilation was a topical threat: to have the threat realized in space and ultimately destroyed was somewhere between propaganda and wish fulfillment. That the film and its successors are still enjoyable (and somewhat still topical) today is a testament to how science fiction can be timeless, Admiral Motti chiding Vader about the missing data tapes notwithstanding.
Which brings me to God\jira. Not the recent Godzilla (that comes later), the original Japanese 1954 one. I’ve heard it aptly described as ‘psychic national catharsis,’ since it came out only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Gojira is a very real manifestation of the atomic bomb. When he finally makes landfall proper he unrelenting devastates Tokyo. The military tries in vain for much of the sequence, until he’s finally warded off by jets. Afterwards we get several shots of the aftermath, of survivors trying to, well, survive. There are far more of those than you see in a ‘normal’ disaster movie (think 2012); it’s almost as if the director is presenting a case.
The case being the killing of Gojira. The scientist Serizawa, while trying to create a new energy source, accidentally made a superweapon called the Oxygen Destroyer. A subplot of the film is him wrestling with whether to use it. Does Dr. Serizawa want to be remembered for making a superweapon? Is it worth becoming a monster to destroy another? Through it all, director Ishirō Honda is asking the audience a troubling question: If you could have stopped the atomic bombings at the cost of your collective soul, would you? There’s no easy answer, and though they do end up using the Oxygen Destroyer, it’s not without its own bittersweet moments: Serizawa sacrifices himself and the death of Gojira is not without a sense of loss.
It’s befitting, then, that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is topical in its own way. Rather than dealing with nuclear fallout and such, Edwards and team instead looks a little at the folly of humanity and more at the power of nature. The destruction wreaked by the M.U.T.O. is a result of humanity’s mistakes, but what’s striking is that Edwards doesn’t ever condemn the scientists or military; rather, he treats them as people who, well, messed up. Godzilla, instead of an executioner, takes the role of cleaning crew. He’s a force of nature who resets the balance of the world upset by humanity and the M.U.T.O. Though Edwards lacks the punch of Honda, the topicality of it still shines through: nature was here before and it’ll still be here after. The Dr. Serizawa of this film, played by Ken Watanabe, puts it succinctly: “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around.” In Godzilla, just as in his prior Monsters, Gareth Edwards is looking at the sublime: the awful majesty of nature manifested by Godzilla. The pursuit of the sublime is further enhanced by the human angle the film takes; we’re shown the kaiju and the destruction through the eyes of people. We’re powerless compared to them.
Science fiction can be a mirror and a lens. Warren Ellis addressed the growing interconnectivity of the world in Extremis, Gravity looked at what it means to be alive. Gojira and Godzilla both use the idea of an unstoppable monster to look at ideas that would be unfeasible otherwise. After all, this is what science fiction does.