In the new Godzilla film, characters spend a lot of time looking up. The human characters, I mean: Their default pose is to lift their eyes heavenward as they take in the latest towering beast wreaking havoc on the planet. And when they’re not looking up, they’re simply gawking into the distance, absorbing the latest bit of citywide devastation unleashed by Godzilla, Mothra or their fellow creatures. Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a film of destruction in which humanity is very much on the sidelines — helpless bystanders desperately trying to stay out of the way. The movie is a celebration of how futile our species really is. It’s not the only recent Hollywood blockbuster to deemphasize our importance, but it might be the most blatant and definitive.
As our summer extravaganzas get more epic in their scope and stakes, it’s natural that we puny mortals will become less crucial to the stories. Whether it’s Transformers, Pacific Rim, Jurassic World or most every Avengers film, studio spectaculars don’t have much room for ordinary human beings. Giant robots, terrible monsters, evil gods and all-powerful superheroes are masters of the action-movie realm — you and I are just there to watch in awestruck wonder.
But 2014’s Godzilla and this weekend’s sequel take humanity’s impotence to a new level. It’s not a question of whether the human characters are meant to be interesting. (They’re not.) These two films present a bleak reality in which humanity itself probably deserves to be eradicated. People are merely mild nuisances against the sheer destructive force of Godzilla and his buddies. It’s not uncommon to wonder when global warming will destroy the human race, but Godzilla: King of the Monsters isn’t content to wait around for that cataclysmic event. As far as this film is concerned, the end days are here now, and we’re going out with a whimper, not a bang.
Film critic David Ehrlich wrote about this with the 2014 Godzilla, dubbing it the “first post-human blockbuster.” “This is the rare live-action summer blockbuster in which, by design, not a single one of the human characters in the movie has anything resembling a complete emotional arc,” he wrote. He later added, “This is a story about exposing the myopia of the human perspective and then humiliating our inherently egocentric POV. … [B]y the closing credits [of the 2014 film], Godzilla hardly even knows we exist.” The original Godzilla, released in Japan in 1954, was a potent metaphor for the U.S. atomic bombing and Japan’s own nuclear catastrophes, and so the giant lizard became a symbol of environmental carnage and humankind’s deadly ability to destroy itself. The new films also lament humanity’s inability to be good stewards of the planet, but they seem fully resigned to the fact that we’re screwed. Godzilla is the good guy in these movies, but there’s a lingering suspicion that, even if he survives, we probably won’t.
It’s strange to have reached this moment in Hollywood event movies. We’ve been inundated with post-apocalyptic dramas all our lives — society has been fretting about the future since the days of Metropolis and Blade Runner — but there’s usually been some whisper of hope buried within that despair. (Sure, zombies may be ravaging the land but, damn it, they can’t crush the human spirit.) Godzilla: King of the Monsters isn’t so optimistic. There are good humans in the movie — some of them even help Godzilla defeat his mighty foes — but they seem to understand that they’re the supporting players in this narrative. We had our time at the top of the animal kingdom. But in King of the Monsters, it’s clear that time is up.
There can be an escapist thrill to experiencing such a pessimistic worldview. I’ll always remember seeing The Day After Tomorrow in the theater here in L.A. and listening to people cheer when the Capitol Records building got trashed: Hey, we know that place! Yay, down it goes! With such scenes, we get a weird voyeuristic kick out of watching our closely guarded sense of stability get detonated. But there’s not much joy in either Godzilla movie — no sneaky delight in the sight of, say, Fenway Park being demolished. (And I say that as a confirmed Boston-sports hater.) This doesn’t seem like an accident. Both Godzilla director Gareth Edwards and Godzilla: King of the Monsters filmmaker Michael Dougherty give the material a dour, realistic tone, eschewing potential cheesiness so that we get a sense of how terrible a multi-monster attack would be.
That desire for realism might seem goofy for a character who, in the past, was played by guys in rubber suits. But it’s also symptomatic of an age in which human beings are being phased out or manipulated on screen. In the Transformers movies, the Autobots were the real heroes, and nobody went to Jurassic World because of the humans. The recent Marvel movies have worked to de-age its actors — even Martin Scorsese is getting into the act for his upcoming The Irishman — and this summer’s live-action version of The Lion King has spent a considerable amount of money rendering photorealistic talking animals. (And that’s to say nothing of Edwards bringing back deceased actor Peter Cushing in his Godzilla follow-up Rogue One.) As blockbusters increasingly rely on planet- or galaxy-level stakes, the relatively modest pleasures of John Wick’s skillful hand-to-hand combat are being replaced by more and more CG, with flesh-and-blood actors being replaced by digital effects. We’re no longer rooting for humans so much as we’re cheering on pixels.
King of the Monsters extends that trend to its inevitable endpoint. We now live in an era where we’re fearful of self-driving cars and robots replacing us at work — our planned obsolescence seems assured. And in the new Godzilla, none of the film’s scientists or soldiers can do a thing to stop our extinction. The U.S. government drops a super-bomb, imaginatively called the Oxygen Destroyer, to wipe out the beasts, which only succeeds in killing scores of other life. A human sacrifices himself to set off a nuclear device that can awaken Godzilla in order for him to take on the fearsome Monster Zero. A concerned mother (Vera Farmiga) and father (Kyle Chandler) run through the ashes of Boston to find their daughter (Millie Bobby Brown), as if any of that really matters when massive creatures are knocking down skyscrapers while battling for control of Earth. It’s all so pointless, the last pathetic displays of sentiment and nobility from the human race before the monsters take over.
I had a friend in college who, to my mind, too giddily welcomed the prospect of annihilation. He considered himself someone who could withstand a devastated society better than others could — plus, I think he was generally unhappy and wanted the world destroyed. Watching Godzilla: King of the Monsters’ cascading carnage, I didn’t feel giddy — but I didn’t feel sad, either. Mostly, I was glumly accepting of its dim perspective. In plenty of small but persistent ways, life simply feels less and less hopeful. We’re all contending with the “This Is Fine”-ification of everyday existence, where we come to tolerate more and more insanity, frantically normalizing the chaos around us in order to keep going. At this point, mammoth monsters really could just show up and start destroying everything. Whatever, we’d just go tweet about it and move on.
Here are three other takeaways from Godzilla: King of the Monsters…
#1. Stop body-shaming the new Godzilla.
I’m lucky that, in the buildup to a movie’s release, I don’t have to dissect every little thing about it. I don’t have to write about teasers or trailers or posters or anything like that — I can go into the film blissfully free of baggage. But not everybody is like me, and some people can get a bit obsessive.
Take Jeffrey Wells, who runs Hollywood Elsewhere. For months, he has been fixated on Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Specifically, he wonders why the lizard’s so fat.
Back in March, Wells posted about this with the headline “Will You Look At This Fatass?” He wasn’t joking:
“So I have to spell it out? On some level Godzilla: King of the Monsters is self-portraiture. Somebody on the team is projecting about contemporary American culture and how a significant portion of millennials have become huge over the last 10, 15 years. Look at the original 1954 Godzilla — a monster who ate right and worked out.”
Wells wasn’t done there, though. In fact, it’s become a bit of a crusade. On May 27th, in a post titled “Absolutely Final Mention,” he once again pondered why he was the only person concerned about an overweight Godzilla:
“I don’t care if my repeated mentions about Godzilla having become a total fat-ass sound obsessive, but why do I seem to be the only critic-columnist on the planet earth who’s even mentioning this obvious fact? … [N]o one, it seems, wants to even take note of this. Not even in passing. Not even as a joke.
“The reason (and I’m not kidding) is that critics and think-piece writers have sensed that the monster’s expanding belt size is a subliminal gesture of kinship and comfort to the obese community, which of course reps a significant portion of the moviegoing public, and no film writer wants to be accused of fat-shaming. Because in today’s P.C. environment a fat-shamer is indistinguishable from a racist or a homophobe.”
After swearing that was going to be the final time he delved into the matter, though, Wells kept at it. Two days later, he was still on the fat-Godzilla beat, poring over early reviews to see how many critics would bravely mention the fact that the King of the Monsters had a gut. “Only two critics have exhibited cast-iron cojones in this regard,” he informed us, citing reviews in Variety and The New York Times that discuss what Wells refers to as Fatzilla.
Wells’ drumbeat got other critics to notice — including National Review’s Kyle Smith — and I’ll admit that, yes, when I finally saw King of the Monsters, I caught myself thinking, “Yeah, okay, I guess Godzilla is kinda large…” This is a very stupid thing to be thinking while watching a Godzilla movie. Truth is, it’s kinda interesting to have a large, lumbering lizard wrecking shit. He’s like a killer whale — powerful and inevitable. You could probably run away from this Godzilla, but he’s so big and shoots flames that it doesn’t really matter — he’s going to get you anyway.
Also, as a rule, I never make fun of someone’s physical features. Especially if they could just stomp me.
#2. “Let Them Fight” is now canon.
The 2014 Godzilla wasn’t hugely memorable, but in our meme age you don’t even have to see certain movies for a sliver of their content to become culturally ubiquitous. For instance, I’m sure there’s a large percentage of people who don’t know that this came from Godzilla…
That’s Ken Watanabe, playing a scientist who’s part of Project Monarch, the secret organization in charge of tracking large monsters. In case you’ve never seen Godzilla, here’s that GIF in context…
In the five years since the film’s release, “Let Them Fight” has become a popular internet response when two equally gaseous blowhards are fighting about something stupid on Twitter. Like the humans in Godzilla, the rest of us just sit back and watch the two self-appointed mental titans slug it out over social media.
Well, King of the Monsters is aware of that meme and even slyly references it in the new movie. To avoid spoilers, I’ll simply say that another character refers to Watanabe’s character admiringly, mentioning how he always liked it when he said, “Let them fight.” (But that character wasn’t around for the 2014 Godzilla, so how does he know that Watanabe said that?)
Not surprisingly, this in-joke elicited a groan from the audience. Listen, filmmakers: What made “Let Them Fight” cool was that you all didn’t mean for it to become such a big deal. Pointing it out in King of the Monsters is the “How do you do, fellow kids?” of self-aware gags.
#3. Let us take a moment to recall how terrible the theme song to the 1998 ‘Godzilla’ was.
No matter your feelings on the new Godzilla films, it’s a decent bet that you still prefer them to the 1998 Godzilla, which was Roland Emmerich’s follow-up to his blockbuster breakthrough, Independence Day. That Will Smith alien-invasion film was stupid, but at least it was fun (and charmingly stupid). Godzilla was just ridiculous, starring Matthew Broderick as a nerdy scientist taking on the massive lizard. (Also in the cast: Jean Reno, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer.) The movie was a complete dud, but nothing Emmerich did in his Godzilla was more spectacularly atrocious than the theme song that played during the end credits.
Ladies and gentlemen, remember “Come With Me”?
Yup, that’s Puff Daddy (alongside Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page!) rapping badly over the guitar riff from “Kashmir.” The lyrics have nothing to do with Godzilla…
You said to trust you
You’d never hurt me
Now I’m disgusted
Since then adjusted
Certainly you fooled me
Left me hanging
Now shit is boomeranging
Right back at you
This was a period in which Puff could seemingly do no wrong. Riding high off the success of his good friend Notorious B.I.G.’s albums — including the posthumous Life After Death — the label owner and entrepreneur had crafted a No. 1 hit that cynically ripped off the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” for his Biggie tribute “I’ll Be Missing You.” “Come With Me” was equally lazy musically but not nearly as heartfelt. And so, as audiences were preparing to leave the theater after experiencing the awfulness of Godzilla, we were greeted with this dreck.
They even made a music video:
Don’t take my word on how appalling this song is. I’ll let Public Enemy’s Chuck D have the final word: “I totally hate when somebody takes a classic and desecrates it. I like Jimmy Page and P. Diddy, but what they did to ‘Kashmir’ was a debacle. They are giants in their own way — and you can print this — but that was a fucking travesty. When I get involved with a classic, I knock the fucking ceiling out of it or I leave it the fuck alone.”