New Godzilla movie makes a mess of environmental ethics

Once an allegory for the atomic bomb, the big lizard has come to represent climate change.


In a 1936 essay on Beowulf, J.R.R. Tolkien argued that monsters ought to be taken seriously. At the time, scholarly opinion regarded the Old English epic as historically interesting but artistically weakened by its use of supernatural creatures. But Tolkien saw the poem’s artistic and symbolic power as inseparable from the monsters — Grendel and the dragon — that anchor its plot. While today’s critics tend to be less stodgy in their thinking, Tolkien’s dictum cuts both ways. If critics must treat monsters with respect, then artists should use those monsters well, attentive to what they mean.

In this regard, the newest Godzilla movie — Godzilla: King of the Monsters, a $200 million mess that came out last week — badly mistreats its scaly protagonist.

Godzilla faces off with Ghidorah, a three-headed dragon that is awakened to "restore the balance" on Earth that humans have tipped.
Warner Bros. Pictures

The original 1954 Japanese film, released less than a decade after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, presented Godzilla as an allegory of atomic destruction. Awakened and empowered by American military nuclear testing, the monster and the destruction it brings are symbolic expressions of human hubris, of technological mastery without wisdom. In Warner Bros. Studios’ most recent reboot, Godzilla and a number of other “titans” represent something like the existential threat posed by climate change. We humans are an “infection,” causing our own extinction while destroying the planet, and these prehistoric critters, hiding in remote spots around the world, are the planet’s mechanism for restoring balance, a phrase the film tosses around but fails to explain. It appears to mean that the monsters are humanity’s comeuppance, and that disruption and damage are necessary to force us to mend our relationship to the natural world. This may seem a timely update to the Godzilla tale, but the movie’s use of monsters-as-metaphor-for-ecological-disaster is, at best, confused. At worst, it’s flat-out irresponsible.

It would waste my time and yours to explain why some of these titans are malevolent and others are not. Just know that Godzilla, while a still threat to humans, spends the film battling the more evil monsters, notably a three-headed dragon called Ghidorah, who seems intent on destroying the Eastern Seaboard. In one of the film’s few highpoints, Godzilla is joined by Mothra, a benevolent bug with beautiful, bioluminescent wings, whose appearance — which owes much to the Toho Studios original — undergoes several satisfying metamorphoses.

No longer a symbol of technological vanity, Godzilla is humanity’s savior. He fights our monsters for us. In terms of the climate allegory, this framing seems negligent, absolving humanity of its collective crime. It’s an abdication of responsibility. We caused the crisis and cannot handle it, but don’t worry: The big guy will fix things. Both our capacity to act and need to do so are tossed aside. In one scene, a scientist played by Ken Watanabe is asked whether he intends to make Godzilla humanity’s pet. No, he replies, “We would be his.”

Some characters do take responsibility for humanity’s culpability in ruining the planet — a sneering bunch of eco-terrorists, the film’s villains, who awaken Godzilla’s nemesis, the three-headed dragon. They reason that over-population, resource exploitation and pollution are destroying the Earth, and modern technological society must be destroyed to save it. It’s doubtful that the film intentionally wandered into environmental ethics, but this stance has a concrete home in various ecological philosophies, including aspects of deep ecology and eco-feminism.

The film’s protagonists, a mix of government scientists and U.S. military figures, speak in similarly simplistic terms about restoring nature’s “balance” but do nothing to bring this about. The film doesn’t acknowledge — perhaps never realizes — that its heroes and villains employ the same logic, with the bad guys coming off as far more coherent. If technology is leading us to ruin, and destroying the current order is necessary to avert apocalypse, then overthrow becomes the right response. You might not approve of the violence of the response, but the revolutionaries’ premises are hard to refute. The film gives no nuance to the eco-terrorists, but set against the sentimental nonsense spouted by its savior-dependent protagonists, viewers could be forgiven for siding with them.

Look, I don’t ask that all movies engage in social commentary — and Godzilla has its entertaining moments — but when a movie does so, it ought to be better than this. From the White Walkers in Game of Thrones to the rise of climate fiction or “cli-fi,” apocalyptic visions of ecological collapse abound in popular culture, in large part because they are increasingly easy to imagine. The disaster is already here. The infernos that burned through Paradise, California, last year horrify more than any fantasy could. In such desperate conditions, some will crave a savior, whether political or technological. Others will be driven to violent extremes. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Godzilla: King of the Monsters is blind to these dynamics in itself. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster, after all, and those are designed to give people what they want. As a society, we have yet to truly reckon with the current crisis, the terrors to come, or our own complicity. The old Toho Godzilla movies had it right: We brought this on ourselves.

Nick Bowlin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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