Sunday 18 May 2014

Godzilla's Love Letter to the US Military

Godzilla and I go back. When I were but a nipper in the early 80s, one of my favourite cartoons was this. I used to crouch by the family Betamax and flick the record switch before we left for the Satday morning shopping trip. However, in a confession what may strike a telling blow to my geek creds, I never bothered with the rubber-suited Japanese originals. They just didn't appeal. I did go and see the 1998 Hollywood reboot but it was all very meh. When you can remember the Godzilla toy egg merchandise better than the movie, you know you're dealing with something eminently forgettable. So expectations weren't too high when we went to the multiplex this afternoon to see the latest iteration.

Thankfully, 2014's Godzilla is miles ahead of the late 90s effort. It doesn't have Jamiroquai for a start. Totally mindless, of course. But beautiful mindlessness. As a top drawer blockbuster, it was a tour-de-force of perfect cinematography and special effects. The acting is never allowed to get in the way of the action, as hunt-the-monster gives way to scraps between Godzilla and the baddies. These are the MUTO monsters, giant creatures from the Earth's deep prehistory who consume radioactive materials. Reactors, nuclear warheads, they're cheese straws to these things. The plot, such as it is, involves stopping all three monsters before they lay waste to the USA's West Coast. Only very late in the day do the powers that be realise Godzilla is a good guy - as per the cartoon and original films.

One thing that fascinates about Hollywood is how it plays fast and loose with real tragedy for thrills and spills. The opening scene has a Japanese power station going into meltdown and collapse after a monster-induced earthquake hits. Fukushima much? Then when the beasties run wild in Honolulu, Vegas and San Francisco, collapsing and pulverised skyscrapers fall with the redolence of a certain pair of towers. However, it's long been observed that the profusion of over-the-top explosions in video games and anime is a trauma that's been working its way through Japanese culture since 1945. Have American studios been more willing to trash their cities since that September morning?

Naturally, there are a number of angles Godzilla could be read from. A cautionary tale of tampering with nature. Of the fear of the atom. Or if you want to get a bit religious, our gargantuan saviour is basically Raptor Jesus. Or are the MUTO's global capital run amok, and Godzilla the great scaly leviathan of Keynesian interventionism? There's something to be said for a feminist reading as well. The earthy Godzilla vs the pregnant MUTO and her weird cravings for fissile materials. And then there is the destruction of her brood by the masculine GI hero.

Ah, the army. You see, if Godzilla is anything, it's a $160m love letter to all three branches of the US military. This isn't because they're particularly effective. Just like the Japanese originals, the puny efforts of humans count for naught. MUTO monsters can take bazooka blasts to the face with nary a scratch. Depleted uranium-tipped shells fired point blank do nothing. You might as well launch candy floss. Nor do the military have a handle on the situation. Their plan is to lure the monsters 20 miles north of SanFran to nuke them, but it goes awry at every step. They're as helpless and they are hopeless. Not a great advert for the armed forces, you might think. On the contrary, the film is stuffed with vignettes of military courage. Faceless GIs are offed by the wagonloads. Ships, jets, helicopters, tanks - someone do a tally of the totalled hardware. But time after time, despite certain death, the military puts itself in harm's way. The MUTO monsters can disable electronics with their own EMP blasts, but still jet fighters fly at them. Ordinance is so much a minor irritation, but tanks and infantry interpose and fruitlessly fire away as those jaws chow down on their positions. The military does not stop. The scenes are slightly reminiscent of Spielberg's War of the Worlds. Taking on the baddies, be they radioactive behemoths or Martians, maybe hopeless for heroes, but they'll gladly do it.

You can't buy spin as good as this.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

well, phil, the original version, released in 1954, was all about the use of atomic weapons and the horrific consequences that come from that. in fact, at one point, the script called for godzilla to have a head shaped like a mushroom cloud. but more importantly, it wasn't a film intended for an audience of children. it was shot in black-and-white and employed certain conventions and techniques about the use of light and shadow, and, indeed, a whole mise en scene that was closer to then contemporary film noir. and the way the film ends is actually quite moving and elegiac, since it entails an act of self-sacrifice which is shown on screen, and which, thankfully, was retained in the american version (even though one has to endure all those inserts featuring raymond burr).