Time, Ecology, and the Military Gaze in Godzilla

godzilla 1Over the last fifty or so years, Toho’s Godzilla franchise produced staple films such as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! , films that have helped the dominant culture envision the presence of ancient and titanic monsters. Such monsters stand at the threshold between the human and more-than-human world; creatures such as Godzilla or Mothra wreak havoc on Japan, but the creatures themselves are largely indifferent to the goings on of human life.  The recent western appropriation of Godzilla hits many of these same notes: a large prehistoric monster emerges from the depths of the world to lay waste to another creature moving up the food chain. Other than exhibiting up-to-date special effects, there is a more current and pressing concern at work within the imaginative faculties of Godzilla (2014). This film showcases an ambivalence regarding the ways in which the human fathoms its relationship to the nonhuman world. In this post I read Godzilla’s representations of nature, the human, and energy, arguing that the film portrays how the human attempts to contain these large ecological forces within its own system of logic whilst simultaneously exposing the limitations of such a frame.

The plot of Godzilla is fashioned alongside of the later Toho films. Rather than Godzilla himself posing an imminent threat to humanity, the denizen of the deep sea surfaces when another primeval species begins to hatch, mate, and threatens to dethrone Godzilla from his place at the top of the totem pole of earth’s great predators. This new species, appearing more grotesque and resembling insects, feeds off of nuclear energy as it exists in both waste and active fission rods. Godzilla’s fuel, however, is far less ominous. Dr. Serizwawa, one of the film’s leading scientists who studies and theorizes about these giant creatures, explains to a group of soldiers that Godzilla feeds off of the energy produced by the planet’s core. If we define these two classes of creatures by what sustains them, then it is clear that the vision of the film is that Godzilla is the more “natural” creature, emerging from the depths of the planet to restore balance when something out of nuclear energy runs amuck.

One of the many achievements of the film is the way it handles the relationship between time and knowledge. The plot unfolds on a global scale, showing the interconnectedness of a mining site in the Philippines to a storage facility for nuclear waste out in the Nevada desert.  Additionally, these large-scale ecological battles happen in many places and disturb the boundaries separating different historical contexts. As the locale shifts, the plot of Godzilla is filtered through four different moments in time. The first one is staged by the credits through flashes of what is supposedly leaked military footage of the Godzilla creature emerging from the Pacific Ocean and being attacked with an American hydrogen bomb. Next, Dr. Serizawa and his team discover a live egg of the larger insectoid creatures buried somewhere in the Philippines. Finally, the story lends itself to the narratives of two generations of the Brody family, the first being Joe Brody’s, a scientist at a nuclear power plant in Japan. Then, the film transitions into the story of Ford, Joe’s son, a soldier whose adult life exists parallel to the immediate crisis of the film.

 What is perhaps most useful in thinking about Godzilla in an ecological frame are the ways in which human time is an inadequate focus for identifying or knowing the creature.  Godzilla slips outside of the human’s limitations of time, and he appears first to the viewer in the form of elusive threats. Whether it’s the shockwaves measured by the Richter scale or the silhouette of a monster painted on a bomb, Godzilla is rarely perceived directly. Rather, the viewer pieces together the creature’s identity through analysis. Even when the king monster does appear, he is oftentimes covered with fog or debris, twice being mediated by a newscast on a television screen. Godzilla’s presence is usefully suspended to remind us that to “know” or “perceive” these larger ecological forces, we must also be literate of tsunamis and seismic activity, we must be sensitive to the imprints of material exchanges.  It is never disclosed from which geological era the large creature emerges, but Dr. Serizawa is the closest to articulating the situation to a room full of dismissive soldiers. Looking out to a live feed of Godzilla’s spines slicing through waves, he says that “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around. Let them fight.” Serizawa, like the film, also further complicates the representation of stable time. As much of the critical work surrounding Toho’s Godzilla franchise suggests, these monster films were Japan’s collected specters of World War II. Serizawa shares the same name as the character who deployed the hydrogen bomb in the early Godzilla films. In this new film, however, Serizawa carries his father’s pocket watch, stuck on the time when the bomb was deployed on Hiroshima, 8:15 AM on August 6th, 1945. As the armed forces in the film are quick to resort to nuclear weapons, Serizawa stands in as a historical call for which the army must answer.

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Some of the biggest criticism Godzilla has received is the lack of depth in character development. In the film, characters are more allegorical than fully developed agents. Inasmuch, the film’s major characters are divided up between the roles of soldiers, scientists, and nurses. Ford Brody is a soldier and is the son of two nuclear engineers. The death of Elle, Ford’s mother, is the catalyst igniting what seems to be the human or familial dimension of the plot. However, Ford transcends this familial plot in both timelines as he plays with toy soldiers and eventually becomes a soldier himself. His drive throughout the film is a familial one, but he is oftentimes the first to lace up his combat boots. I argue that by deflating the presence of the human or relying on character tropes and archetypes, the film usefully homogenizes the major ecological forces into three categories: that of the human, that of the larger insects, and that of Godzilla.

As viewers, we occupy the space of the human, adopting in this context what I like to call the “military gaze,” where knowledge about events is both mediated by and contingent upon the functioning capacity of the armed forces. In most giant monster films (even those as recent as Pacific Rim), this gaze is the way human culture attempts to maintain and make sense of these large ecological threats. What’s unique about Godzilla is that this lens is not only inefficient, but it is both irrelevant and self-destructive. The plot of the movie could be summarized by stating that a few monsters fight over the planet while mankind is busy trying to dismantle its own bomb, failing to accomplish as much. Or on a more allegorical level, our commitment to nuclear energy and other hazardous sources of energy sustains our own destruction. Godzilla situates us within a collected consciousness of the human that is militarized and expansive, but ultimately just another hazard in the perseverance of life. The triumph of this film is that it prompts viewers to think about how these three categories overlap in productive ways. What might it mean, then, for Ford and Godzilla to gaze at one another through the fog of California’s destruction? The challenge is not to merely identify with the nonhuman, but to become conscious of the way the nonhuman and the human are intertwined.  A further analysis on this topic might explore further the questions raised by Dr. Serizawa or perhaps attempt to read Godzilla in the context of other films such as Cloverfield and Pacific Rim.

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One thought on “Time, Ecology, and the Military Gaze in Godzilla

  1. Agreed. The people who complain about the lack of focus on 3-dimensional character development are, in my opinion, missing the point. This movie’s about an event, not about people, and I enjoy the fact that it doesn’t make the typical mistake of asking the audience to believe that “as long as these particular human characters survive, everything will be all right.”

    Also, the peripheral presence of Godzilla for most of the film was, again in my opinion, an ingenious move. It made Godzilla seem even more impressive. As the King of the Monsters, he *should* be difficult for humans to see directly and objectively, and while I love the “suitmation” approach in the classic films, this technique really helped Godzilla succeed in making the jump from being just a guy in a rubber suit to something truly awe-inspiring. All in all, I enjoy your analysis of the film and I commend Gareth Edwards for doing such an amazing job in making this film the emotionally fulfilling masterpiece that it is.

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