The Godzilla saga began 35 movies ago in a cloud of Japanese panic about the dangerous ramifications of a nuclear-powered age. Now he’s bringing a message fitting for 2019: He’s a rip-roaring, city-smashing, fire-breathing embodiment of the Green New Deal.
We’ve come full circle on the nuclear issue: Nuclear power, in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is a benevolent tool that’s deployed several times to save lives, with minimal side effects. I was particularly amused by the scene in which a submarine gets blasted straight out of the sea and into the air by a nuclear explosion, and after it hits the water again no one aboard does so much as ask for an Advil. “You all right?” asks hero scientist Mark (Kyle Chandler). Everybody’s all right. The ship just happened to be adjacent to the detonation site of a nuclear torpedo, nobody got their hair mussed or anything.
Not that Godzilla: King of the Monsters is asking to be taken seriously, though. To rephrase an observation attributed to Joe Stalin, one death may be a tragedy but hundreds of thousands of deaths are merely a blockbuster. There is no Christopher Nolan–level thematic ambition here, nor does director Michael Dougherty take care to make you feel for the characters the way the director of a Marvel movie would. We’re all here for destruction porn, and that’s it. Dougherty’s team of screenwriters might as well have named their human creations Stock Characters 1 through 8. There is nobody present whom you would be upset to see get flame-broiled by a 165-foot lizard. Even when the dramatic music swells and we’re meant to understand that an impossibly noble sacrifice is being made for the good of humanity, the expected response is to shrug and continue munching popcorn. Sample dialogue:
Dealing with a fearsome three-headed dragon-hydra called Ghidora, the cast wonder, “What about Moe, Larry, and Curly?” Hard to get too worked up about a Three Stooges apocalypse. The movie is so thin that the main human villain barely gets a chance to open his mouth in two hours and eleven minutes.
Nevertheless, these kinds of horror-fantasies often do tell us something about where we are as a culture, whether it’s by chance or design. Godzilla, in this one, is a bit old and cranky, a little soft in the midsection. He speaks only in a roar and is of such questionable fitness that he occasionally requires the defibrillation effect that only a bracing nuclear explosion can provide. The queen of the monsters? That would be Mothra: just-born, feminine, flighty, communicating in high-pitched signals. Both of them do a massive amount of destruction in the name of saving humanity. They’re basically Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. As both those elected representatives are native New Yorkers, I have a feeling they’re going to get a lot of kicks out of seeing their screen equivalents destroying Fenway Park.
King and Queen Monster have crazy allies among the humans. Scientist Mark and Mrs. Scientist Emma (Vera Farmiga), who lost a son in the rampage through San Francisco seen in the previous movie, Godzilla (2014), have a surviving teen daughter (Millie Bobby Brown). In the interests of their child, they have differing answers to the question at hand: How do you solve a problem like Godzilla? Emma is working with an eco-terrorist (Charles Dance) on a contrarian approach: They not only want to let Godzilla wreak havoc, they want to use a sonar device as a group wake-up call to rouse all of the dormant Godzilla-sized monsters hidden all over Earth so that the “Titans,” as they are known, can run wild and kill off a large portion of humanity. That will renew the planet and turn the clock back to a Rousseauian idyll where everyone is more in touch with nature, and man and flying three-headed dragon can snuggle up together in peace and harmony. Mark thinks the above is not such a great idea. How about killing the beasts instead of inviting them over for a glass of Chardonnay?
Emma’s reasoning — “We are the infection,” she says, meaning humanity — is just a slightly revised take on what we hear these days from such concerned citizens as Thanos and the backers of the Green New Deal: Impose extremely harsh medicine right now, or we’re all going to die a bit later. On our present trajectory, humans will destroy the planet, so virtually nothing we do dream up right now in the name of saving us all should be considered too draconian. In reality, the monsters would probably look more like EPA administrators than a volcano-sized pterodactyl or a lightning-belching atomic lizard, but either way, you’re going to be helpless against their terrifying power.