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Godzilla: or, the Clichés Are Having a Ball, Take 2

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Readers of the late (and unquestionably great) Umberto Eco will recognize the subtitle of this blog as an allusion to his classic analysis of Casablanca, “a very mediocre film,” in his opinion, but one that achieves “Homeric” proportions in the sheer quantity of its clichés.  “Two clichés make us laugh,” he remarks, a “hundred clichés move us .  . .  it is a phenomenon worthy of awe.”  And so, by this standard, one might say that Gareth Edward’s version of Godzilla (2014) is pretty awesome.

I came to this film at the direct suggestion of a colleague of mine at CSUN, who is also a member of the Macmillan Community: Eric Dinsmore.  Eric was curious to see what I would say about it, and, as it turns out, there's quite a lot to say, but I will restrict myself to one major angle as a guide to how to approach semiotic analyses of popular movies with obviously indicated “messages.”

220px-Godzilla_%282014%29_poster.jpgSo, I won’t belabor the fact that Godzilla exploits just about every Hollywood cliché in the book, from the handsome (but sensitive) young warrior hero trying to save the world, to his joyous reunion with his beautiful wife and adorable child in the end.  I won’t pursue the film’s allusions to everything from the Roswell conspiracy theories (this time the government is concealing not extraterrestrials but what could only be called “intraterrestrials”), to the apocalyptic images seared into our memories by the 9/11 terror attacks.  I won’t dwell on the fact that the female MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) in the story looks suspiciously like Shelob in The Lord of the Rings, nor that all the MUTOs look like the Alien crossed with a pterodactyl.  Nor will I spend any time on the way that the film exploits the Fukushima nuclear meltdown and the tsunami that caused it.  No, I’ll just concentrate on the movie's obvious, and superficial, theme, because Godzilla is exactly the kind of "movie with a message" that you might want to assign to your students as a popular cultural semiotics topic, and if it is not approached carefully the result could be nothing more than a restatement of what can be found on Wikipedia, or even on the jacket of the DVD. 

First, a quick plot summary.  Though it takes some time for all this to become clear to the audience, the story concerns the discovery of a prehistoric species of subterranean monsters (the MUTOs) who thrive on nuclear radiation.  The dawning of the atomic age has drawn them to the surface to snack on all the nice nuclear goodies that can be found in such facilities as atomic power plants and nuclear waste dumps, and the main action of the film begins with the MUTO's destruction of a Japanese nuclear reactor, which just happens to be under surveillance by a shadowy international research organization called Monarch.  In a not very convincing plot complication, Monarch has also been monitoring a heretofore dormant Godzilla, who has apparently been sleeping under the same reactor, and whose awakening also contributes to the plant's destruction. After trashing the power plant, the MUTOs take off to invade the U.S. mainland (after a catastrophic stopover in Hawaii), and a young U.S. Naval lieutenant, who happens to be the son of the head engineer of the now defunct Japanese reactor, gets caught up in the mess and joins the resistance.  As the U.S. military helplessly attempts (and fails) to stop them, the MUTOs create a nest for hundreds of soon-to-hatch MUTOs (enough to destroy the Solar System, it would seem) in San Francisco.  But in a weird reversal of the tradition, it turns out that Godzilla—who is somehow able to hear and understand the MUTO’s “language” as they communicate with each other (across the Pacific Ocean no less)—decides for reasons of his own (yes, Godzilla is a “he” this time around for some reason that would be worth a separate analysis) that he should pursue the MUTOs and destroy them. Which, in the end, he does, and then swims off into the sunset as the survivors of a devastated San Francisco cheer him on: the Lone Ranger as reptilian monster.  It is true that Godzilla himself does a lot of damage in the course of all this, but hey, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.

Now, the movie goes out of its way to interpret itself for us through the words of a Japanese Monarch scientist, who tries to explain to an American admiral that since human “arrogance” against nature is responsible for the MUTO mess, only nature (in the form of Godzilla) can restore the “balance.”  In case we miss the point, the copy on the DVD jacket says straight out that this “spectacular adventure pits Godzilla, the world’s most famous monster, against malevolent creatures that, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.”  And if that isn’t enough, Wikipedia says the same thing.

So it would be all too easy to write a semiotic analysis of Godzilla arguing simply that the movie’s “meaning” is that nuclear technology (and science too) is bad, and that nature is both good and self-restoring.  For what it's worth, that is the movie's self-conscious "message."  But that isn't really what the movie signifies.

The key to the matter lies in looking not at what a movie says about itself but at what it does.  And this is what Godzilla does: it depicts a symbolic creature of the nuclear age (Godzilla=Nature) destroying other creatures (the MUTOs), who are no less "natural" (and no more nuclear) than he is.  Thus, the film's final image of the joyful reunion of the Naval lieutenant and his family, which Godzilla has made possible, is fundamentally reassuring.  Because the real “message” of the movie is that no matter how much of a mess human beings make of the world, nature itself (the Japanese character in the movie explicitly calls Godzilla a “god”) will fix everything up.  It’s like saying “don’t worry about global warming, because the earth will repair itself before everything gets completely out of hand.”

I mean, for Godzilla’s sake!

If the movie were more honest, the MUTOs would have won—just as On the Beach and The Day After show us the real outcome of total nuclear war. And, Godzilla, as a creation of the nuclear age, would have been on their side.  Making Godzilla the hero (the movie’s creators call him an “antihero,” but he’s a hero all right) is simply wish fulfillment.

But if the movie had done that, it wouldn’t have grossed three quarters of a billion dollars, and that’s the real significance of this thing.  For when doing popular cultural semiotics, one must never lose sight of the fact that popular culture exists to produce profits, and uplifting artifacts produce much higher profits than downers.  An apocalyptic image of Godzilla and the MUTOs teaming up to trash the world (which would been more consistent with the stated "theme" of the movie) would be quite a downer indeed, so Godzilla instead panders to its audience’s desire to see the characters it most identifies with live happily ever after, while reassuring everyone that while humanity has messed up the planet, ultimately benign forces (somehow, somewhere) will take care of everything in the end.

Now that’s science fiction.

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Hi Jack,

Thank you for the "shout out" and your insights! I'm sure I can use your post as a supplement for future instruction on this semiotically interesting movie. Teaching this movie was a bit tricky, for I did receive a handful of papers that were essentially Wiki entries and rehashes of class discussions that pointed out the obvious (and maybe not so obvious) symbols you outline above.

If one does decide to use this movie, let us keep in mind the obvious: the level of our students. My freshman, second-semester students had many "a-ha" when asked to recognize how metaphor is used. They had never heard of the post-9/11 convention now seen in virtually every comic book movie, or knew very little that most monster/fantasy/superhero genre is usually masking some larger theme(s). Understanding what was happening in this movie was a revelation, but getting to the "why" question was the hard part and the start of any real analysis.

We certainly did go there, and we did discuss how the real fantasy is the "hope" experienced by people facing apocalyptic destruction. Revising that mood, if you will, is powerful for students who are becoming more and more removed from 9/11 and whose only exposure to destruction is through the (very much-removed) news coverage of name your war and superhero movies. It's a can of worms, to the say the least.

When I recently saw Batman v. Superman, I made a comment to my students that even Bruce Wayne has his own 9/11 moment which is so painfully obvious that it wrongly (in my opinion) justifies his vendetta against Superman. The scene is simple. Superman and Zod are duking it out and knocking over buildings. Bruce Wayne is racing in his car to get to one of his office buildings, which will soon fall over in 9/11 fashion. Bruce manages to save a young girl (very cliche), but her mother has succumbed to the destruction. The moment he realizes this, he looks up to the sky to see Superman, the elusive culprit of this destruction. The scene is very much similar to the U.S.'s response to 9/11 attacks and its subsequent invasions. Superman is Bruce Wayne's Al Qaeda, a shadowy, elusive figure, but a tangible threat. It's 9/11 exploitation at its worst.

Godzilla is similar, but exploits other real events as you have noted. But I say all this because that has to be part of the discussion with freshman so they can further engage in critical thinking. A few students were really upset by this exploitation, which is interesting because they saw Godzilla before I screened it. Of course they see things differently now.