On the morning of August 30, 2005, the front page of the New York Times featured a photo of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In more than one sense the city was powerless. By the cruel light of a morning after, I gazed upon a civilization disrupted, compromised, battered. In the text below this image, people were fighting out what to do, who was in charge, how to help. But in the still frame that reflected dawn light on concrete and broken glass, I saw only suffering and shock. It felt like a gut punch. I wept.
For those who remember the feelings of that day, it will be startling to see this image recalled in the new 2014 reboot of Godzilla. In the film’s final battle, as military men jump from airplanes onto a foggy and monster-toppled San Francisco, the camera pulls out to show us the city, dark and without electricity, colored in the browns and reds of smoke and sunset, sitting powerless, a broken shell from which nothing could hatch. This moment is one of several in the film that draws on the visual iconography of Katrina’s aftermath. And Katrina is one among several recent disasters (including the 2004 tsunami that devastated Thailand and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster) that the film visually evokes and stylizes.
The image of San Francisco, I said, was startling — if not mournful, at least jarring. But the film did relatively little to encourage this response. It may be that my affective sensors have been wired to feel something at the sight of this citation to tragedy. (And let’s face it: Katrina is the textbook case of a terrible more-than-human circumstance that became a bona fide human-made tragedy.) However, my emotional response felt idiosyncratic, insofar as the scene lacked, say, swelling music or any real narrative pathos. Though the feeling moment in cinematic language is usually the close up, this scene was a pull back, a shot whose wide angle was so extreme that it was impossible to tell which among the falling soldiers was a main character.
I don’t know how to feel about the new Godzilla, and this, I think, may be the film’s point. Over and over, Godzilla shows us loaded images and then dares us to feel anything about them. Like a good monster film, Godzilla abounds in devastation — to lives, to families, to property, to the environment, to reputations, to secrets, to other monsters. Yet given the abundance of devastation, the film rarely pauses for any kind of emotional toll-taking. Godzilla imagines a world in which people live, simultaneously, with both monstrous circumstances and minimal feelings.
To be fair, there are some tears. When Sandy Brody (Juliette Binoche) dies about ten minutes in, through a combination of bad timing and self-sacrifice, we feel something for her loss, though her husband Joe Brody’s (Byran Cranston’s) tears are hard to identify with — this death comes too early in the film for us to know and love these characters as much as they presumably know and love each other. In a much later scene, Elle Brody (Elizabeth Olsen) sheds some tears of relief at a phone call from her missing husband, though the audience for whom he hadn’t been missing (we’d been following his perspective for over an hour) can’t readily share her relief. Meanwhile, at three points in the film, we witness the emergence of various terrors through the eyes of three different children, all of whom display the awesome placidity that one associates less with small, immature humans and more with the kind of Buddhist monks capable of meditating through self-immolation. None of these points of identification give off emotions with which audiences can meaningfully identify.
By far the most acute feelings in Godzilla belongs to the villains. When the parasitical MUTOs (or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) finally meet in a ravaged San Francisco to chomp nuclear warheads and spawn, they encounter one another with a tender nuzzle. Later, when their nest is destroyed, the female displays panic, anguish, and then retributive rage — unmistakable emotions that none of the film’s heroes ever muster very much of. Clear as these emotions are, however, it is once again hard to identify with them, for they come from giant, destructive insect monsters. (And whatever else one thinks of Godzilla, few can dispute the basic premise that San Francisco was a pretty ok place before those monstrous breeders took over.)
Having any emotional reaction to Godzilla would seem to make you a truly vulgar reader of film. By design, the film makes us witness destruction without pathos, terror without fear, death without loss. The script’s tenor is like nothing so much as a teleplay of Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments as adapted by John Updike and watched in an extended-stay hotel room on mute. In a moment-of-truth scene, the film’s chief monsterologist Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) announces “The arrogance of man is thinking that nature is in our control, and not the other way around,” but this sentiment feels absolutely hackneyed. The point isn’t original enough to be deep, but neither is it wrong enough to be campy. The moral center of Godzilla is a numb cliché.
Every generation gets the Godzilla it deserves, and ours gets an emotional deadpan. I’m not sure that the reason we deserve this is because we ourselves are emotionally dead. Instead, the flatlining of the film’s affective registers matter for the ways in which they are paired with the tour-de-brute-force that is Godzilla himself. Godzilla’s actions are definitive, but they work entirely outside the realm of feelings. Indeed, the the film gives no clues as to what Godzilla wants. He hunts without feeding, he destroys without apparent satisfaction, he restores balance without regard for humanity. Godzilla works in mysterious ways.
In the course of the film, one scientist describes him as a god, another as a king. The military general calls Godzilla an alpha predator. The news headlines wonder if he’s a savior. What matters most about these designations is that they are not synonymous. Their accumulation through the course of the film suggests that no one really knows much about Godzilla — or, rather, that what we do know is tainted by our imaginings of power and order. It turns out that what Godzilla means to the people who describe him depends on who they are, not what he is. Our feelings for this creature are projections. Godzilla is our mirror — the smooth and symmetrical distortion of ourselves that evokes feeling but, in the act of reflecting, is itself indifferent.
It makes a canny kind of sense, then, that a 2014 incarnation of the film that bears his name would reprise visual scenes of global environmental catastrophes and dare us to think of them in tragic terms. Godzilla is a force of nature, but Godzilla is a film for the anthropocene — the age when human actions have caused irreversible ecological damage. Tragedies, like feelings, happen at a human scale. But ours is a time when human actions work off the human scale, causing events in our world that require much more strenuous interventions than sympathy and tears. It’s hard to know what to feel, in the face of the catastrophe we have made, or what difference our feelings would make.
Jordan Alexander Stein: Not Always the Theory Guy