Godzilla, disaster porn, and our appetite for destruction


You ever watch a toddler boy with a table full of blocks? He’ll build, he’ll create. He’ll imagine things and marvel at what he can build.

Then he’ll destroy the entire thing while roaring like some sort of monster. Because we, intrinsically as human beings and particularly as males, have a fascination with destruction. Not necessarily being the one to destroy things. This is a big ol’ key part. Not being the destroyer, but the destruction that occurs is fascinating.

That dynamic? That’s why “Godzilla” made $93 million at the box office in its opening weekend. It’s actually not about chaos, drama, destruction, and event so life-altering that everything else becomes meaningless. It’s about making existence visceral and real, through the hypothetical of a giant lizard rampaging through your life.

(HEADS UP, WE’RE GOING DOWN, DOWN, TO SPOILER TOWN. IF YA’ AIN’T SEEN IT, DON’T READ IT.)

This version of “Godzilla” was so much better than the 1998 version, which quite literally ruined my week when it came out, that I have essentially come to a peaceful state about its many shortcomings. The unnecessary focus on the two monsters that no one cares about and aren’t truly that frightening, the way the film both honored the original Toho films and still left a gigantic flaming, puss-oozing plot hole by basically saying “Why does Godzilla awaken to fight these giant monsters? BECAUSE HE DOES!” (We’ll get back to this in a minute, though.) The fact that Aaron Taylor Johnson does not come across as a conflicted badass but a whiny lost child, the lack of significant screen time for Bryan Cranston or Juliette Binoche, or MOTHER OF GOD, the final TV screen that shows “Godzilla, King of Heroes” or whatever crap as he stomps his way back into the ocean, having probably killed roughly eight to ten thousand people in the course of two hours.

I’ve made peace with it, because the film did succeed wildly in showcasing what makes disaster films so great.

Disaster flicks were all the rage last summer, and therefore of course also the target of lash, backlash, and backbacklash. If Hollywood has a summer theme, people will dog it. Superheroes are about to get trounced this summer. Just a heads up. But for the last really thirty years, disaster films have occupied a cult following and consistently are the ones to show up on your cable screenings. They have devotees that go far beyond the actual cinematic quality of the movies. The closer to reality the film is, in how it presents itself, not subject matter, the more successful it becomes.

A team of six guys landing on an asteroid, drilling a hole in it, and then setting off an atomic bomb? Get out. But the two films in the late 90′s that showcased such events? Remain buried in the pop cultural consciousness. And yes, the lasting images are of Ben Affleck, Bruce Willis, and Liv Tyler crying over an Aerosmith song, but “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” remain popular because “HOLY SH*T AN ASTEROID JUST WIPED OUT FRANCE/THE EASTERN SEABOARD.” In many ways, I think “Deep Impact” remains more culturally relevant because it didn’t hid behind a “save the world” concept. People don’t go to these movies to see the world saved. They go to these movies to see it destroyed. The scene on the beach with Tea eoni holding her dad as a colossal tidal wave comes crashing in, Elijah Wood and Leelee Sobieski watching the final moments of the wave wiping out half the country, that’s what sticks with you.

That’s what makes “Godzilla” both thrilling and interesting. Watching the monsters battle is fun, but watching people in office buildings gasp as a giant mothbat thing flies by their window is captivating. “Godzilla” is thought of as a monster movie. But it’s not, it never has been. It’s always been a disaster movie, except with lessons to learn.

The 2014 version is a throwback to the Toho series in many ways, the most important of which is the extended back story. The concentration on humans and their relationships was always meant to a. limit costs but b. put the focus on how the monsters’ actions impact people in very real ways. The lessons sought by the film about nature, balance, and our infernal insistence on ignoring the lessons we should take from messing with what we don’t understand, may ring hollow, but it’s he attempt at those lessons that separate Godzilla from, say, “Pacific Rim.”

Let’s talk a little bit about Pacific Rim for a sec. Now, “Pacific Rim” is a monster movie. It’s not a disaster film. For starters, the story picks up years after the creatures first made contact with this dimension. It’s about the battle. The losses have already been sustained. Second, the creatures are massive, on a scale that dwarfs anything in Godzilla. There’s no real scope to “Pacific Rim.” I’d argue this makes the movie more visually captivating and allows it to really focus on the characters more than you get in “Godzilla.” You could even argue that in doing so, “Pacific Rim” manages to avoid becoming what “Godzilla “is ,what “2014″ was, what (the criminally underrated)”Volcano” was: Disaster Porn.

But that disaster porn aspect is exactly what’s so fascinating about “Godzilla” and those like it. Why is it that we have such an attraction to stories about the world going to hell? Because we’re both fascinated and horrified about what that would be like. Anyone that’s actually been in a disaster has no interest in repeating it, in living through it or anything like it. I grew up in Northwest Arkansas. “Twister” was a fun film I’ll watch, but it doesn’t captivate me. I’ve been through tornadoes, they’re only terrifying to me, not fascinating.

But imagining your boring day job interrupted because two gigantic skyscraper-sized creatures are fighting? Having your vacation interrupted because of a massive tidal wave wrought by a giant lizard coming out of the ocean? Having your commute interrupted as said giant lizard climbs out of the ocean and destroys the Golden Gate Bridge? That’s fascinating. It’s an experience wholly beyond the scope of our lives. It’s something bigger, more colossal, and more frightening than any experience we’ve gone through.

And yet, it comes across as fun. Buildings collapsing, cars thrown around like toys, street washed away and then flares showing massive scales.

There’s nothing fun about cancer. Nothing fun about 9/11, because for people it was too real. There is a similar vibe that occurs with the fascination surrounding that day, because it was a day that truly changed the life of every American, but in ways incomprehensible to those that actually lived through it.

All of this to say that “Godzilla” attempts to, and succeeds in parts, of commenting on how small our lives really are, while still inviting us to revel in the chaos and destruction; we’re basically advocating for the monsters to tear apart San Francisco. But we want it because we want to imagine what our day would be like, how important that day and its events would seem, how expense reports, mortgage bills, soccer practice would all pale next to this giant shared experience of having a 90,000 ton lizard with plasma breath demolish half the city.

And that’s as it should be. But to come back to my one, true complaint with the film, the lesson should not be that Godzilla was a hero. He wasn’t. He was a creature that crawled out of the ocean, driven by some bizarre biological system embedded deep in the fabric of the collective DNA of the earth, to kill two other huge creatures no matter the cost and then crawl back in the ocean to chill. The TV graphic that shows him slipping back to sea with the headline “Godzilla, Savior of Our City, King of the Monsters” misses the entire point. The point is that we are not in control, and nothing is coming to save us. That’s bleak, but it’s also true.

Additionally, that graphic misses the fact that GODZILLA KILLS LIKE 8,000 FREAKING PEOPLE IN HIS TWENTY MINUTES ON SCREEN. The cars on the bridge, just trying to get home when he comes stomping across? Dead. The people hiding in the building when Godzilla slams into them or when he tail whips flying MUTO into it? Dead. You’ve got to figure a few people died from injuries caused by him lifting the ships up out of the ocean. He fires plasma/fire/radiation breath into a city! Yes, he hits the monster, but not every time!

Oh, and we’re totally overlooking the fact that he’s a radioactive monster. Thousands of people are getting radiation poisoning! I’m fine with the construct that Godzilla is necessary to restore balance to nature. I’m not OK with this idea that he’s going to stop and wait for the old lady to cross the street before pursuing MUTO.

This is why the “Let them fight” comment was beyond insane. Listen, I’m not in favor of the lackadaisical deployment of nuclear arsenal in an unpredictable situation against creatures that literally eat radiation, but I also like to think that he would say that and then the general would be like “Ha, yeah, OK, no. We’re not doing that. Because that’s stupid.”

Beyond that, however, I still walked away pleased. The film struck the right chord between moral narratives, creature effects, giant killer lizard bad-assery, widespread destruction and chaos, and character development. But the real reason I wound up enjoying and being satisfied by a film I have been excited about for well over two years?

Because “Godzilla” provides a window into a terrifying reality I love to think about, but never want to experience.

Tags: Godzilla Movies