A movie review by Zhiwa Woodbury
End-Times Climate Critic
In case you haven’t heard, Godzilla: King of Monsters is a movie about the climate crisis. Like Godzilla himself, the plot emerges from the depths of our collective psyche, demanding our attention. Indeed, if humans acted towards our present climate emergency with the same heightened sense of comic-strip urgency that the characters in Godzilla’s world exhibit towards the titans in the first hour of this movie, we would have already be on the path of climate recovery.
But we don’t, and we aren’t, which is what makes this movie a must-see.
The dialogue in Godzilla is straight out of a comic book, which has the effect of moving the story along frame-by-frame at the same kind of break-neck pacing we remember from devouring those manic comic books as hyper-active children. But just as with the original dubbed version of Godzilla from 1950’s Japan, don’t let the corny storytelling throw you. By suspending our disbelief and entertaining our inner child, we can appreciate what is truly at play in this extravaganza. Godzilla is a truly unique attempt at myth-making in the midst of, if not in direct response to, our collective inability to come to grips with the shared trauma of the climate crisis.
At the level of archetypes, this movie really hums.
As reflected in the Extinction Rebellion movement in Europe, and the Sunrise movement here in the U.S., critical masses are beginning to awaken now to the truly scary breadth and depth of climate chaos and disorder. And yet there still remains a stubborn disconnect between the existential nature of climate emergency and our continuing collective unresponsiveness.
Something is still waiting to emerge from the depths of our oceanic Psyche.
This is the very nature of unacknowledged climate trauma. Underlying this shared trauma is a fundamental problem with the story we have been telling ourselves about ourselves for too long now.
The myth of the modern world is dead.
Whether you think of it as the American Dream, the idea that we are leaving a better world to our children than what our parents left for us, or the myth of ‘progress’ with its endless growth and prosperity; whether you’ve been brainwashed to believe in ‘better living through chemistry’ or even ‘American Exceptionalism’ and all the endless wars it feeds on; indeed, whatever stories we’ve been telling ourselves about ourselves, we now know in our hearts to be false. When a society stops believing in its shared stories, the myth upon which that society is founded dies.
One of the ways of understanding the climate crisis is that we are, as Joseph Campbell put it, living in a time between myths. The old myth roams among us like a brain-munching zombie, and most pretend for the sake of getting along that it will still somehow produce a happy ending, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
The ‘new myth’ emerges half-formed, as yet incapable of providing the new stories we need to sustain ourselves through the global unravelling. We have a hard time even naming the myth that is being born from the ashes of our decadent way of life.
We are, in a word, stuck.
The creators of Godzilla have at least tried to give shape and form to this emerging dream in a way Americans, at least, can definitely relate to, since it is Hollywood’s job after all to name our myths for us. Of course, we’ve already been treated to a steady stream of movies that dwell on the dystopian future we are now actively courting. Godzilla, however, is the first one that credibly tries to weave a mythic tale of trauma and recovery – not just trauma and devastation.
Without spoiling it for you, here is a quick rundown of the mythical archetypes at furious play in this movie:
- Monster Zero, the 3-headed Ghidorah unleashed from the frozen arctic ice, is the terrifying embodiment of our Climate Crisis itself, described in the movie as the only mythical titan that is not part of the natural order, and does not really belong here.
- Godzilla, who is the God archetype which we humans assumed dominion over when we split the atom and created Hell on Earth in the Land of the Rising Sun, a pivotal moment in time captured on Dr. Ishirō Serizawa’s grandfather’s pocket-watch, which the high ranking scientist played by Ken Watanabe carries with him at all times.
- Mothra, the Goddess of Earth archetype who, like the Gnostic Goddess Pistis Sophia, intervene’s on our behalf, symbolized in the movie by the pure white, blinding light of our own true nature that radiates from Mothra’s core.
- Rodan, the fiery Phoenix archetype of new life rising up out of the ashes of death and dying.
A small spoiler alert now. Most of the storytelling in Godzilla is from the human perspective, the story we most like to tell ourselves through movies about overcoming impossible odds. Unfortunately, of course, that becomes an even more necessary story in relation to the climate crisis. But this movie is more interested in telling us the story of how, in the end, we must face our own inner demons if we are going to resolve our trauma.
This message is delivered by Dr. Serizawa, the moral anchor in the Godzilla remakes, to the ever-angry American, Dr. Mark Russell, who lost his son in the rubble of San Francisco the last time Godzilla emerged from the depths of our unconscious. In this new telling, Dr. Russell’s estranged wife willingly opens Pandora’s box to bring all of our inter-related traumas to the surface, hoping that somehow these titans will bring humans to heel and, in the process, restore some semblance of natural order in the world.
That’s not a spoiler – it’s the set-up. But now I’m going to talk about Dr. Serizawa’s pivotal role in resolving our collective trauma, and you may want to see the movie before continuing with this review.
What is fascinating to me about this treatment of the climate crisis is that it recognizes the roots of the crisis in our foolish assumption of dominion over the forces of nature at the end of WWII. Monster Zero’s 3-heads are an obvious reference to Trinity: the successful detonation of the first nuclear bomb in the White Sands Desert, which quickly (and unnecessarily) spawned Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Of course, this is the same trauma that gave rise to Godzilla in the Japanese imagination a decade later. We named the first successful “controlled” chain reaction from splitting the atom after the Roman Catholic understanding of God, and our hubristic president Truman announced to the world that America now controlled “the basic power of the universe.”
He may as well have said “we humans have now become gods.” The War Department labeled their new toy the “cosmic bomb.” Pulitzer prize winning poet and playwright James Agee saw it differently on the back page of Time Magazine, presaging the movie Godzilla itself:
But in the dark depths of their minds and hearts, huge forms moved and silently arrayed themselves: Titans, arranging out of the chaos an age in which victory was already only the shout of a child in the street. With the controlled splitting of the atom, humanity, already profoundly perplexed and disunified, was brought inescapably into a new age in which all thoughts and things were split – and far from controlled… [creating] a bottomless wound in the living conscience of the [human] race.
Godzilla attempts to cauterize that wound in a manner that, while simultaneously hubristic and comically curative, hints at something quite profound. Dr. Serizawa, after taking one final glance at his grandfather’s pocketwatch – frozen in time in the same way trauma is said to create a perpetual present – proceeds to take a nuclear bomb into the depths of the ocean and detonates it in Godzilla’s regenerative tomb (the great lizard had been ostensibly defeated by Monster Zero early in the movie).
Dr. Serizawa, in the language of the hero myth, makes the ultimate sacrifice in an attempt to transmute the terrible power we have unleashed on the Earth into a benevolent force of collective good. It is he, and not Godzilla, who emerges as the hero of our present dilemma.
Of course, only in a comic book world can we redeem ourselves with a nuclear blast. The idea, however, that we need to return to that original trauma by which we subverted the natural world, and perverted human nature, in order to resolve our paralysis in the face climate trauma is the single-most powerful message we have seen from Hollywood so far in response to our existential dilemma.
The Trinity Test that fateful August morning in 1945 marks the beginning of the Anthropocene Era, a new geologic age in which the Earth, for better or worse, is being shaped in our image, beginning with the nuclear fallout from over 2000 detonated bombs, spiced with petrochemicals and plastics, and all overheated with greenhouse gases and the exponential population growth triggered by the baby boom. While only the religious-zealot fans of Armageddon are deluded enough to imagine that nuclear bombs can somehow usher in a golden age, Godzilla is spot-on in asking us to face our inner demons if we want to unlock the vast human potential for good in the world. By pretending it is just “change” or warming weather, we empower Climate Trauma with a nuclear potency, a chain reaction of cascading extinction events and ecological catastrophes.
Before the oceans from which we all emerged become watery graveyards bearing our epitaph, we must find the strength and wisdom to acknowledge our shared climate trauma. Only then can we hope to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of the petrochemical age, and regenerate our world on a path of climate recovery. Only then will our true human nature emerge from the archetypal depths of our troubled Psyche.
After all, we can’t really count on a giant mutant moth to save us from ourselves.