Monster stories in film are often portrayed as cautionary tales. As metaphors, allegories, and warnings, these entities are meant to be feared – and revered – for what they represent. Born of humanity’s meddling and folly, the most notorious monsters to grace the screens are those born of the cruelest circumstances. While the special effects and plot lines change and improve, the heart of the film is not meant to entertain, but to caution. Few movie monsters are as notable and enduring as the great Japanese kaiju Godzilla – and even fewer monsters embody the consequences of human interference with nature.
Since his debut film in 1954, Godzilla has undergone numerous changes in his appearance, lore, and purpose. Emerging from the ocean off of Japan’s coast to wreak havoc, the giant dinosaur-like creature was empowered by deadly radiation the devastated innocents until he was finally destroyed. The original film was a cautionary tale against nuclear weapons – that even though this Godzilla was destroyed, another could rise in the future. Toho Studios, which has produced the majority of Godzilla and adjacent films over the years, has often rebooted and retconned origin stories and allegories to best fit the political and social climate of the times. 1954’s film symbolized the terrible destruction wrought by the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, capturing the helplessness felt by those who could only witness the fallout. But, as time passes, newer disasters paint the monster in a newer and more ominous light.
In 2018, Toho Studios brought to the screen what is probably the most imaginative and disturbing iteration of the greatest movie monster of all time with Shin Godzilla. Instead of being a hero to humanity that protects civilians from another towering monster, this iteration is an irradiated, unstoppable, constantly mutating creature. Drawing inspiration from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the Tohoku earthquake, the human characters’ too-little-too-late response to Godzilla’s emergence from the ocean shows just how futile it is to resist a force of nature.
A satirical metaphor for politics, Shin Godzilla focuses on government officials’ hands being tied over concerns of civilian casualties, public reputations, and international authority – grinding their response time to a halt while Godzilla rampages through the city. As he continues to change and evolve, growing ever more powerful, Godzilla evokes fear and awe rather than entertainment through his vacant, fish-like eyes and a gaping maw from which his iconic atomic breath spews flames and destruction. It’s a welcome departure from the hokier films that succeeded 1954’s film and truly recaptured the horror of nature’s wrath. The final shot, lingering on the humanoid creatures emerging from his tail in yet another evolution, is an ominous warning that the worse has not yet come.
Godzilla may soon duke it out against King Kong in Legendary’s upcoming Godzilla vs Kong, but Shin Godzilla’s entry into the franchise is a return to proper form.