Godzilla is our name for the Japanese movie monster Gojira, which seems to mean gorilla-whale. As Americans, we’re duty-bound to improve on this, to finally put this ignoble beginning behind us, and put the god in Godzilla. Hollywood is experimenting with our post-Christian future and their latest offering, Godzilla: King Of The Monsters, shows us all sorts of monster-gods. We don’t much fear and tremble before the Lord of Hosts these days, but we’re still pretty unhappy, so maybe in a way this beast can fix what’s wrong with our souls.
There are many monsters out there, but Godzilla seems special—even if we have to wait for the sequel, where it will fight King Kong, to find out whether we should really start worshiping it. Meanwhile, the monsters are taking over the world. Four different ones emerge just in the course of the movie, and it gradually becomes obvious that they’re more interesting than any of the people onscreen. By the time the joke between politicians and scientists comes, where it turns out we’re pets to monsters, you know exactly what they mean.
One way to think about the popularity of the movie and the fact that critics love it is that it deals with the sublime. Not the beautiful—but the sublime, like a stormy sea, or a jagged mountain, or all the explosions and hails of bullets in some of our more enthusiastic action movies. The cosmic indifference of things more powerful than any we can aspire to is what fascinates us in these days of moral crisis. Onscreen, we can face our feelings of powerlessness and helplessness.
There are a many good actors in the movie, but there’s no point in talking about them because they don’t really matter—because human beings don’t really matter. This is a rare case of a movie that keeps killing its human characters, including in ways that suggest the return of a different style of politics where human sacrifices are necessary to appease fate. One thing you have to say in favor of man-hating gods that require blood for breakfast is that life isn’t boring like it is with us.
This is apparently a big plus and it keeps cropping up in vastly popular stories—the recent Jurassic World movie went in the same direction. Better that monsters should rule the planet, because we have failed. We used to think human beings, the newest thing in creation, were special—were the best thing. The most powerful, too. This movie says, we’re now realizing that the oldest things are in fact the most powerful—you could call that atheistic conservatism. It’s a blockbuster, but it’s horror: it’s saying that human beings don’t matter. Humanity is a big joke, but it’s a punchline nobody laughs at.
At the height of globalization, on the brink of the full transformation of human beings from natural to artificial, the dawn of planetary rule—what we get instead is a fantasy of despair. Nature in its most chaotic aspect, where power and chance are not separated by predictability or any criterion of intelligibility, of reason.
Action movies attract our attention to how endangered we really are. Even in America, we’re still mortal. More, our powers don’t belong to us, but to technology and our institutions. We all know, and sometimes we feel humiliated by knowing, that we’re mostly replaceable. Something more powerful than us would be necessary to deal with our fears. We are naturally tempted to turn to the shape of those fears themselves. Beneath our mandatory niceness, we wonder whether it doesn’t take a monster to deal with a monster.
The movie hedges against the dangerous thoughts that come from this motion from the sublime to horror by involving the military. If there’s one institution in America that we don’t hate or fight over, the military is it. It’s good to know that there are some men among us who aren’t as defenseless, helpless, and fearful as the rest of us, and who tell the truth. Maybe they are not fascinated morbidly by impending destruction. Let them deal with the monster—mostly by obeying it, so to speak. They cannot control Godzilla, but only help it along. The manliest men are nevertheless no match for the greatest powers of which we are aware.
There is a scene in the movie where a dragon-like monster is planted on a volcano in the apocalyptic background, with a rather small-looking and feeble cross in the foreground. If we’re leaving Christianity behind, what is it that we will be joining? One possibility in this chaos would seem to be a death cult. You can tell that the dragon is evil—this is no longer obvious to people who fantasize about overcoming their humanity, to judge by our pop culture where dragons are now cool—because it mind controls other monsters who are stronger than it. The many-headed beast would bring about the end of the world, at least for us, we feel quite sure.
Godzilla is different inasmuch as it reminds us of a dog, or something like it. Its vast powers to the contrary notwithstanding, it’s not particularly interested in destroying humanity, and can even seem to be helpful. It is not something of our making, but it is not actually as terrifying as we now supposed the world beyond our control to be. Perhaps the reason people might be tempted to worship such a monster is that it seems content, endlessly aggressive when provoked, and never the worse for it.
It doesn’t seem to fear death or be troubled by thinking of the future. Godzilla, of course, cannot save our souls, but on the other hand, there’s a suggestion that souls might not be a problem anymore. Bowing before monstrous gods, we could become animals again—we could take our meek place in the world in proper awe. We could stop worrying or thinking about things. Helplessness has advantages hitherto neglected—it would be the end of concerns for ourselves, the end of taking responsibility for our own lives.
The case for worshiping Godzilla, therefore, goes beyond money, although that, of course, is quite persuasive by itself. It is a moral argument about what it is that we fear when we fear death and what it is that we hope to achieve in our ever more artificial lives that make us dependent on technology and institutionalized expertise. Rationality seems alien and desiccating when every part of life is gradually bureaucratized to the point of ceremony. Why not become a monster instead? There’s no more responsibility, but no more hassle.
Godzilla is both the shape of human loneliness and the increasingly violent moral reaction we have to our own incompleteness. We seem mostly done with the fantasies that made us hopeful for quite a long time. We know we’re all replaceable now, including the celebrities we used to worship, and whom we now rather hate. We share our humanity with them and they cannot solve the problems of our hopes and fears. All those desperate hopes we invested in success, dashed, are returning as hatred. Fear arouses anger and a defensive reaction—that is Godzilla. It’s now presented as a future we could never domesticate.
Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation and a contributor to National Review, The Federalist, Law & Liberty, and Modern Age.