Redemptive Reapings is a new blog where I try to find new angles to appreciate works that have been maligned or badly received. The goal isn't to confront criticism of the works, though that may happen occasionally, but to show new ways to enjoy things you might not have thought of.
For our premiere blog, I'm looking into the 1998 Godzilla movie. If you enjoy it, please support me on Patreon to help keep works like this coming:
By James Wylder
Godzilla is a strange beast, both as a movie and as a creature. A financial success, actually more so than the later American reboot that is now getting a sequel, this movie seemed prime to take over the world before it suddenly didn’t. Its fish-loving monster relegated to the bin of missteps and failures fandoms often throw their unwanted children into. It’s a strange case of a movie doing quite well, and the franchise it was supposed to start simply fizzling out before it began, giving a false memory that the film was always as derided that we now take as gospel. That isn’t to say the movie ever was hailed as brilliant upon its release, but the passage of time hasn’t been kind to it. However, made by some of the world’s least competent conspiracy theorists, the 1998 American Godzilla movie ends up tripping into horrifically accurate future insights about American geopolitical strategies that truly resonate in the post 9/11 world. It’s a movie where it’s oddest decisions make sense when you realize the reason they were put there. It’s an oddity, and it is Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s accidental and unloved masterpiece.
The most important aspect of Godzilla (1998) (hereafter referred to as simply Godzilla, with any other films of the same name referred to with the year of their release) is that it is a movie about conspiracy theories and anti-American violence, full stop. I would write the word “terrorism”, but that’s actually something of a misleading road. While Godzilla is certainly a movie that is dealing with the concept of terrorism on American soil, the road it’s taking to get there is going through the history the movie knows about. Godzilla doesn’t know 9/11 will happen, it doesn’t know we will go to war in Iraq, but it’s a movie by the kind of idiots who believe that Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare (categorically untrue), and therefore it’s by the kind of idiots who are right twice a day like a broken clock because they believe everything. You can see this throughout their films, from the atrocious “Anonymous” to the fantastical and fun “Stargate” (which pulls from the ancient aliens conspiracy theory of human history), and so, should it be so surprising that when given the chance to remake a monster in the image they are most interested in, Devlin and Emmerich create their monster in the shape of conspiracy theories?
It shouldn’t be, but the part that throws any expectations off is which conspiracy theories they choose to look into. Godzilla isn’t reinvented in the shape of a cryptid, or aliens, but with a surprising amount of insight into what Godzilla is about, the team looks to conspiracies about America and France’s colonialism and imperialist intervention into world affairs. Godzilla has a token glance at the creature’s nuclear origin in Godzilla (1954), but the true origin of this Godzilla is not in the atomic bomb, but in American and French foreign policy after World War 2.
It might be hard to believe if the directors had any sense of subtlety, but they do not. Still, I’m a bit more surprised this take on the movie isn’t more common: once you watch it through this lens, it’s nearly impossible to see the intention as anything else.
Godzilla through this angle becomes an amalgam of anti-American violence throughout the last few decades. Godzilla is not the Atomic bomb blasting through a city, leaving survivors with skin stained with radiation scars and horrific burns, but a gigantic threat that is somehow impossible for the world’s most powerful military to catch and defeat.
Throughout the film Godzilla constantly disappears, able to hide in plain sight, even though they are the size of a skyscraper. While this Godzilla does not have the fiery atomic breath (or if it does, it barely uses it) of their Japanese counterpart, it has a different superpower: the ability to fall off the grid of a surveillance network so powerful and complete it was supposed to keep America safe against all outside threats.
The Vietnam parallels are the most blatant: Godzilla was a problem created by the French, which America ends up dealing with consequences of. Indeed, the movie’s biggest flaw is that it burdens France with too much responsibility in the problem, treating America as a doughy-eyed fool who is struggling to deal with being dropped into someone else’s mess . But while this is an a naive take that downplays America’s already massive role in world affairs, it does lead to some of the movie’s most striking critiques. While the French are active in the movie, trying to solve the problems they caused, the American military and politicians are stunningly incompetent, working hard to preserve themselves and their own interests above doing what will actually be the best for the people they are supposed to serve. The military uses brute force against a foe that is agile and hides, and makes a great show visibly to the media, while their foe slips through the cracks over and over again. It’s only when the military decides to listen to the scientists who actually have knowledge of how Godzilla works that they are able to have any success at tracking the creature and following them. The assumption on the part of the military that they can simply understand the creature through their gut feelings rather than through any research is played out throughout the film, from the military’s initial assumption it’s a lost dinosaur (ignoring any responsibility of any government in its creation), and on through to the way that once the military assumes they have killed it, they declare “mission accomplished”, and say they’re done.
That Godzilla isn’t dead, and that it laid a bunch of eggs that will hatch into more Godzillas, is simply ignored because it doesn’t fit the narrative that the American military and politicians in the film want to believe. They want to believe the film is over, but it’s not over. We still have two endings to go.
But before we dive into those endings, let’s note how Godzilla is caught: by feeding them fish. This is an important moment in defining their wants in this film, because the creature is not interested in destroying the city. Indeed, it barely destroys anything. Most of the damage to the city is done by the military in trying to stop the creature, rather than by Godzilla themselves. No, Godzilla in this film is motivated by the desire to survive. It simply wants to have a safe place to live. It wants to have a meal to eat. It wants a place to raise its young. And this terrifies the protagonists of the movie. But yes, the endings.
First, we have the fake-out ending after our heroes get the military to blow up the egg nest in Madison Square Garden, complete with our heroes hugging, swelling music, and a sweeping camera shot. But then Godzilla returns, interrupting the ending and everyone’s assumptions. Killing Godzilla does not kill Godzilla, and has only made them angrier because of the death perpetrated against the baby Godzillas. Of course, they kill Godzilla again, but in the post-credits scene we’re shown that one of the eggs survived, and has hatched into a healthy baby.
Godzilla is not a movie where the heroes triumph, it is a sisyphean movie about meddling in international affairs where the consequences of actions that you may not remember or understand return to crush you. Godzilla is a horribly accurate prophecy, a look into how America and other world powers meddled in other countries’ affairs, screaming at the sky that there would be future consequences. Its loose model was the Vietnam war, but its true mirror ended up being the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
There’s a comforting lie that America planned the 9/11 attacks on itself, a lie that makes no sense when you look into basically any facts about the incidents on September 11th, 2001 (that this sentence might get anyone yelling in the comments is sad in itself), a conspiracy theory which luckily post-dated this movie. Instead, we get a movie made by people who believe everything, and with their broken-clock-twice-a-day correctness realized that maybe the way that western powers had been funding groups to take on their enemies so they wouldn’t have to directly fight them wasn’t a great idea. Godzilla here becomes the Taliban being funded by Ronald Reagan to fight the USSR, but not intentionally. It’s a shadowy prediction of a large problem that ended up having dire consequences. The comforting lie of a 9/11 that America planned gives America power—we were in control the whole time. It’s all part of some larger plan. There is order in the universe, and only the greatest country in the world could have done this! U-S-A!
But the awful truth is in powerlessness, it’s in doing things that are short-sighted for a temporary gain with long term side-effects. It’s the knowledge that the things we dreamed would keep us safe hurt us. Godzilla is both flesh and blood and seemingly mystical, but only because we didn’t take the time to understand it or check up on it after the island it lived on was nuked. We cannot find it despite all our military might, or all our technology, and when we finally manage to it has destroyed buildings, and left us naked and exposed.
Godzilla is an accidental masterpiece. It is a warning we didn’t heed, coated in explosions and jokes. In Godzilla, we find a monster, but that monster is no foreign power, no terrorist, no bad guy. Godzilla is the sins of a government coming back from the past, screaming while we stare baffled at where it came from.
When Godzilla dies at the end of the film, our protagonist Nick Tatopoulos watches the light go out of the creature’s eyes. It’s a strangely moving and uncomfortable moment, because as much as we might want Godzilla to be a monster, all it was trying to do was survive.
Maybe we’ll learn that about other people someday.
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Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.