; Phantoms and Monsters: Pulse of the Paranormal

Friday, April 18, 2014

Godzilla: Disaster Movies as Collective Catharsis

It was reported that upon its release in 1954, “Gojira” (“Godzilla”) was met by Japanese audiences with stern, somber silence, broken only by sporadic weeping. Critics consider the film a classic, but a casual audience, if shown the original today, would likely snicker at its cheesy special-effects and overall B-movie vibe. But it possessed a distinct resonance for a nation whose memories of the devastation wrought by nuclear assault were less than ten years old.

Just over a decade after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the Godzilla franchise is being rebooted for American audiences. The new film, with the same eponymous title, directed by Gareth Edwards, is set to release on May 16, 2014, and is the second Godzilla production to be fully filmed by an American studio, the first having been released in 1998.

Leading up to the film’s debut, it’s useful to reconsider why audiences choose to vicariously live out past traumas and possible doomsday scenarios on the big screen. What purposes do movie monsters, both seen and unseen, serve to help us cope with anxiety, to grapple with questions bigger and more complex than we are prepared to consciously handle?

“Gojira,” Science as a Destructive Force

It’s hardly surprising that the early Godzilla films were both antinuclear and anti-war. They depicted scenes already familiar to Japanese audiences: explosions, dead bodies, hordes of refugees, all images reminiscent of the final days of the Second World War. The monster itself symbolizes science and industry run amok, its every footstep and tail-swipe laying waste to a fragile civilization. What audiences might not have been able to grasp intellectually about the monolithic power of these combined forces, they were able to understand intuitively in the looming menace of the terrifying Godzilla.

Disaster Movies and the Threat of Terrorism post-9/11

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a raft of films were released depicting the end of the world. From 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow to Spielberg’s War of the Worlds in 2005 to Cloverfield, released in 2008 -- all these films deal with an unseen, unknowable force threatening the existence of humankind. No doubt this plot device was used in many films before 2001, but the frequency following the attacks is striking.

In this regard, it’s instructive to review the Godzilla catalogue for parallels across the franchise -- though many of the Godzilla films are no longer streamable on Netflix, you can still find the 1998 film through DirectTV’s website.The prevalence of this theme post 9/11 is understandable given the nature of international terrorism, where the enemy is everywhere and nowhere at once. These films make this ominous threat palpable to audiences, and give them a safe, controlled environment to explore the tensions 9/11 brought about.

Why Do We Need Another Godzilla?

But what about the present moment calls for another Godzilla movie? What collective anxieties are we dealing with as a nation that could be exorcised via another disaster movie, especially one with a plot already familiar to most movie-goers? My guess is that not much has changed since the original Japanese version was released, the only difference being that the stakes have gotten higher.

Globe-spanning crises characterize our age, which is one involving increasingly interconnected complex systems vulnerable to innumerable forms of sabotage. All this brought about by advances in science and industry, the alliance of which gave Gojira its most enduring theme, whose relevance is even more immediate today.

Author Bio: Elizabeth Eckhart is a film and entertainment writer for DirectTelevisionSpecials.org. She lives and works in Chicago. You can find Elizabeth on Twitter at @elizeckhart

The Godzilla Collection

King Kong vs. Godzilla [Blu-ray]


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