For the past few years as I’ve taught my Technology & Global Society class, I’ve done a entire lecture on the importance of science fiction in the development of technological innovation and how humans come to grips with these newfound capabilities. Since humans are in fact defined as social animals, it is our ability to tell stories and use narratives to make sense of the world around us that is one of our central characteristics, and the development and growth of science fiction as a genre since the transformative period of the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions illustrates this perfectly. We use sci-fi, in all of its forms, formats and typologies, to showcase present problems in unique ways (ie: the original Star Trek episodes which dealt, ostensibly, with racism, and the spate of recent movies focusing on income inequality through dystopian futures), as well as to help play out potential future scenarios and alternate timelines, so that we can more or less deal with those problems as they present themselves.
Perhaps the biggest and yet more overlooked example of these dual roles is Gojira, or in the Americanized vernacular, Godzilla. I say biggest because we all know Godzilla, and yet, the form of Godzilla that we know is that of tacky B-movies with men in monster suits fighting other men in monster suits. But I was explaining to my class this year that the original Godzilla, the 1954 version released in Japan before the American recut appeared in 1956, was anything but tacky or enjoyable. Indeed, the original Godzilla was terrifying because he was meant to be something that was still very much in the memory of Japanese people: the awesome and horrific force of the atomic bomb.
When you watch Gojira, the camera lingers on scenes of buildings in ruins, and on shots of ‘flash shadows’ of families burned into the walls behind them by Gojira’s ‘atomic breath.’ Indeed, there is almost no respite for the viewer, as this is presented for minutes on end to a viewership that lived amongst those ruins and for whom the photos of flash shadows from Hiroshima and Nagasaki were burned into their very memories. In the film, humans are powerless before this monster that they in fact created, and only the most unthinkable weapon is capable of destroying him in the end. In this film, Godzilla is not the monster; we are the monster, for we have unleashed a new and unstoppable force upon the world, with no hope of controlling it and the only endpoint for humanity lying in the use of an even greater force that spells the end of all mankind.
It is in this historical context that I believe the 2014 remake of Godzilla to be one of the most important sci-fi and environmental films of recent years. Not because it’s a good film in its own right (movie critics far more qualified than me can speak to that), but because it presents one very clear and inescapable message: that nature doesn’t care about us.
Let me explain. As an environmental sociologist, I often encounter a lot of environmentalists who talk about the need to ‘save the earth’ and protect natural ecosystems from human activities. While eminent ecologists do believe that we now live in a ‘anthropocene’ period in which humans are exerting an outsized effect on the global ecosystem, we humans still, collectively, do not begin to outweigh the combined mass of ants, let alone bacteria, and birds and mammals and other living organisms on the earth, nor are we in any sort of critical juncture of the food chain or ecosystem functions (ie: the famous passage, attributed to Einstein, about the importance of honeybees and the unimportance of humans to the existence of all life on earth). Over billions of years, natural systems have played out an evolutionary game that we are still wrapping our minds around, and that game will continue far after we’ve gone, whether it’s by nuclear annihilation, climate change, resource depletion, etc. Nature, in its might, majesty and apathy, does not care about the existence of any one species, but instead, in as far as it has a ‘direction’ or ‘goal’, cares only about the continuance of the system.
This is where the new Godzilla comes into the picture. Since it’s been out for a few months now, I don’t think I’ll be spoiling anything to say that Godzilla is not fighting humans, but is instead awakened to fight other pre-historic monsters. Godzilla, in the words of the requisite movie scientist (side note: Ken Watanabe was criminally underused in this role and with that dialogue), is an apex predator, and comes out of the ocean to restore the balance by (awesomely) fighting these creatures in the middle of two American cities. Godzilla is considered a target by the US military, which hopes to take him out along with the MUTOs with a nuclear warhead (ignoring the fact that the atomic bomb tests failed to damage him and may have even made him stronger), but during the fights, you realize that Godzilla is not going out of his way to kill humans; if he wanted to, he surely could’ve sunk the carrier battle group that followed him to the American mainland, or laid waste to all of San Francisco with his atomic breath. He does not do that, instead focusing his energy on the creatures, and upon finishing them off, collapses of exhaustion in the middle of the city. The humans on hand think that he is dead, but at the finale of the film, he rises up, unleashes his classic shriek, manuevers around the buildings that remain standing, and swims back out into the ocean.
But one cannot forget that during his fights, Godzilla is almost surely responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. The flood in Honolulu alone as he comes ashore was reminiscent of the tsunamis of years past, and stomping around and crashing into buildings would also have resulted in many people dying. Godzilla is not purposefully trying to kill humans, but he’s not going to save them or go out of his way to avoid killing them either; in this way, Godzilla is nature incarnate, seeking to restore balance to the system, regardless of whichever individual species happens to get in the way.
I believe this is a powerful and essential message for modern environmentalism, as the fact that nature always has the last word, and that unintended consequences will always ripple out from our actions, is critical for understanding our place in the larger ecosystem. As we speak, there are people around the world trying to ‘geoengineer’ the planet in response to climate change, such as dumping iron sulfate into the oceans or seeding the atmosphere with molecules to reflect the sun’s heat back out into space. We cannot possibly hope to understand the full effects of such actions because we cannot understand how the dynamic ecosystem will respond to them; we invite rebound effects back onto us through our arrogance and limited knowledge. Nature knows better than us, and while it is not trying to kill us, it won’t save us either. We will kill ourselves, and only we can save ourselves.
Reblogging this from my writing/politics Tumblr, Second Nature.
SO APPARENTLY RAP STANDS FOR “RHYTHM AND POETRY”