Pop Culture, Sci-Fi, Visual Cultural Theory

Godzilla vs. MUTO vs. Humanity: Who are the real monsters?

 SPOILERS AHEAD.

Ye have been warned.

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I love the Fantasy genre and I love the Sci-Fi genre.

But….Sci-Fi holds a special place in my heart. This isn’t because I think it is inherently better than Fantasy, it’s a personal opinion. A personal opinion that I think stems from the general but fundamental difference between them: Fantasy is usually rooted in the past – in pre-technological worlds than are either alternate or parallel to our own. Sci-Fi is rooted in the present or future with a heavy preoccupation on technology and the quasi-scientific grounding of the seemingly impossible. Both are fuelled by highly creative imaginations. But Sci-Fi, which endeavours to predict or forewarn the future, for reasons I can’t explain, captures my imagination far more, and lends itself to highly conceptual and deeply philosophical human quandaries far better than Fantasy seem to.

(Again, this is my opinion. I like The Lord of The Rings and I like The Matrix trilogy. It’s just my genre-bias makes me predisposed to like The Matrix a little bit more even though I concede that LOTR is a more solid film trilogy.)

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Godzilla is an icon of cinema in the same way that Marilyn Monroe and Mickey Mouse are. You don’t have to have seen any of the films that they appear in to recognise them instantly or know something of their origins. Unlike the latter two, Godzilla is seen also as a Sci-Fi icon. That being said, there are certainly touches of the Fantastical about him – the monstrous, ancient, and the mythic. Indeed, the films of his franchise are so old and loved that they have passed into pop cultural lore – the modern equivalent of myth and legend. Gareth Edwards’ latest reboot understands this, which is one the reasons I enjoyed it so much. The title sequence plays ingeniously with both the footage of the 1954 original version (Gojira) and the true events that it was inspired by – the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 as well as other subsequent nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific Ocean in the 1950s – and skews them with added SFX to present a ‘real’ covered-up version of events to provide the set-up for the new film.

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Despite this, upon discussing the 2014 version with someone recently I hesitated before describing it as Sci-Fi, which caused me to wonder why. On paper, it seems to tick all the right boxes – giant monsters fuelled by radiation, humanity’s impending destruction, questioning human arrogance etc., etc. However, on closer inspection it is not in fact very ‘high’ Sci-Fi – and I don’t mean that as a criticism. As I stated earlier, an almost self-defining rule of Sci-Fi is preponderance on technology – normally futuristic – but the raison d’être of this film seems to be the obliteration or redundancy of technology.

‘It’s going to send us back to the Stone Age!’ Bryan Cranston’s character shouts at us.

This seems to widen the story out from pure Sci-Fi into the broadly Fantastical, which is perhaps refreshing given that blockbusters still seem so rigidly intent on remaining ‘in genre’ these days.

The general plot centres on primordial forces that have been wrongly resurrected out of their own allotted time period and inadvertently (I’ll go into my use of that word later) threatening to destroy hundreds of years worth of careful and daring human technological progress in the blink of an eye…or the crash of a giant moth-leg. All of our current most powerful weaponry – which is nuclear based – is quite literally food for continued devastation. We are rendered powerless by the sheer size and brute force of these creatures. These are creatures which predate us, and it seems that the reverence and fear of the ancient – for all of our modern innovations – stills holds powerful sway over us, both for the version of us on-screen, and as members of the audience.

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Another interesting debate I found myself having with someone about the film was the overall message of it. Now, without seeing the original Japanese Gojira you might think of the franchise that it spawned as not taking itself all that seriously. And with titles like Godzilla vs. King King, Son of Godzilla and Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla I wouldn’t really blame you. As I mentioned earlier, the original was in fact an allegory for Japan to convey the terror of the traumatic and horrific nuclear weapons assault in 1945 without fear of censorship post-WWII. It is a surprisingly poignant and thought-provoking watch with very sympathetic and believable human characters at its centre, and I would highly recommend you watch it if you liked the 2014 reboot, which has clearly chosen respectfully to carry the essence of the original through into its own new storyline.

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Having said that, it is also careful not to ignore the other integral components of the franchise as a whole, which – however ridiculous – have become part of the monster’s enduring lore. Those components being all those bizarre and laughable sounding titles I mentioned. As much as fans of Godzilla love and respect the serious anti-nuclear message of his origins, we also really love seeing him beat the crap out of other monsters. In Gareth Edwards’ version, his monstrous nemeses take the form of a male and female MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object). Fans will undoubtedly spot the resemblance between the MUTO and Mothra (or Kaiju) a recurring Godzilla foe who is basically a giant Moth from the Amazon. (Godzilla’s design, incidentally, is a combination of a Gorilla and a Lizard.) This is a both a strength and weakness of the film. I knew this version would be big and loud, and so I chose to see it on the most appropriate screen possible – at the BFI IMAX in London (boasted as the biggest in Europe, the slightly nervous announcer told the audience before the film started). It didn’t disappoint on either of these fronts. It was most certainly big and most certainly LOUD. So much so, that the one and only time I flinched (as the 3D did bugger all to do that, as usual) was when Godzilla first opened his mouth and let out that iconic battle cry.

With not one but three giant monsters on offer you would expect to be shrinking down in your cushioned cinema seat frequently. However, I have to say that even though I thoroughly enjoyed the film and was impressed by the look and feel of it, I never felt threatened. This is a significant weakness for a film that has one giant Lizard foot quite clearly placed in the apocalyptic genre of storytelling, and with large parts of Hawaii and San Francisco being spectacularly eradicated. Trying to determine the cause of this, my explanation came down to the simple fact that none of these creatures were specifically targeting humans for attack – they were targeting each other. The wanton chaos that ensued around them came from them merely stomping around and, well, being very big whilst doing it. The MUTO prey on nuclear weaponry, not the blood of the innocent, and Godzilla in turn preys on the MUTO. Humans are merely accidental casualties of their sparring.

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So what is the message of this reboot? Why does Godzilla target the MUTO? Who are the real monsters?

Godzilla began as a metaphor. Then he became a myth. Myths survive by their continual retelling and also their continual re-contextualising. Slowly, they are twisted and adapted to suit whichever zeitgeist they have been passed into. Today, the analogy of Godzilla I’ve heard seems to be that of a ‘tragic hero.’ He seems far more rooted in the myth of the lone Samurai warrior than atomic arms. There is certainly a sense of unsung nobility about him in the 2014 version that seems almost more human than the human characters themselves. It seems stupid to say it, but the real star of Godzilla is Godzilla himself. Towards the climax, this is brought out by paralleling his actions with those of the titular human character played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. As he falls, so does Godzilla. As he battles, so does Godzilla. United by a common enemy. There is a lovely moment when they both seem to stare into one another’s eyes and an unspoken understanding of the other seems to form. In the climactic end to the battle, it is left open as to whether Godzilla purposefully saves Taylor-Johnson’s character and his mission or whether his intervention (and WHAT an intervention it is) is coincidental. Godzilla, for all his monstrous qualities, is extremely likeable. Perhaps it is his slightly chubby stature, his T-Rex-like arms, his lumbering movement, or his amazing RAWRRR, but he somehow emits a surprisingly empathetic personality. Like Frankenstein’s monster, he is a beast we can connect with. I suppose that seals him as a true Sci-Fi icon.

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If Godzilla is the hero of the story, then that surely make the MUTO the villain, right? Well, let’s examine their villainous credentials: They do look big and scary. Their insect-like appearance makes us predisposed to dislike them the way we are predisposed to dislike spiders and other creepy-crawlies. Their origins are that they lay dormant underground until our deep mining disturbed them. First a male, and then a much larger, female emerged. When we found that they could not be destroyed, we instead tried to contain one of them, feeding it nuclear energy until it let out an electromagnetic pulse (or EMP) wiping out all electronic devices within its radius, which enabled it to escape. It then began hunting first for nuclear devices to consume – in Russian submarines, for example – and then its female mate to reproduce with.

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Let’s recap: humans wake up two ancient hibernating animals who then fly off, eat stuff, and then have freaky bug sex. True, they cause a lot of inadvertent damage to human cities, but that’s the key word here – inadvertent. They are animals. They are nature. As an advanced species, we have for quite some time considered ourselves to be separate and even above the rest of the natural world. Our consciousnesses’ have long since outgrown our constricting flesh. In this separation, we increasingly see nature as either an enemy or an alien entity by default. We live artificially dependant lives. Yet as I mentioned earlier, the mystery of the natural and the ancient still inspires us with both fear and wonder. The MUTO are not villainous because they are out to kill us (intentionally, anyway); they are villainous simply for existing in our world.

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Ken Watanabe’s character – the scientist tasked with studying and destroying the MUTO – is instrumental in feeding us these ideas. At one point, he tells the military commander guy (I can’t remember his name…) that Godzilla is supposed to restore ‘balance’ and perhaps rather than fighting him or the MUTO, we should simply stand back and let them slug it out as they are intended to do so. There are multiple ways to read this as I was debating with the friend I previously mentioned. You could see the message being simply that humans shouldn’t meddle in nature and are being punished for doing so; a theme that runs right through Sci-Fi from Frankenstein and further back than that to the story of Prometheus, from which Frankenstein takes his subheading. My friend’s view was that the message was more complicated than that: we – humanity – are the implied imbalance to be re-balanced, and perhaps that Godzilla was targeting the wrong enemy. If the MUTO were here first, she argued, then they can’t be the imbalance. My own reading was that the imbalance had been caused by the MUTO surviving beyond their own time period – a time when the Earth was still radioactive, as Watanabe’s character explains. Cranston’s line about being ‘sent back to the Stone Age’ also echoes the idea of timelines being misaligned. The MUTO are also referred to as ‘parasites,’ which has inherent negativity, and also backs up the idea that they should no longer exist as the environment that sustained them no longer exists. Certainly, our creation of nuclear devices also contributes to the imbalance that has enabled them to continue to feed and breed. Godzilla seems to have magically awakened to fix our mistake.

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You could go so far as to argue that a comparably neutral force scooping up the world’s nukes might not be such a bad thing, too. It might have even been the answer to a lot of long-lying global political problems.

In the tradition of great Sci-Fi, Godzilla asks ‘Who are the real monsters?’ and then turns a mirror slyly towards the audience. Human progress is continually scrutinised as arrogant, destructive, but always necessary in our constant pursuit to speed up evolution. For reasons that are never made clear, Godzilla fights – on this occasion – for us. A champion we did not nominate, or call upon, nor could we find a way to thank in the end. As much as nature threatens and baffles us, it seems to have our back too, whether we deserve it or not.

Thanks for reading! I hope you’ve also enjoyed the classic Godzilla posters I chose for this post 🙂 I love great movie poster art, and Godzilla has inspired some of the best.

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