LONDON — Ever since Godzilla first rampaged across cinema screens 65 years ago, film critics have seen the reptilian anti-hero as a symbol of the fears gnawing away in the deepest recesses of moviegoers’ minds.
With the giant lizard’s return in Godzilla: King of the Monsters, launched in cinemas last week, reviewers are parsing the blockbuster for insights into the world’s paralysis in the face of climate breakdown.
“It would be a mistake to dismiss Godzilla: King of the Monsters as mindless pap or escapist fantasy,” wrote anthropologist Nathaniel J. Dominy and biologist Ryan Calsbeek, both from Dartmouth, in the journal Science.
“What began as a pointed anti-nuclear fable has since evolved into a broader allegory for human folly and our reckless disregard for the natural environment.”
Godzilla earned its reputation as a bellwether of collective anxiety soon after Japanese director Ishiro Honda first depicted the dinosaur-like creature in his 1954 film Gojira — a nickname derived from the Japanese words for gorilla and whale.
In Honda’s film, a radioactive, 50-meter tall Godzilla lays waste to Tokyo after being awakened from the deep by underwater nuclear tests. Released barely a decade after atom bombs obliterated Nagasaki and Hiroshima, the film was a tacit reflection of Japan’s shared wartime trauma.
In King of the Monsters, directed by Michael Dougherty, an embittered former British army colonel, played by Charles Dance, believes modern civilization is on track to wipe out all life on the planet. The colonel and his paramilitary team go on a mission to release gargantuan mutant “Titans” from their resting places to try to tip the scales back into Earth’s favor.
No longer the enemy who once delighted in toppling Japanese skyscrapers, Godzilla is cast as an unlikely eco-warrior battling to defeat the Titan menace — led by the three-headed King Ghidorah — and save humanity from itself.
Film critics say the devastating elemental forces unleashed by the Titans in the 35th Godzilla film hold up a mirror to real-world fears of wildfires, super-storms and floods caused by growing man-made instability in Earth’s atmosphere.
“Dougherty’s film recalls America’s present-day anxieties over increasingly intense weather patterns tearing across the country from coast to coast,” culture writer Andy Crump observed in a review in The Week.
Although post-apocalyptic climate scenarios have been a staple of the “cli-fi” genre for years — notable examples include The Day After Tomorrow and Mad Max: Fury Road — Godzilla has returned against a uniquely febrile backdrop. With hundreds of thousands of teen climate activists marching in cities across the world, and Extinction Rebellion bringing parts of London to a standstill in April, a new awareness of the crisis is seeping into mainstream culture.
While nobody pretends that a movie can directly deliver cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, fiction can serve as a vehicle to help communities face up to crises that might otherwise seem too overwhelming to contemplate.
“We need to engage with the reality of climate change in order to deal with it,” said Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist who lectures at the University of Bath in southwest England, and is a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance. “The monster gives us a metaphor, a narrative through which we can do that.”
While the new Godzilla film has been panned in some quarters, Zhiwa Woodbury, author of a book on the psychology of the climate emergency, sees King of the Monsters as Hollywood’s most profound “cli-fi contribution to date.
By including a sequence where Godzilla is once more roused by an undersea nuclear blast, Woodbury says the film is asking audiences to heal the rupture in mankind’s relationship with the natural world that occurred at the dawn of the atomic age.
“Godzilla is spot-on in asking us to face our inner demons,” Woodbury wrote on his EcoPsychology NOW! blog. “Only then can we hope to rise like a Phoenix from the ashes of the petrochemical age, and regenerate our world on a path of climate recovery.” — Reuters