Monster movies, the really successful ones, don’t stick around for decades after just because of their special effects and enthralling (or hilarious) narratives, but because they represent a very specific fear. The Thing would not have been as horrifying had it not come off the heels of the AIDS epidemic, the figure of the vampire survived so long by preying on the traditional Victorian values of sexuality and morality. Godzilla is no exception as this monster has stayed in the mainstream consciousness for over half a century.
But despite the size of this massive creature’s reputation, have we, as a global audience, outgrown this reptilian nightmare?
American Godzilla movies never seem to do all that well in terms of quality, and one has to wonder if it’s because the monsters means less to us symbolically than in Japan. Godzilla, who first appeared on the silver screen in the 1950s, was symbolic of the atomic bomb attacks that devastated the country. Think about it: huge unstoppable force of nature, destroys whole cities, undiscerning as to who or what it hurts, the villains are often Americans, you get the idea . It represented a re-living of the initial horror the Japanese felt, and that’s what made it potent and poignant.
As the years progressed, the movies went from terrifying to comical, even being made for families and children. In fact, this was parodied in the opening sequence in Pacific Rim where people start making jokes out of the Kaiju once they knew the day was going to be saved. Once the formula for Godzilla movies was set, audiences could expect their happy ending, there was no reason to fear. Godzilla was a storm that could be weathers, not a force of nature pulling down everything with it.
In the same way, Godzilla seemed to sink in stature as the threat of nuclear war began to diminish. Once the Cold War was over, people began to worry about the next world-ending scenarios on the horizon: disease and terrorism, which hasn’t changed since then. This is why films like Contagion still sends shivers down our collective spines, and the first reaction to any major event of destruction is someone asking whether it was terrorists. While nuclear warfare still remains a viable option for our demise, the empty threats of countries like North Korea have made it seem like a foregone possibility now.
Can this king of monsters survive without the potency of the nuclear threat behind him? Well directors have certainly tried to rebrand Godzilla from a figure of nuclear war to one of emerging, random natural disaster. In a time after Jurassic Park where dinosaurs were hugely popular, branding it as a giant dinosaur (even straight up stealing scenes from the Spielberg) to hilarious results. The 2014 version tried to go the route of force of nature battling monsters, and found that it was drowned out by the boring human drama until the end, since dramas in the face of obstacles tend to do well in sci-fi as of late. Neither of these attempts worked out well for the character, and it’s confirmed my believe that America cannot recapture the greatest of the original Godzilla films.
As iconic and grandiose as the character is, I do sincerely think that unless he gets a serious rebranding, Godzilla is now outdated. That doesn’t mean that he’s unimportant or something film makers and pop culture historians could learn from — quite the opposite. But unless someone wants to invest in returning to the character’s nuclear origins with a very lovingly written film, it’s time to stop putting him in front of the camera and let him sleep under the ocean where he belongs.