Godzilla Is Warning Us Again about the Threats to Our Planet

The beast is born in fire. Once a prehistoric denizen of the deeps, it comes ashore on a tsunami tide, tall as a thunderhead, shrugging off artillery as it bellows a foghorn scream. It stomps. It breathes atomic fire. And it’s the star of the world’s longest continually running film franchise, the latest of which debuts this December: Godzilla.

Constructed out of Japan’s postwar atomic-bomb trauma, the King of the Monsters has proven a remarkably malleable character, playing environmental protector or atomic avenger with equal aplomb. But these days, nuclear fire is only part of the Godzilla universe.

In recent films, Godzilla often functions as a reminder of the unseen debts we owe nature—and what happens when they come due. In an era facing both a reborn nuclear threat and global climate catastrophe, the granddaddy of movie monsters still has a lot to tell humanity.

Godzilla was born in the 1950s, the first full decade of the nuclear age. The war had produced the bomb and also supercharged an industrial boom in manufacturing that continued for decades across America, Europe and East Asia. Fueled by coal and oil, it reshaped our world: ever more plastic, ever more cars, ever more development. The feared nuclear apocalypse didn’t arrive; instead the world burned with fossil fuels, pumping ever more carbon into the atmosphere.

Anxieties about this relentless encroachment on the natural world filtered into cinema. In 1953, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, a blockbuster adaptation of a Ray Bradbury short story, told of an Arctic dinosaur awakened by nuclear testing, and its subsequent reign of havoc in New York. Among those inspired by the film’s success was Japan’s Toho Studios, which commissioned its own monster film.

The result, 1954’s Gojira, was an instant classic, building on the vague anxieties of its predecessor in bleak, culturally specific ways. Inexplicable fires first obliterate Japanese freighters and irradiate fish, a ripped-from-the-headlines echo of the Lucky Dragon No. 5 incident—a Japanese tuna ship showered in radioactive fallout from the Castle Bravo thermonuclear test at Bikini Atoll. When the monster arrives, its rampages across Tokyo evoke the Allied fire bombings of the war, including the 1945 nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Subsequent films retreated from the original’s explicit antinuclear sentiments, instead introducing a rogue’s gallery of monsters for Godzilla to fight. (Unremittingly bleak horror is unconducive to a successful film franchise.) Yet a deep anxiety lingered around industrial intrusions into the natural world. New kaiju, such as those in Rodan (1956) and Mothra (1961), often awoke amid mining or extraction; in 1971, Godzilla even went toe-to-toe with Hedorah, the embodiment of pollution. 

When Godzilla returned to cinemas in the 2010s, filmmakers began toying more explicitly with imagery that evoked climate disaster. In Godzilla (2014), Hollywood’s second adaptation, Godzilla arrived onscreen as a hurricane given flesh, appearing wreathed in fog and a storm surge that carries people away without the monster noticing. Japan’s Shin Godzilla (2016) leaned even further into monster-as-natural-disaster, featuring a mindless entity in continual metamorphosis, growing in size and power as authorities scramble and fail to contain it. Godzilla’s appearance on Japanese shores evokes the 2011 Fukushima tsunami, and its beam of atomic fire vomits out like an industrial accident; the mauling of Tokyo becomes a slow-rolling disaster of infrastructure and mass death.

The environmental association hasn’t always carried through. Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) centers its villainous space-dragon in an enormous, city-flooding hurricane. It pulls its punches, however, by positioning giant monsters as healers of ecological damage rather than entities provoked by it. (Making the film the latest in a line of American adaptations that shy away from Godzilla’s damning implications.) The latest entry of the American series, Godzilla vs. Kong (2021), drops the association entirely in favor of comic book rumbles, with a fisticuffs-rich sequel planned.

Yet the theme persists, from the singular destructiveness of the kaiju to the way that people onscreen watch their rampages through televisions and the Internet, observers of the existential changes upending the world. Just as we have watched unprecedented conflagrations sweep across Canada, or historic flooding in Vermont, or temperatures ticking up on the heat domes rising like invisible mushroom clouds from Siberia to Florida.

In any other era, these would be anomalies. Now, of course, they’re part of a systemic collapse of normal weather patterns, unleashed by the endless burning of that postwar age. Amid all of this is the deeper fear: of crossed tipping points we don’t comprehend; the knowledge that even as postwar industrial society continues to grind, and the fires continue to burn, the worst is still to come. 

There’s a phase of acute radiation exposure sometimes called the walking ghost phase. Receive a lethal dose, and your body initially seems not to notice. But a threshold has been passed, and your very cells are melting at the seams. You’re effectively dead by the time the symptoms start; your body just hasn’t registered it yet.

Can an entire society have a walking ghost phase? In a funny and devastating climate essay from 2021, writer Sarah Miller describes a conversation with an editor: “I felt like all I did every day was try to act normal while watching the world end,” she wrote. “What kind of awareness quotient are we looking for? What more about climate change does anyone need to know? What else is there to say?”

What indeed? This is the awful, revelatory idea thrumming at the heart of Godzilla, what gives these films their curious power, even at a time when anxieties about nuclear disasters (still a genuine danger) have been surpassed. We now understand, more clearly than in the 1950s, that the consequences of human action on a global scale are rather like Godzilla: huge, unknowable, motiveless and not easily stopped.     

Godzilla is thus an apocalyptic figure, in the strictest sense of the word: a thing of unmasking, of revelation. The revelation is this: We have woken monsters, and they are coming ashore. Perhaps if we’re lucky, their impacts can be mitigated, managed, adapted to. But they have arrived.  You will listen to the destruction on the radio, watch it on the television or Internet, until it’s your turn.     

By the time you see Godzilla, in other words, the bomb has already dropped. By the time you see Godzilla, highways and pipelines sprawl out and the oil has flowed for decades. You still feel fine, normal, alive: not like a walking ghost at all. And then you see that rough beast ashore, and the weight of decades of missed chances crashes into you, and the sun burns down. You are still walking around. But it’s too late.

This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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