“Godzilla” and the Film Culture of the Anthropocene

Upon recently watching the film Godzilla, I was struck by the ways in which the film seems to articulate and refract the ethos of the anthropocene.  In an era in which it is now recognized that the human race has become a force of nature in and of itself, a film like Godzilla seems to refute and undergird such claims, a common trait of films and television series that engage with the problems posed by the advent of the anthropocene.

This film, the most recent entry in a decades-old film franchise, sees the rise of two radiation-consuming MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects) that wreak havoc and chaos across the Pacific and the western United States.  As several (largely forgettable) human characters feverishly attempt to destroy the creatures, the prehistoric giant Godzilla emerges to do battle with both creatures and, though he succeeds in destroying them, the city of San Francisco is also laid to waste.

Again and again, the film highlights both the futility of humankind’s attempts to overcome the creatures that it so feverishly attempts to control and the sheer enormity of the power these prehistoric creatures wield.  The sense of human futility that pervades the film appears repeatedly, taking into its scope the atomic bomb tests of the 1940s and 1950s and the practice of storing radioactive material in the deserts of Nevada.  Significantly, both instances are the result of humans believing that technology has the power to control forces exceed the bounds of humankind’s understanding and being proven completely and unequivocally wrong in their assumptions.  The fact that the cost of such presumption is the destruction of both large segments of Las Vegas as well as San Francisco underscores the film’s essential argument that, for all that humans have become a force of nature, there is still a larger series of natural processes that continue to control and exceed the actions of humanity.  Just as importantly, the film suggests that this futility, far from just being ineffective, actually makes the situation much worse (after all, who attacks creatures that feed on radiation with a radioactive bomb?)

The twinned voices of Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody and Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa consistently articulate and underline one of the film’s many positions regarding mankind’s hubris in believing that it has the ability to control the natural world.  Brody’s anguished cry that the MUTOs will send humankind back to the Stone Age and Serizawa’s belief that Gozilla is nothing less than a god (as well as his quote, “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around), bespeak an acknowledgement of the limitations of humankind’s understanding.  Thus, although Godzilla does ultimately come to the aid of the beleaguered human cities, the fact that so much of the city is destroyed as a result of his battles with the MUTOs and that he seems to care little for the humans he is ostensibly helping, suggest that nature (in the person of Godzilla) has its own order and its own set of behaviors that exist beyond the ability of humans to understand.

Thus, Godzilla engages with the epistemological problems and questions posed by our culture’s growing consciousness of the anthropocene.  The film suggests that human culture, for all of its vaunted power and inviolability, is as vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature as any other component of the natural world.  In doing so, the film displaces the anxiety of humanity’s collective responsibility for the changing climate conditions on the planet onto forces beyond humanity’s control.  After all, what better way to cope with overwhelming culpability than by continuing to assert that there are indeed forces of nature that remain greater than humanity and can indeed overcome humans?  Far from being a force that is slowly destroying the world, these types of films suggest that we are instead the victims of an uncaring (or at least completely noncommittal) nature.

Nor is this phenomenon limited to the most recent iteration of the king of the monsters.  In countless apocalyptic and postapocalyptic films (including the forthcoming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), there is something at work that humbles humankind and reminds us of how limited we are and how little power we have to truly impact/change the world around us.  It remains to be seen, however, whether films produced in the era of the anthropocene can truly engage with the vast epistemological and conceptual challenges posed by mankind’s increasing influence upon the very structures of of the world in/on which we live.

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