The third surprise is that I don’t think that either “Godzilla” is near the top of the genre, or is especially classical for anything other than iconic value—I think that the creature is famous for signifying the great movie monster without actually being one. The main problem is that Godzilla itself isn’t very interesting. The monster is a principle of pure destruction: it’s not feeding on human flesh or farm animals or asphalt or electricity; it’s just laying waste to whatever’s in its path, stomping and swatting and smashing and exhaling a fiery dragon breath for the sheer hell of it. In theory, the idea of a nihilistic monster is as good as the idea of a reflective one, a tormented one, or a hungry one—provided that it’s developed. Godzilla, the lord of the land and sea, has no objective, no goal, no guiding principle; it has been jolted from its somnolence, its habitat has been despoiled, and now it despoils ours. Godzilla is a premise, a device, and a look, but not a being; for all its violence, it’s essentially static.
Monsters are the realm of the child’s psyche, the projection of inchoate fears in concrete, quasi-personified forms, and even the ones that are meant for adults resonate with the unconscious. Incomprehension battles with comprehension, the unexpressed conflicts with the desire to see, the near-ridiculous and the audaciously comical arise from the gravest horrors and the deepest fears. That’s why the tabloid hysteria of drive-in sci-fi and the inspired regressiveness of Jerry Lewis and Frank Tashlin make for fifties monsters of unabated fecundity and enduring power. Where monster matters turn sternly adult, it takes backroom gameswomanship in the vein of Howard Hawks’s “The Thing from Another World” to play up the genre’s exotic overtones.
The earnest sobriety of “Godzilla” gets in the way—it thwarts both the histrionically but authentically puerile and the dangerously, irreparably adult. It is, for the worse, a serious movie. The morning I dropped art school for the broadcast of “Godzilla” left me feeling foolish for falling for the hype; the movie was a disappointment then and, nearly half a century later, it disappoints still.
I will likely go see the upcoming Godzilla movie, yet another in a long line of them, just because I have a boylike soft spot for giant creatures that look like dinosaurs. In the category of long enduring franchises, Godzilla is sneaky strong, with as much longevity, if not frequency, as James Bond.
It's no coincidence that Godzilla is most often depicted rising from the primordial ocean and romping through a major city, knocking down skyscrapers as he goes. The gleaming metropolis is the most salient physical manifestation of the furthest accomplishments of civilization, so to see a creature that resembles an prehistoric beast like the dinosaur appear out of nowhere in the present to wreak destruction upon our urban centers is like some Freudian nightmare about the hubris of mankind and its technological aspirations. Godzilla wouldn't be half as compelling if he were plodding through the countryside, flattening the occasional tree or leaving massive footprint-shaped depressions in corn fields. With an origin story tied to mankind's dabbling in nuclear weaponry, Godzilla needs to be a foil for mankind's technological aspirations.
However, Brody does identify some of the central weaknesses in the Godzilla franchise. From the trailer, it seems likely that the new Godzilla movie will aim to play things seriously as opposed to camp, perhaps using Godzilla as it's often used, as some allegory for environmental disaster. Can the movie evoke true horror and avoid descending into camp? I have my doubts though the score of the trailer and the flashes of Bryan Cranston's agonized face screams of terror, but I'm a sucker for images of the leviathan arisen.
The other fundamental flaw of the Godzilla mythology is that the big galoot, ostensibly the villain, generally has my sympathy, despite, as Brody notes, having little comprehensible motivation. If he's supposed to present our technological overreach boomeranging back in our face, what does it mean that I never want him to die, preferring that he triumph over the human combatants, none of whom ever seem all that interesting? In many later films, screenplays picked up on this strain of audience sympathy and turned Godzilla into the protagonist, defending Japan against other creatures. Emotionally more satisfying, perhaps, but thematically childish.
Perhaps Godzilla is miscast as a monster. Unlike Dracula or Frankenstein or even the werewolf, Godzilla doesn't represent any primitive human fears. We still have some fears of nuclear energy, but far more of our technological concerns are with the internet and the effects of information omnipresence on our brains. There is probably some way of visualizing our fears of where our current technology vector is leading us, but a giant dinosaur romping through downtown doesn't feel right. Maybe if Godzilla were wearing a giant pair of Google glasses?