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Force of Nature: What Godzilla Really Means

The destructive, awe-inspiring monster (and its brethren) has always been more than merely an agent of chaos

Alycea Tinoyan

Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which hits theaters on Friday, comes with some much-needed updates to the nomenclature. The people in charge have stopped calling Godzilla and his fellow monsters MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms), as they did in 2014’s Godzilla, and are now referring to them as “titans,” a much catchier, much more thematically appropriate name for the creatures. The titans of Greek mythology ruled the Earth prior to the Olympians; powerful and brutal, they controlled the elements. Godzilla and Co. (Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah in this latest entry) also correspond with elemental forces in our world. But the change in name is about more than associations with the natural world—it’s also an acknowledgement of sheer, awesome size.

Much has been made about Godzilla’s stature in the marketing of King of the Monsters—not just because it’s unbelievably cool to watch two giant lizards the size of skyscrapers punch each other in the face. The larger point the Godzilla movies strive to make is just how little humanity matters in the face of these creatures. In the 2014 film, Dr. Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) describes Godzilla as “a god, for all intents and purposes.” Kong: Skull Island toys with this idea as well when a member of a military-led expedition asks John C. Reilly’s Marlow who would win in a fight between a tiger and a bear cub. “A tiger would win, obviously. A cub’s just a baby bear,” Marlow answers, before taking a breath and adding an important caveat: “Now, wait till the bear gets bigger …”

In Warner Bros.’ MonsterVerse (ridiculous name, great series), humans are the tigers and the titans have finally grown up.

These “monster mash” films have always been about how we can’t hope to control the natural world, as well as the unintended consequences of humanity’s actions. The original Godzilla, the Japanese classic of 1954, is most commonly read as an allegory for the destruction wrought by the United States’ use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. The imagery of an uncontrollable force decimating cities, even by accident, is hard to write off as unintentional. The 2016 Japanese film Shin Godzilla played with that metaphor as well, framing Godzilla less as a malevolent creature intent on destruction and more as a force of nature, one that exposes the petty corruption and bureaucratic chaos of humans in survival mode. Godzilla films often say more about humanity than they do about the aesthetics of giant monster fist fights.

In all three of the Godzilla-adjacent films since 2014, the human characters exist to react to the titans, while the movies pass judgment on which kind of responses are just, and which ought to be condemned. Whereas Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard reacted to King Kong in Skull Island with fear and rage, Brie Larson’s Mason Weaver was led by curiosity and wonder, while the natives of the island, the Iwis, regarded Kong as their king and protector. “This is his home; we’re just guests,” Marlow states in the movie, a one-line snapshot of the entire ethos of the MonsterVerse. Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa (named for the protagonist of the original Godzilla) is a continuation of that thread in the Godzilla films, as he combines both Mason Weaver’s sense of wonder and the Iwis’ respect for the creatures of the island. Serizawa is the only human who comes close to understanding the titans, directly stating that “the arrogance of man is to think that nature is within our control and not the other way around.” Not only does Serizawa respond with awe toward Godzilla, he also puts his trust in him. The character’s delivery of “Let them fight” isn’t only a ridiculously fun line—it’s a demonstration of his acceptance that the fate of the world is out of humanity’s hands.

Throughout the films Serizawa carries a watch, which belonged to his father, that stopped at 8:15 in the morning on August 6, 1945, the time and date of the bombing of Hiroshima. In addition to serving as a nod to the original Godzilla, the watch stands as a symbol of careful remembrance of a higher power, in contrast to the more gung-ho attitude of the American military characters in the film, who fire at Godzilla in a panic, despite orders from high-ranking scientists to hold off. Military intervention, particularly from the U.S., is an inescapable weight in these films. Kong: Skull Island takes place in the wake of the U.S.’s withdrawal from Vietnam, and the trauma and consequences of that war reverberate throughout. The titans aren’t just metaphors for our relationship to nature—they’re explicit manifestations of our hubris. The creation of the atom bomb, in the MonsterVerse, isn’t just an abstract loss of innocence; it causes the reawakening of something older and more powerful than us.

The failure and consequences of military action against the titans in Skull Island gets at the film’s deeper point: Aggression won’t get humanity very far in a fight against nature. The U.S. military enters the island trying to bomb Kong, attempting to overwhelm him with shock-and-awe tactics. This strategy fails, and the ones who insist on adhering to it—characters like Jackson’s Packard—meet brutal ends. Conrad, Mason, and Marlow, on the other hand, fare much better by coming to understand Kong, seeing him as someone defending his territory from invaders—hardly a subtle metaphor given the historical setting of the film.

“This world never belonged to us,” scientist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) says in Skull Island. “It belonged to them.” Brooks continues, declaring that whether the titans take Earth back for themselves is not a matter of if, but when. His words have a deeper point: How long can humanity evade the consequences of its actions? How long until the planet itself turns against us?

These films make it clear that such an event is inevitable. The titans are uncontrollable, untameable, and physically imposing. The human characters spend much of the run time of Godzilla, and even more of the run time of Skull Island, trying their best to avoid encounters with them. Even Skull Island itself can’t even be trusted: One member of the expedition sits down on a log, only to be surprised when that log moves and reveals itself to be a titan. The movie presents a world in which nature has turned against humanity; a world occupied by Godzilla, King Kong, and hundred-foot squids is one where humans can no longer function as alpha predators. The idea that humans need to let go of their pride and aggression to reach an understanding with nature, as embodied by the titans, is the franchise’s real connective tissue. The understanding that, as Brooks says, the world never belonged to us, but them, is framed as of paramount importance for humanity’s survival.

Godzilla posits that the reappearance of the titans is nature’s demonstration of a “power to restore balance” after the damage wrought by humanity; Skull Island tweaks this stance. The titans have always been around and active, but had merely allowed us to maintain the illusion that we had control over the planet. Humanity, the movie states, exists by the grace of the natural world. The titans are a humbling force, ridding us of our delusions of grandeur. It’s why Godzilla and King Kong have appealed to audiences for the past 80 years: Giant monsters, for all their sense of fun and absurdity, reinforce our own fragility, our transience, and our utter lack of agency.

Because when viewed on a geological scale, humanity and everything it’s done to the planet doesn’t matter. The earth will let us burn ourselves out, and will move on, gradually replacing humanity’s dominance with life more adapted to its new environment. Titans exist within the same framework, patiently waiting for the earth to become more conducive to their needs (the MUTOs require radiation to reproduce; how lucky for them that the atom bomb came along). The monsters are the “only guarantee that life will carry on,” as Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) says in King of the Monsters. In that sense, they signify hope, not destruction.

But more than that, the titans of the MonsterVerse can’t be held to any single human frame of reference or morality. They can destroy cities entirely by accident. Some, like Mothra, are willing to form connections with humanity, and others, like King Ghidorah, want to kill us in shockingly violent ways. The forces of nature can’t be reduced—that’s what the titans represent. They’re living evidence that something existed before humanity’s supposed dominance, and they are a humbling reminder that that dominance won’t last forever, and that something will replace it in the future. As climate change rapidly accelerates (and as we mostly ignore it), many of us are becoming more and more aware that we are living on borrowed time at the behest of nature. The titans are merely that anxiety made into flesh. It’s very much Godzilla’s world—we just live in it.

Hannah Searson is a U.K.-based freelancer who enjoys writing about the metaphors of action films, giant monsters, and ghosts.