“When not close enough to be killed, the atomic bomb is one of the most beautiful sights in the world.”
That quote, from a 1950s military instructional video, sums up not only the American attitude towards nuclear warfare during the Cold War but also our current fascination with mass destruction in blockbuster filmmaking. Audiences are in love with collapsing buildings, with clouds of debris flooding city blocks, with fire and shredded metal blotting out the sky. From the safety of the cinema seat or the couch, it’s all so exciting, rather than the pinnacle of horror.
But when the original Godzilla came out in 1954, its scenes of mass destruction were anything but entertaining. The titular monster’s rampage across Japan was played completely seriously and for all the terror it could muster. It tapped a deep vein of contemporary anxieties in a culture that had been hit with two nuclear weapons and then had to watch as the country that dropped said weapons on them tested even more powerful bombs in the ocean nearby. Godzilla’s first attack is against a fishing vessel, a direct reference to a real-life incident in which a Japanese ship was caught in the fallout of an American nuclear test.
The first of those Pacific tests was Operation Crossroads, in 1946, in which two atom bombs were dropped in the Bikini Atoll. That incident is the subject of Robert Stone‘s Oscar-nominated 1988 documentary Radio Bikini, which relates the events through primary footage, with minimal added commentary. The government lied to the citizens of the islands they were bombing and allowed sailors into deeply irradiated zones with no protection. Few understood the full effects of splitting the atom for the purpose of destruction. To this day, Bikini atoll cannot be resettled.
The tests are also touched upon in Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty‘s The Atomic Cafe, a 1982 doc cobbled together from various sources from throughout the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. It incorporates educational films, newsreels, commercials and more to help the viewer understand the picture painted of atomic weaponry for Americans of the time. And to modern eyes, that picture is deeply morbid. To say that the government and military misled the public about the full implications of nuclear war is an understatement. This was the era of Duck and Cover, the infamous cartoon short that told kids that all they needed to do to survive an atomic bomb blast was to crawl beneath their desks. Yet at the same time, an army film informed soldiers that in the event of war, they needn’t worry about radiation, since they would likely be killed outright in explosions. This information is relayed in a disturbingly chipper way.
What’s also disturbing is that mainstream American entertainment is still kind of in love with nukes. And the new remake of Godzilla perpetuates that trend. In the universe of the film, the nukes dropped in the Pacific during the ’40s and ’50s were not tests, but rather attempts to kill Godzilla. In the original movie, Godzilla was awakened by those same tests, but here, it was disturbed from its rest by a submarine. Consequently, nukes are shifted from a source of grief to an almost heroic status. Certainly the nukes’ failure to kill the beast downplays their real-life supreme destructive power. An attempt to use a modern nuke to kill Godzilla and some other monsters is treated as a fool’s errand, but not on its own merits but because the execution of the plan is botched. The new Godzilla is, whether it intends to be or not, almost a pro-nuke film. It tries to recapture the tone of the original film, but it betrays its spirit horribly.
There are other problems with the new Godzilla. There’s little development of the human characters, the monsters aren’t in it nearly enough (and fight even less) and it is ultimately supremely confused about what kind of movie it’s trying to be. It can’t be both a crowd-pleasing blockbuster with thrilling monster fights and an effectively unsettling disaster movie. Thus, both Radio Bikini and The Atomic Cafe are far preferable options, if only because both are so assuredly made. But both are also far more in tune with the attitude of the first Godzilla. All these movies are grim reminders of the cataclysmic potential that humanity holds in its hands.