The Doc Option: Watch ‘Radio Bikini’ and ‘The Atomic Cafe’ Instead of ‘Godzilla’

the atomic cafe poster

Docurama

“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 Cafea 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.

Radio Bikini is available to rent from iTunes and stream via Amazon Instant Video.

The Atomic Cafe is also available to rent from iTunes and stream via Amazon Instant Video as well as at Hulu, Vudu, YouTube, SnagFilms and Best Buy’s CinemaNow.

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1 reply to this post
  1. You couldn’t be anymore wrong. Godzilla 2014 is the most anti-nuclear film in American history. The fact the military’s attempt to kill Godzilla with it fail show that despite our ability to tame the atom we cannot defeat nature. Our very by-product of our tampering with the atom, using it to fuel subs and power cities, forces these monsters out of hiding, draws them even. The storage of nuclear waste so close to a major city in Yucca Mountain turns America’s Playground, Las Vegas, into a battle scarred wasteland.
    America then intends to endanger itself further by trying to rely on the very thing that got them in trouble in the first place and because of that it places even more lives in danger. In the end, it is a creature of nature, Godzilla, that must save us from the consequences of our nuclear proliferation whereas the best the humans can do is clean up their own mistake and, as Ford Brody demonstrates, prevent it from starting all over again by killing the Muto babies. Babies nestled around a nuclear warhead mind you, symbolic of the proliferation Nuclear Power in both a deadly weapon and the destructive waste it creates.
    Also, in the first Godzilla film, the titular character is only on screen for about the same amount of time. The human characters, while seemingly flat at first, are enjoyable simply by the fact they aren’t cliché ridden idiots who act stupid like in most blockbusters. If anything, Godzilla 2014 defies blockbuster conventions. The US military is shown as heroic but incapable of truly defeating the monsters, the humans are largely forced to sit by and watch, their plans continuously go awry and Nature in the end is proven superior and dominant. It, contrary to your opinion, has a clear goal in mind and accomplishes it admirably.
    You clearly misinterpreted everything within the film to wild degrees. How you managed to come out of this think its pro-nuke is beyond me since it goes out of its way to emphasize how dangerous, how crappy and how wrong nukes are. Hell, it takes time out to remind us about Hiroshima and how it affected one of the supporting characters. That scene is basically shoving in your face the lesson, we all think nukes solve our problems, but Hiroshima started the arms race that threatened the entire human race. That is why Serizawa brings out his watch, to show the Admiral that the plan to use a nuke may seem like their best option, but the consequences of it will no doubt be catastrophic, just like they were in 1945.
    I found this analysis of the film clearly wanting and seemingly just an excuse for you to plug some documentaries you enjoyed. Very shameless of you. Godzilla 2014 is in line with the anti-nuclear theme of its original predecessor, moreso than any other Godzilla film in recent memory. That is an undeniable fact.

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