When we tell scary stories, we can’t help but invent fears that already exist. The best scares are the ones the public already understands on some unconscious level. Vampires are rich aristocrats, come to suck the lifeblood of the commoners. Zombies are the unwashed masses of the poor, rising to usurp their betters. Werewolves are an unseemly element of society hiding in plain sight. You get the picture. While big-budget, special effects-heavy summer blockbusters may seem like mere popcorn fodder, through this lens, they become inherently political. When a giant monster rises from the ocean to destroy American cities, it functions allegorically as an attack on American soil by a foreign power.
By Alex Manley
Over the past quarter-century, four movies—Godzilla (1998), Cloverfield (2008), Pacific Rim (2013), and Godzilla (2014)—traced a very interesting path in this regard, each worth considering as a particular and compelling statement on American geopolitical involvement, specifically the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, and the ensuing War on Terror.
Though it was released several years before 9/11, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998) is worth including here specifically because of the way it treats essentially the same story (unfathomably large, reptile-like creature attacks American metropolis) in an astonishingly different way. Everything in 1998 Godzilla seems to scream, “This doesn’t matter. It’s spectacle. There is no compelling real-life analogue here.” And, in fairness, there wasn’t. America was safe. The film is a merchandise-generating cash grab and little else—a movie written by and for the movie studio boardroom.
But watching from beyond the veil of post-9/11 America, the way the razing of New York is treated in Godzilla is shocking—often, it feels like the destruction is being played for laughs. You get the sense that no one involved in the film’s production could genuinely conceive of a part of the city’s iconic skyline crumbling to the ground forever.
By contrast, the New York in Cloverfield could never have not been attacked. Whether or not 9/11 has occurred in this universe isn’t explicitly addressed, but the film’s monster attack is a crystal-clear allegory for the terrorist attacks that rocked the city seven years earlier.
Unlike Godzilla, which dawdles when it comes to its destruction, Cloverfield shatters the urbane calm in a hurry, as a bourgeois going-away party (loft apartment, formal dress, all being filmed on a camcorder) is interrupted when attendees on the roof catch sight of an attack on the city.
The conceit that the film’s events are found footage from the camcorder is a neat bit of filmmaking cleverness; borrowing The Blair Witch Project’s shaky-cam aesthetic allows director Matt Reeves to echo the very same dynamic (and visual aesthetic) that was reproduced by so many New Yorkers on 9/11—the breathless, awed recording of a worldview-shattering event.
What little we learn about Cloverfield’s monster also serves to reinforce 9/11 parallels. Where 1998’s hulking, re-designed Godzilla—an Americanized update that replaced a human in a bulky rubber suit with a full-CGI creature not bound to the structure of the human physique—was clearly the star of the show, the monster in this film is barely seen. Its absence, however, reinforces the dynamic of the 9/11 attacks, where the attackers were made known only by the effects of what they’d done. The Cloverfield attack, too, is initially mistaken for a natural disaster, not unlike the way the South tower crash was initially believed to be an accident.
Further, the fact that the Cloverfield monster is an alien creature is telling. While 1998’s Godzilla was a man-made beast, mutated by nuclear radiation—something Americans were themselves directly responsible for—the Cloverfield monster is from a realm beyond human understanding. This functions as a fairly straightforward echo of Americans’ inability, in the aftermath of the attacks, to grasp why they might be attacked (“They hate us for our freedoms”), and the alien trope is one that’s repeated in Pacific Rim.
Where Cloverfield was steeped in the trauma of 9/11, by the time of Pacific Rim, released five years later, that mode is all but absent. While the movie opens with alien attacks on a major American city—in this case, San Francisco—director Guillermo del Toro has no interest in dwelling on the repercussions of alien monster attacks on the world’s psyche.
With the speed of Cloverfield shifting from carefree partying to alien attack, Pacific Rim itself shifts from alien attack to that most American of responses, revenge—replete with bad-ass explanatory montage delineating the backstory to the premise. (Sample VO: “We got really good at it. Winning.”) This is a War on Terror movie.
Like Cloverfield, Pacific Rim’s creatures are alien entities; unlike Cloverfield, they are ascribed a motive: to rid the world of humans and colonize it. They go about this by attempting to lay waste to major urban centers; every few months, a giant kaiju alien emerges from the portal and starts lumbering metropolis-ward. Each kaiju is slightly different, but the end result is the same—destruction.
In many ways this is a particularly salient take on the West’s perception of terrorism: an unexplainable, constant thrum of destruction visited unevenly but successfully on a variety of high-casualty soft targets. You can’t reason with it or hope to stem it via diplomacy; all you can do is try to figure out how to destroy it before it destroys you.
The protagonists here are soldiers—but not rank-and-file men down in the trenches. Cool future technology allows certain special soldiers to meld their minds in order to dually embody giant robotic fighting machines. (That these 100-foot-tall mech-warrior-like constructions are the star of the movie’s replique to alien terrorist beasts is a tacit admission that modern warfare, with its far-away drone strikes and general incorporeality, is less satisfying than older, muddier struggles.) Still, the answer to how to destroy the attackers in Pacific Rim, in the end, is you find out where they live and you bomb the shit out of it. À propos.
By the time we get to Godzilla (2014), there’s a noticeable shift in the way the war is perceived. Though it was released only a year after Pacific Rim, the second American Godzilla represents a significant departure from its two post-9/11 monster film predecessors—for the first time, the Americans aren’t the de facto good guys. While the film doesn’t go as far as to paint the military as out-and-out villainous (here too, the protagonist is a soldier), it repeatedly asks the audience to question the logic, motivations and actions of the American military—both in terms of individual soldiers and officers, and as a geopolitical entity whose actions create ripples throughout the world.
It’s unsurprising given director Gareth Edwards’ prior work, Monsters (2010)—a thinly veiled monster-movie take on the Mexican/American border—that the second American Godzilla feels, at times, like a reckoning with the role America has played in the Middle East since 2003.
Like Godzilla (1998), Edwards’ film features man-made monsters, not an alien attack. But here, Godzilla itself is not the primary antagonist, but rather a character whose presence and motivations aren’t immediately clear; by the film’s end, Godzilla has resolved into ally, not enemy, cheered on by the surviving San Franciscans as it pulls itself from the city’s rubble.
Though Godzilla (2014) is less immediately legible through the 9/11/War on Terror framework, two moments in the film stand out: a scientist showing a high-ranking military officer—who’s just proposed nuking the problem—with his father’s watch, stopped in 1945 by the bomb dropped on Hiroshima; and Godzilla rising from the bay to block a barrage of missiles from hitting a school bus full of children trapped on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Here, the army is foolhardy and dangerous, willing and likely to hurt American citizens and weave destruction in its wake as it pursues its tunnel-vision aims. As the aforementioned scientist notes, Godzilla is here to restore a natural balance—best to keep the U.S. army out of things, an isolationist perspective that’s entirely absent in the prior films.
Godzilla has been political since its inception. First created in the aftermath of World War II as a symbol of the trauma of the nuclear attacks visited on Japan by the United States, its relationship to global politics has ebbed and flowed. In recent years, Godzilla has come to represent the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Shin Godzilla (2016) and even in the first half of Godzilla (2014), but the monster’s symbolic flexibility is clearest in its descendants: Hollywood movies that use a creature born of the horror of attacks by America to grapple with the horror born of attacks on America. There’s a certain fitting quality to it, almost a semantic rhyme, an echo. History coming back around, like the tail of a giant beast.