A History of 20th Century Manmade Disasters as Seen Through Godzilla Trailers

From nuclear bombs to global warming, Godzilla has embodied the technological hubris of man. Just watch the trailers for proof.

Image: Godzilla promo trailer

“This is Tokyo, once a city of six million people. What has happened here was caused by a force which up until a few days ago was entirely beyond the scope of man’s imagination.”

At the time the trailer for the first American Godzilla film started airing, in 1956, it would have been impossible for moviegoers to associate such a description, much less its accompanying imagery, with anything besides nuclear holocaust.

And that was the point—Godzilla was born to explicitly communicate ultimate disaster. The amphibious dinobeast first emerged from the Pacific deep as a vessel to convey our nuclear terror. But over the years, it’s become a harbinger of many other disasters: Watch the trailer for the latest, Brian Cranston-starring reboot of Godzilla, for instance, and the first thing we see is rising seas and deadly floods. It’s not hard to see what slice of the disaster zeitgeist the latest producers are after.

In fact, it turns out that tracing Godzilla trailers through history—through WWII, the Cold War, 9/11, and the age of global warming—is an enjoyable, if highly imperfect, way of examining evolving our pop cultural attitudes towards technology and mass catastrophe.

In the beginning, Godzilla was the bomb. Ishiro Honda, the director of 1954’s original Gojira (to which Hollywood would add an American lead and heavily reedit), explicitly stated in an interview that Godzilla was “designed to embody the characteristics of a living atomic bomb.” Godzilla was a fire-breathing dragon built to caution us against our hubris.

The Japanese visual culture scholar Claude Estebe explains that "Gojira was one of the first movies showing and remembering the dramatic experience of Japanese civilians at the end of World War II when atomic bombings and strategic napalm bombings on all the big industrial Japanese cities killed millions of civilians." For Japan, it was terrifying and perhaps cathartic. To millions of moviegoers worldwide, especially Americans, it was among the first culture products to communicate the brutal tragedy of what had happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The torrent of sequels that followed, including the notorious Godzilla vs. Monster X formula films, largely followed that mold: monstrous nuke metaphor inflicts atrocity on the public writ large. They featured mutated giant beasts, other kaiju like Mothra or Rodan, which also symbolized man’s meddling in the natural world.

As time wore on, Godzilla—and the specter of radioactive catastrophe—became less fearsome. Godzilla increasingly pivoted into a hero role, defending the world against other, more dangerous threats. Like, in the case of the series of Mechagodzilla films that began in 1974, robotic weapons:

By the 70s, Godzilla had become so defanged that he, along with an adorable mini-Godzilla sidekick became a hero of a children’s cartoon. The erstwhile embodiment of total nuclear destruction had been transformed into a toothless cultural fixture—much as many had been soothed by Eisenhower’s push for an Atomic Age, powered by safe, clean nuclear energy.

Both moments ended in the late 70s and early 80s, after the Three Mile Island meltdown reminded the world of the perils of nuclear energy. Godzilla got an American reboot in 1985, that brought the monster’s essence back to the fore. This time, with lasers and Cold War overtones (the film involves a subplot with a Russian nuclear submarine, too):

The meltdown at Chernobyl occurred a year later.

After another string of familiar monster bashes throughout the rest of the 80s and 90s, Godzilla got its first major American reboot in 1998. The cliché-studded Mathew Broderick action vehicle was something of a flop, and mostly amounted to a paint-by-the-numbers action flick. Contrast the canned opening lines of the 1998 trailer with the sheer foreboding of the original:

“The target’s heading right at us!” some military agent says, off screen, and then, “he’s coming in too fast!” Those lines might as well belong to any militaristic action movie of the 90s, or to Independence Day, the equally innocuous blockbuster Godzilla's producers had made directly before it.

If anything, the 1998 trailer is, like many of the disaster films set in the late 90s, notable for how it seems to preemptively recall the harrowing real-life scenes of 9/11. The Manhattan ground thuds, the buildings burn, civilians flee in terror. This time, Godzilla's disaster presaged the film, though in little meaningful way did it brace us for the fall. Perhaps it should have: That scaly engine of human hubris had been felling buildings around the world for decades—why should the US be immune to its terror?

There’s even a shred of bona fide 9/11 conspiracy theory around the film, derived from the scene where Broderick looks at his watch, and the hands read 9-11.

But now, in 2014, it appears that Godzilla, as he was originally intended, is back. The film, which is slated to open in May, reveals a monster that may have nuclear origins, sure, but embodies far more than the bomb.

Seas rise, streets are flooded—the clearest analog here is Hurricane Sandy, not Hiroshima. Is Godzilla climate change, now?

The opening lines of its trailer, with a generous reading, can even indict doubtful or denying governments:

"You are not fooling anyone when you say what happened was a natural disaster,” a furiously brow-furrowing Brian Cranston says. “You're hiding something out there. And it's going to send us back to the stone age."

The 2014 film’s writer, The Walking Dead’s Frank Darabount, said that he wanted to honor Honda’s vision of Godzilla as a man-spawned, "terrifying force of nature." Whether or not the planet's most famous kaiju is explicitly intended to channel the wrath of climate change, it's clear that its disaster aesthetics—rising seas, upturned vehicles, rainy chaos—have been absorbed into the new Godzilla's palette. 

The trailer ends with a quote that espouses a very Godzilla-esque ethos: "The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control. And not the other way around."

In 1954, the line would have meant that experimenting with nuclear technology is fraught with a potential peril of monstrous proportions. Today, it might mean that thinking we can extract crucial resources and continuously pollute the skies, while staying in control of our environment—well, that just might summon Godzilla, too.