Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
Gaze up to the sky in bewilderment. Widen your eyes in terror. Run down the street and try to hurdle a car. You might yell in Japanese, if you’re in a black-and-white original ’50s flick, or in English, if you’re in the 2014 Gareth Edwards–directed Godzilla or in this summer’s kaiju-smashing, Michael Dougherty–directed sequel Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
Crash! CRASH! Camera slow-pans up through animated and color-graded smoke to reveal the titanus gojira extraordinaire, with fiercely burning eyes and dramatic jaw release:
Cameras love to pan Godzilla. Alas, so do some critics. Several weeks after King of the Monsters released, the film is being cited as one proof of a lackluster summer box office. Apparently, other creators’ attempted franchise structures keep getting flattened by the swinging tail of Disney-produced behemoths like Avengers: Endgame and Toy Story 4.
That’s too bad, because though I just arrived to this franchise after seeing Edwards’s 2014 film, I’ve quickly become a Godzilla fan. At least, there’s much to admire in this new version of the titanic beast, who is not merely—as I may have previously assumed—some monster who stomps on skyscrapers because he’s evil or even careless. Rather, across both films this Godzilla is presented as a good monster. He’s a force of nature, but nature at its best. This beast is not just an avenger versus a mankind that meddles with nature, but an avenger who steps in to oppose evil creatures who would (incidentally) do mankind harm.
In Godzilla (2014), humans—to some critics’ bemusement—seem to do little to advance the story. Two unidentified creatures have arisen to wreak havoc. Scientists, from secret monster-hunting cabal Monarch, expect Godzilla to confront these creatures and reinforce his rule over Earth. Which Godzilla does. To the tune of many thousands of lost lives and billions of dollars in property damage ensuing in Japan, Hawaii, and San Francisco.Godzilla-worship is idolatrous in reality, but this fiction helps us simulate “worship” of a great entity, despite its terror and ability to wound us.
Yet, near the film’s end, grateful survivors gather to say things like, “He saved us,” with something like reverence, as the recovering titan slips into the ocean to return home.
In King of the Monsters, creators step up the humans’ story line, but also clarify this fictional universe’s Godzilla–centered worldview. As one Monarch scientist says, even in the trailers, “This is Godzilla’s world. We just live in it.” Another beholds the monster’s power and says, “Good thing he’s on our side,” to which another hero carefully remarks, “For now.”
In the film’s story, we may—and should!—become shocked when we see just how much the creators commit to this idea: Godzilla is the good monster. We must join him. Yes, no matter how much he destroys or how much more powerful other monsters seem to be.
In other words, as we may quote about another fantastic king of beasts: Godzilla is not safe. But he is good. And it’s best to be on his side, even if he swallows up cities and realms.
The film’s flawed characters help to argue this fictional, Godzilla–centered “worldview.”
Early on, the film introduces us to one family, including a paleobiologist with Monarch, Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga). She has developed a machine to send signals to the kaiju—that is, other monstrous beasts like Godzilla. Although Dr. Russell ends up kidnapped by eco-terrorists, we soon learn she is actually cooperating with this group. They even go to Antarctica so the terrorists can awaken a slumbering devil: the tyrannical, hydra-like kaiju from outer space, Ghidorah, who of course can shoot electric beams from his three heads.
That’s the most fantastical part. What’s not so fantastical is Emma Russell’s stated motive for working with terrorists. To her ex-husband, Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler), Emma insists she is doing this to bring balance to nature. Mankind is destroying the earth with pollution and such-like. The ancient kaiju are supposed to rule the Earth, right? So she will awaken all the monsters, let them reclaim their rightful place, and then the planet will be cleansed.
Mark doesn’t buy it. And neither do we. Because, despite his own hatred of Godzilla and the kaiju, Mark realizes Emma’s real reason: she’s grieving the loss of their son, Andrew, killed during the previous Godzilla-versus-critters duel in San Francisco. Mark realizes that, like him, Emma has not healed from this trauma. This is perhaps the film’s most tragic and even most realistic element: In her grief, Emma will use high language like “save the planet” and “natural order,” even as she is deceived and works to overthrow the world’s natural order. After all, she is not actually returning Earth to rule by its true “king,” Godzilla. Emma is actually enabling all kaiju to fall under the thrall of the imposter king Ghidorah whom she herself awakened, who doesn’t belong here, and who fell to Earth like lightning or a star.
As Mark and Monarch rush between kaiju lairs, dodging monster storms, Mark himself comes to grips with the terrible beast who disrupted his family. Other nature-over-humans monster movies might show how puny mortal man can’t blow up Godzilla no matter how hard we try. This story simply shows how a man is, effectively, wrong to blame the planet’s rightful kaiju-king for his own pain. Only by something like repentance can he start to heal.
A Monarch scientist who studies kaiju history, Dr. Ilene Chen, even tells Mark that only Western myths make dragons into villains, while Eastern mythology emphasizes the harmony between these creatures and us. She even says, “Sometimes the only way to heal our wounds is to make peace with the demons that caused them.”
At this suggestion, biblical Christians may rightly blanch. Nope, we’re not in the business of making peace with demons—that is, fallen angels and likely agents of temptation. However, if we change this term “demons” to a metaphor, the message holds true—yet it’s still offensive in other ways. Should we really “make peace” with the things that caused our wounds? This is a hard saying; who can listen to it? Yet if Scripture is correct and God himself, without being the author of evil, still forms light and darkness, and makes well-being and creates calamity (Isaiah 45:7), then we need to consider that yes, like the suffering biblical man Job, we need to find ways to make peace with the not-safe-but-good entity who caused our wounds.
In Godzilla’s world, this peacemaking figure is Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe). This Monarch scientist does not only respect Godzilla; he venerates him as one would a deity.
Eventually, when his crew descends to the depths in search of the beast, we discover this veneration has historical precedent. At least one ancient tribe founded an entire civilization literally worshiping Godzilla as a god. Later, Dr. Serizawa soon gets his chance to meet the great beast, and for him, just the chance to touch its skin is worth a redemptive death.
The film plays this straight, still committed to its own insistence that Godzilla would be worth this devotion by modern men and that this devotion will help set all things right. In fact, when Mark begins to join with Godzilla, and even Emma sees her error, we feel their family relationship begin to be restored—similar to news headlines, over the end credits, that show how Godzilla’s arrival has helped to heal the planet. And as Emma herself makes one final sacrifice to stop Ghidora, she pledges fealty to Godzilla: “Long live—the king.”
Well, in the real world, all this would be idolatrous. The film’s ancient worshipers even had “images of birds and animals and reptiles,” which recalls Paul’s warning in Romans 1:22–23 against exchanging God’s glory for the lesser glory of created beasts. Only in Godzilla’s world—where God isn’t mentioned and godless evolution basically assumed—would this worship makes sense. Even if it destroys you. Even if other monsters appear stronger.
Here the Christian reaches friendlier territory. Godzilla-worship is idolatrous in reality, but this fiction helps us simulate “worship” of a great entity, despite its terror and ability to wound us. That means we can argue from the lesser to the greater. In the world of Godzilla: King of the Monsters, this beast truly exists, and ancient worshipers and modern scientists both believe Godzilla is worthy of their reverence. Inside the story, all this very nearly makes sense, and in the story, we don’t even feel revulsion to these moral claims.
Therefore, outside the story in the real world, how much more can we accept that a truly infinite God—who does exist, who is ancient and eternal, and who easily defeats all his evil foes—is infinitely more worthy of our real-world worship? Yes, even if he wounds us? Even if he causes disaster? Even if he has the right to make vessels for honorable or dishonorable use (Romans 9:21)? Even if he slays us, as Job claimed God might slay him (Job 13:15)?
In fact, when God himself finally spoke to Job to respond to that suffering righteous man’s challenge of the Almighty, God did not reply with theodicy arguments. He did not outline theology, or directly debunk Job’s presuppositions. Instead, God pointed to creation—to the very creatures that men could potentially idolize. Creatures like this happily familiar beast:
“Who can open the doors of his face?
Around his teeth is terror.
His back is made of rows of shields,
shut up closely as with a seal.
One is so near to another
that no air can come between them.
They are joined one to another;
they clasp each other and cannot be separated.
His sneezings flash forth light,
and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn.
Out of his mouth go flaming torches;
sparks of fire leap forth.
Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke,
as from a boiling pot and burning rushes.
His breath kindles coals,
and a flame comes forth from his mouth.
In his neck abides strength,
and terror dances before him. . . .
“He makes the deep boil like a pot;
he makes the sea like a pot of ointment.
Behind him he leaves a shining wake;
one would think the deep to be white-haired.
On earth there is not his like,
a creature without fear.
He sees everything that is high;
he is king over all the sons of pride.”
—Job 41:14–22, 31–34
There you have it. After Job has suffered and demands that God explain why he has allowed it, God himself appears in the whirlwind. He thunders with divine sarcasm about his right to rule the universe however he wants, then basically says, “I made Godzilla. Your point?”
He’s not safe, but he’s good. Long live the King.
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.