The newest entry into the world of kaiju, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, is a Wiki-kitchen-sink filled with Hollow Earth, pseudo-Atlantis, sequel connect the dots, and just enough giant monster fighting to shake off worried fans. While some of this year’s film bears similarities to many lighter entries of the Godzilla canon, it stands in contrast to 1954’s original, Gojira. This distinction is acute because the current film weaves into the plot and marketing campaign ideas of environmental imbalance and crisis, yet it uses these ideas as set-dressing while Gojira directly indicts man’s cruelty to each other and the world. However, it is a single line in Godzilla: King of the Monsters which sneaks by the casual viewer and is a disturbing indicator of the new film’s utter failure to understand the anti-nuclear and environmental message that started it all. A simple two words — Castle Bravo.
In Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Castle Bravo is the call sign for Monarch’s submerged headquarters. In reality, Castle Bravo was one of the moments in mankind’s nuclear history where a society, specifically America, launched an atomic bomb on the environment with such fury it eclipsed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and wasn’t grotesquely bested until the Soviet Czar Bomba test seven years later. Detonated in the Bikini Atoll in the spring of 1954, the Castle Bravo test shot was 1,000 times more powerful than the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. American scientists estimated a much lower yield for Castle Bravo than what it actually produced — a predicted six megatons versus actual 15 megatons. Within hours the radioactive fallout spread over an area approximately the size of New Jersey. One hundred miles east of the test shot, in the Rongelap Atoll, snowflake-like fallout was reportedly eaten by children and wiped through people’s hair. Pulverized and irradiated coral and water vapor rocketed upward to between 115,000 to 130,000 feet. Radiation specific to Castle Bravo was eventually measured around the globe, and to this day sediments across the Atoll produce radioactive coconuts. Castle Bravo is not and should not be an Easter Egg or throwaway line. Its use can arguably be called callous and distasteful.
Even though indigenous peoples had been on Bikini and many of the islands of the South Pacific for thousands of years, U.S. officials downplayed the location as untenable for human life and thus suitable remote for nuclear tests. Islanders were relocated, but their new home was a shadow of their Bikini, independence was replaced by dependence. Decades after the initial removal of Bikini Atollans and Castle Bravo test shot, residents were allowed to return but removed again when the radiological subsidence expected by America failed to occur. In 1997 the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that due to continuing radiological conditions, “Permanent resettlement of Bikini Island under the present radiological conditions without remedial measures is not recommended.” The displacement and breaking of generations of cultural, economic, and social traditions were made possible by the verbal diminishment of the atoll by the United States and through the physical obliteration of segments of the island chain and irradiating it for centuries to come. Castle Bravo intersects with Japan and Gojira, through a boat called Lucky Dragon #5.
The Daigo Fukuryu Maru, or Lucky Dragon #5, was at sea east of the Castle Bravo test shot. Fallout visited the fishing vessel and its crew with radioactive ash that burned their skin and plunged them into radiation sickness and complications that all but one would survive. The sickened crew returned to Japan two weeks later and were met with horror and the perception that nuclear weapons had once again attacked the people of Japan. The Lucky Dragon incident stoked a broader fear in Japan as its fishing fleets, freed from post-war restrictions, returned to the sea in search of tuna. Radiation was detected 30 meters away from the vessel when it returned to port, and authorities realized some of its tuna had entered the market. After Castle Bravo, Japanese officials revealed that nearly 900 fishing vessels and thousands of crew had been affected by the nuclear test. Seventy-five tons of tuna caught during the months after the test was confiscated and destroyed.
Gojira director Ishiro Honda knew war and its horrors. He also understood discretion sometimes produced respectful, yet impactful art. Initially inspired by the events of Castle Bravo and the Lucky Dragon #5, Honda reworked Gorjira’s script to open with a flash and ships destroyed by an unseen force. Radioactive footprints and trilobites deposited by the muck-caked feet of Godzilla draw the viewer into the reality of a people and nation who knew the immediate physical effects of nuclear weapons. Early in the film, as Gojira threatens Japan, a tram rider remarks, “This is awful. Atomic tuna. Radioactive fallout…I barely escaped the atomic bomb in Nagasaki.” Through fiction, Honda and his team echoed the fears of residents throughout the island archipelago. Incorporating the actual Lucky Dragon incident into his monster movie, Honda said, “would not be appropriate. Instead, it became a matter of feeling…an invisible fear… the creation of the atomic bomb had become a universal problem. I felt this atomic fear would hang around our necks for eternity.” It is impossible to hear Castle Bravo used blithely in Godzilla: King of the Monsters and not associate it with Nagasaki or Hiroshima, the Lucky Dragon or to think of Honda’s own words. Nuclear weapons and their component devastation have been forgotten by many, including the characters of 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters.
Push back would say most Godzilla films, like 2019’s King of the Monsters, were essentially kids fare, and I concur by quoting William Tsutsui who said Godzilla films, “evolved over time from sober adult fare to lighthearted children’s entertainment,” becoming “kaiju puroresu” or monster pro-wrestling. Godzilla of our youth was light on message and plot, built on periods of mayhem, and punctuated with a battle royale. This formula kept the franchise alive through several generations with ever thinner plots and broader monster fights. That same recipe does not match what was put on screen in King of the Monsters which hid behind copious military fetishism and some turgid environmental ethics debates.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters spends time thinking and marketing itself as a topical, environmentally aware tale with enough cred for the Extinction Rebellion generation. Yet for all of its environmental posturing, complete with natural disaster Powerpoint and self-styled environmental ethics debates, Godzilla: King of the Monsters ultimately tap dances through ecological landmines with abandon and returns to the dated “just in case” justification of nuclear weapons. Monarch’s scientific team, a far cry from Gojira’s compassionate anthropologist Yamane and tortured chemist Serizawa, are effectively intelligence analysts for the U.S. military, part of the very military-industrial complex which helped spawn Godzilla in the first place. The film is resolved through human nuclear intervention and invention, exposing the radioactive human core of King of the Monsters. A nuclear weapon becomes Monarch’s Hail Mary without any intellectual or emotional connection to the core themes of survival of the earth and humanity. Conveniently neutered of its grotesque fallout, the film’s nuclear bomb undergoes almost mystical osmosis with a wounded Godzilla hiding in his radioactive lair. A nuclear weapon transformed from the reaper’s scythe to the kaiju equivalent of a shot of adrenaline. The kaiju of King of the Monsters become a mediator of special, fanciful radiation that mutates lands into verdant yet wholly “unnatural” landscapes. Those same paradisiacal landscapes are intrusive and unearthly as Ghidorah; the decried “invasive species” of the film.
When asked about continuing the environmental themes of the franchise, King of the Monsters writer/director Michael Doherty said it was “vital…but you have to do it delicately. You can’t make it so heavy-handed that it turns off an audience.” King of the Monsters stands in contrast to Gojira for that reason. Though a bulk of Godzilla films were kaiju pro-wrestling, they never undermined the emotional, cultural, or environmental themes of the original. King of the Monsters, however, does this early and often. The new film fails basic anti-nuclear environmental messaging by not realizing Castle Bravo is not a cool code name but a nuclear bomb test that altered the ecology of the Bikini Islands, displaced peoples and put them at risk for a variety of cancers. Starting with a single phrase, King of the Monsters betrays its supposed appreciation of the franchise message and shows its lack of emotional intelligence by turning Gojira’s fearful inspiration into a throwaway line.
As children we watch Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, Destroy All Monsters, and Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah as a simple form of escape, knowing it is actors in rubber monster suits crushing model buildings and tanks in a style that appeals much the same way as the high-flying antics of luchadores. We never relinquish that love of silly action, of giant monsters, rumbling and stumbling around, slap fighting, and confusedly shaking off strikes like the best professional wrestler. Even in this year’s Godzilla film, there is a quotient of kaiju battling that engaged the seven-year-old part of my brain.The underlying lessons of Gojira were anti-nuclear, anti-war, respect for the environment, and retain hope that humanity can coexist with the natural world. Godzilla: King of the Monsters attempts to mimic that narrative structure with a 21st-century eco-consciousness but instead delivers an intellectual trivialization of the original.