Tuesday, July 13, 2004
The terrible ambiguity of Godzilla science
This weekend I saw the first Godzilla movie, in the restored original Japanese version. The Godzilla universe is as complicated and internally inconsistent as they come, but the first movie (1954) was an interesting allegory about the hazards of nuclear weapons. Shot in stark black and white, the movie tells the story of a prehistoric monster who is brought back to life by H-bomb testing and proceeds to terrorize coastal Japan and Tokyo in particular. The original American theatrical release was heavily bowdlerized, both removing some of the harsher scenes of irradiated children (Godzilla was highly radioactive) and splicing in scenes of Raymond Burr as an American journalist. I haven't seen the American version in a long time (ever? there are so many Godzilla movies it's hard to keep track), but I suspect the Japanese version is both more coherent and dramatically compelling.
Of course the production quality was not what we are used to these days, nor was the general pacing. To a contemporary audience, this movie seems awfully relaxed, even in the scene where Godzilla is stomping trains and power lines in downtown Tokyo. Part of this is the difference between Japanese and American sensibilities, but much of it is simply the passage of time; those early James Bond films seem just as lethargic. And it's easy to recognize when a tiny model is being destroyed by waves rather than a full-size town. (Probably much of our ability to tell the difference can be traced to physics -- the relative timescales associated with various actions change with respect to each other as a function of length scale. Someone should write a paper about this.) The one effect that remains unmatched is the sound that Godzilla makes; even in the horrible but high-tech 1998 American version, they were unable to create an equally impressive Godzilla sound from scratch and had to stick with the original.
Science plays an ambiguous role in the movie. Obviously, technology is implicated in the original horror of the H-bomb that brings Godzilla to life. Later, the elderly paleontologist is portrayed as heartbroken that there are plans to kill Godzilla (who has been happily rampaging through Tokyo) rather than attempt further study -- a standard, although not very complimentary, stereotype of scientists. But at the end, it is a lonely researcher working in his basement laboratory who invents the weapon that ultimately destroys Godzilla -- the Oxygen Destroyer, which kills all aquatic life in a wide radius around where it is activated. So science has terrible consequences, but we have no other recourse when we need to address our serious problems. Of course, yet another misunderstanding of how science works leads to the final plot twist, when the lonely researcher (who had been permanently scarred by an atomic blast) commits suicide after the Oxygen Destroyer is used, so that this terrible power cannot fall into the wrong hands. In the real world, if a well-funded group of dedicated scientists have just seen something demonstrated, they will figure it out for themselves before too long. There are no true secrets when it comes to science and technology; the interesting discoveries will all eventually be made, regardless of what any one person chooses to share.