Reality is often far more terrifying than fiction. As such, horror and science fiction have often looked to real-world anxieties for inspiration.
The U.S. occupation of Japan ended in 1952, but that same year, the first test of a full-scale thermonuclear bomb took place on an island in the Pacific Ocean — at a distance that was probably still too close for Japanese citizens. Still bearing the physical and mental scars of two atomic bombs dropped on their cities in 1945, this 10-megaton H-bomb was 1000 times more powerful than Hiroshima. Two years later, a 15-megaton H-bomb was dropped on Bikini Atoll (a total of 23 explosions were carried out in this area), inadvertently exposing military personnel and Marshall Islanders to high radiation levels.
A Japanese fishing trawler by the name of Daigo Fukuryū Maru (Lucky Dragon No. 5) was hit by the nuclear fallout, causing acute radiation syndrome and killing the boat's chief radioman, Aikichi Kuboyama, who succumbed to his injuries six months after the blast. Japanese film producer Tomoyuki Tanaka said this event inspired the monster called Gojira, spawning 35 movies across 65 years, making Godzilla the longest continuously running franchise (as per Guinness World Records).
So far, no country in possession of nuclear weapons has pushed the proverbial button, although the 1983 ABC TV movie The Day After did attempt to show what would happen if they did. While a nuclear reactor is not the same as nuclear bombs, several real-life incidents have proved just how terrifying nuclear fallout and radiation can be. The Three Mile Island accident occurred four years prior to this TV event, and in 1986 Chernobyl would encounter the world’s worst nuclear disaster. Monsters had no role in either of these incidents that impacted both sides of the Cold War, but both should how each nation was vulnerable.
Nature is another threat to Japan, as its location means it is vulnerable to earthquakes and tsunamis. In 2011, the Tōhoku earthquake caused a tsunami that led to the worst nuclear incident since Chernobyl. When discussing the 2014 Godzilla reboot, director Gareth Edwards explained, "I wanted it to reflect the questions that the incident at Fukushima raised." The franchise has come full circle, starting as a reaction of post-war trauma and the fear of nuclear war, leading to this notion that the world is still gambling with its future via the technology we use.
This reboot isn't only concerned with joining the dots to the nuclear past as environmental issues underscore the larger narrative in Godzilla: King of the Monsters. The montage of news stories at the start of the movie indicates that environmental concerns are increasing, which include mysterious mass animal "die-ins." In between the unanswered messages from her dad, Madison's (Millie Bobby Brown) inbox is full of emails with subject lines about climate change.
The monster metaphor has shifted from fear of nukes to extreme weather patterns. Wherever these pre-historic animals (aka Titans) go, hurricanes, tropical storms, wildfires, and earthquakes help announce their arrival. The news reports that flash up in Godzilla: King of the Monsters look pretty familiar to the events that often dominate the 24-hour news cycle (Titans aside). It isn't a stretch to imagine this type of destruction. When Godzilla first stomped onto the scene in the '50s, kids took part in "duck and cover" drills at school to prepare for a nuclear attack; now environmental issues dominate.
Man-made disasters come in many forms. A weapon doesn't have to be the cause of long-term mass destruction, as our daily way of life treats the sea as one giant trash can. Godzilla is a cautionary tale of what nuclear power can do to the world, but this catastrophic trail mirrors what humans are doing to the planet with our excessive consumption.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters is a classic case of "setting the world on fire to save it," aka the Thanos or Ra's al Ghul supervillain approach. Humans are a virus killing the planet with pollution, and the Titans are awakened to restore balance spurred on by eco-terrorist Alan Jonah (Charles Dance). Jonah doesn't really seem like he cares that much about the environment; instead, his motives don't seem to stretch beyond "I am doing this because I can." Some people just want to watch the world burn.
What this franchise does is offer a form of terrifying escapism with a dash of nostalgia. This is not to say that people long for a return to the Cold War, but those lines were clearer in the sand. Now climate change is a real threat, and sadly we don’t have a prehistoric monster to save us.