Double Feature: Science and Monsters in Godzilla (1954) and Jurassic Park (1993)

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Seen: Both at the Somerville Theatre, but on different nights.

Recently the Somerville Theatre showed a restored print of the original Godzilla, and though it was a digital presentation it was decidedly excellent to see it on a big screen. On this viewing, I found myself continually finding parallels to Jurassic Park, which had shown at the same theater a few weeks earlier, so I thought it might be fun to do a little comparison piece thingie. (I don’t know, I’ve never done anything quite like this before, what would you call it?) Of course, both are films about monsters, but more specifically, both are films about essentially man-made monsters, allowing their stories to act as commentary on the hubris inherent to human science. In Jurassic Park, Richard Attenborough’s kindly Scottish millionaire, John Hammond, is a boy playing with very dangerous toys: he’s loved dinosaurs since he was a tot and now that the technology exists to recreate them he just kind of dives in without truly considering the consequences. There is no direct correlation in Godzilla, but the themes are similar. The titular monster is a fusion of ancient animal might and twentieth-century nuclear experimentation, another example of man going “against nature” in their quest for social and intellectual superiority. It’s a common thread found in science-fiction, but one made more grave by the actual (and very recent) history of nuclear destruction in Japan.

In Godzilla, the threat of annihilation feels all too real, and the ramifications of radiation and bomb deployment have already been felt. The monster itself is a product of that technology, as well as a metaphor for it- brutally violent and hopelessly unstoppable. It is ultimately a ridiculous premise, with a legacy made sillier by lighter sequels, but that connection to reality gives it a believably dramatic tone. For Jurassic Park, a quintessential Hollywood summer blockbuster if there ever was one, the larger context is of course not so dire. There are no cities destroyed, no threat of radiation poisoning, no lost mothers and fathers (but a few villains). The story is more contained, and a bit more personal. But the monsters are still there. And it’s still humans’ fault.

The scientist protagonists, at first excited and bewildered by the resuscitation of extinct dinosaurs, gradually question the morality and the safety of Hammond’s actions. They realize that just because the technology exists, doesn’t necessarily mean we should use it, regardless of the knowledge it could potentially give us (Hammond’s tacky theme-park angle doesn’t really help legitimize it, either). Similar realizations are reached in Godzilla, with hunky scientist Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) conflicted over the use of his new invention: a device that removes oxygen from surrounding air or water and effectively sucks the life out of all creatures. What is his responsibility as the creator of such a weapon, is it up to him to hide it from the world so it can never be used? Even if it might be the only thing that can stop another form of destruction that’s currently terrorizing his community? Like John Hammond, he ultimately decides to employ the technology despite its potentially hazardous effects, but he also ensures that no one else can ever use it again, and no one else will be harmed after he uses it to stop Godzilla.

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The final major parallel between Godzilla and Jurassic Park that I considered during my viewing was the relationships between three central characters, whose dynamics reflect a bit of their own times and cultures. Drs. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), Ellie Satler (Laura Dern), and Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) are all scientists, and all presumably equals in intellect and position. Neill is made the main hero, spending a night protecting two children from dinosaur attacks, but Dern is certainly not a passive character, valiantly fighting to save her partner and others on the island. Goldblum is both the comic relief as well as the victimized eye candy, spending most of his time after the dinosaurs break out holed up in a bunker with a broken leg and a shirt that can’t seem to stay buttoned. The sexual tension between the three is present but minimal due to Satler and Grant’s presumed engagement (?) or at least openly romantic status, though it’s clear Malcolm’s frequent passes at Satler aren’t helping Grant feel secure in their relationship. The romantic lead in Godzilla, Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada), is a good-hearted, uncomplicated man of action, while the brilliant and tortured Serizawa is struggling with Big Issues. Their only thing in common seems to be Emiko (Momoko Kôchi), the current fiance of Ogata and previous fiance of Serizawa. She is a smart and kind woman but generally takes a backseat to the men surrounding her, these intelligent scientists and heroic ship captains. Her main power comes from her ability to persuade and counsel these men, as well as gain information. Serizawa’s sacrifice at the end makes him the true hero, an understandable development given the cultural significance of suicide in Japan.

Godzilla and Jurassic Park are both excellent films, exciting and well-made, with lizard monsters on the rampage. They speak to a fear and respect of twentieth-century science coupled with an awe of ancient nature and its unpredictability. The former is very specific to Japan and its history, while the latter is noticably American in its Hollywood spectacle and Spielbergian sentiment. I love them both, and now I realize I love them both together. The combined Hunk Power of Jeff Goldblum and Akihiko Hirata certainly helps.

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