The problem with the it’s-just-a-Godzilla-movie line is that “Godzilla” wasn’t just a Godzilla movie either. The original 1954 “Gojira” — renamed “Godzilla” for American audiences — was a deeply significant film. It came out less than a decade after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a mere two years after the formal end to American occupation, and amidst an enormous controversy over a Japanese fishing boat damaged during American nuclear testing in the Bikini Atoll. The film conjured the imagery of WWII air raids, and it evoked the feeling of powerlessness that came with the defeat and occupation at American hands. Audiences were traumatized by the film. There’s a reason why Godzilla is the most enduring Japanese pop-culture symbol in the world, particularly in Japan. Obviously, later Godzilla movies were silly affairs, and if there’s a “Cloverfield 7: Bug-Lizard Meets Frankenstein,” that will be silly too.
But this movie is not. Self-consciously evocative of 9/11 — it’s set near ground zero — “Cloverfield” portrays self-absorbed young people who are suddenly yanked out of their comfortable lives. In the first scene where the monster is revealed, the decapitated head of the Statue of Liberty comes screaming out of the sky. That’s hardly subtle symbolism for the end of America, or at least the end of America as we know it. The military is portrayed as caring, competent and brave as it battles a monster who is, in the words of one harried soldier, “winning.”
The handheld-camera gimmick allows for a before-and-after effect in that the horror is being recorded over an old tape of the protagonist and his girlfriend on a carefree day capped by a trip to Coney Island. After the depressing denouement is captured on the tape, it reverts back for one last scene from the Age of Innocence. The young lovers are figuratively on top of the world in a Ferris wheel, talking about what a great day they’ve had.
The message of the film is that such youthful feelings of permanent bliss can be rendered an illusion in an instant. In the wake of 9/11 and with the very real possibility that the first city to be nuked after Nagasaki and Hiroshima may well be New York, that strikes me a message worth pondering, even from a “Godzilla movie.”