In an interview the philosopher Martin Heidegger gave later in life, he spoke about how our technology had uprooted us, not only from tradition, but the very earth itself. He added that this alienation had reached such an advanced state that "only a god can save us."
I found it amusing, and a bit surprising, that in the recent summer blockbuster Godzilla, when this "god" finally arrives, he takes the the form of a giant, fire-breathing dragon.
If you've seen the film, you know that due to our experiments with dangerous technologies (in this case, nuclear energy), great beasts arise from the depths to torment humanity. Our main persecutor comes in the form of a giant, moth-like creature. Godzilla follows this "MUTO" ("Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism") up from wherever such beings live, to hunt down and destroy it. A battle ensues and God(zilla) is on our side all the way.
When I say Godzilla is a god, I mean that literally. As Director Gareth Edwards put it in The Daily Beast, the MUTO represents "man's abuse of nature," and Godzilla "is a god, really. He's at the top of the food chain and probably King of the World." Godzilla is also called a god by characters in the film.
The mission of this godly being is to restore the balance of nature (that the MUTO throws out of whack), saving humanity in the process, as a sort of fortuitous side-effect. At the end of the film, as Godzilla leaves the ravaged city where his battle with the evil MUTO took place, the crowd watching breaks out in a cheer.
This means, though, that even with its happy ending, the film has a pessimistic, somber mood -- not unlike Heidegger's later philosophy. Humanity seems helpless. Most of the action takes place between the behemoths. All the military/scientific team that gathers in the crisis can do ultimately, is "let them fight," as one character mutters reverently.
This dark mood certainly reflects the zeitgeist concerning ecological issues. Washington still debates the reality of global warming, while environmental scientists such as James Lovelock (who invented the Gaia hypothesis), advise us to "enjoy life while [we] can," as "humans are too stupid to prevent climate change."
And yet, despite the reality of the issues the movie alludes to, I found it hard to take the messenger entirely seriously. A popcorn movie, where a couple of monsters jam it out, after all, can't help but seem more fun and silly than profound.
As a result, I found myself reading into the movie in more mundane ways. And I thought about Godzilla being a savior of something less grand than the earth itself.
Recently I've been reading a fascinating book about the entertainment industry by Anita Elberse titled Blockbusters. In it, she shows that the main vehicle the movie business now favors is the big-budget, special-effects flick. As a result, it follows a strategy in which it sinks most of its investment dollars into such blockbusters, in search of giant wins. She also shows that the rest of the entertainment industry is pretty much following suit.
Elberse tells us that this industry increasingly relies on blockbusters, in part, to avoid the need to place its bets on smaller, riskier properties, aimed at niche markets -- an approach often associated with the fragmentation of audiences that came about because of the web and the digital age. Instead, the blockbuster makes old-school mass-marketing to a mass audience still possible.
You could say, then, that Godzilla saves not only the earth, but, on a more trivial level, the movie studio that produced the film he stars in, by offering the promise of the kind of big profits that will keep it afloat.
And blockbusters don't just save the movie industry from being at the mercy of niche tastes. Elberse doesn't talk about this so directly in her book, but another aspect of entertainment in the digital age is that lots of it is free. Blockbusters, designed for big, 3-D screens, are one of the entertainment products for which people are still willing to pay.
In this light, Godzilla isn't only saving the earth; he's also helping the paid entertainment economy fight off the increasingly powerful free one -- or what Jeremy Rifkin has recently termed the "collaborative commons."
And in this regard, perhaps this economic message is related to the ecological pessimism you see in the film. For the same, clumsy, old school, big-time capitalism that survives by producing blockbusters, is, according to Rifkin, incapable of dealing with ecological crises. What he predicts, instead (in The Zero Marginal Cost Society), is the coming of "Collaboratism," a new economic paradigm that transcends both capitalism and socialism.
Until then, I suppose, one might have to agree with Heidegger, that only a god -- or perhaps a Godzilla -- can save us.