It’s the year 2019, and everybody knows what Charles Foster Kane meant when he said “Rosebud.” Everybody knows who Luke Skywalker’s father was. The emotional strength, the powerful astonishment of those moments, is reduced to mere intellectual appreciation. “That must have really been impactful,” the audience thinks. “I’m so jealous of someone seeing it for the first time.”
And so everybody knows Godzilla was the reaction of a culture dealing with the psychological consequences of having two nuclear bombs dropped on them. It was a fictionalizing of the terror of watching a city annihilated, of witnessing an incomprehensible destructive force, of being in the presence of a monster before whom you were as insects. Everybody knows this; nobody feels it anymore. Godzilla is terrible, awful — schrecklich, not scary. Jaws was scary, but big as he is, he can only eat one person at a time. Godzilla ends civilizations. Human weapons, the strongest military might the world can assemble, cannot stop him. Cities that people spent generations of lives to build burn beneath his feet in minutes. Its monstrous scale makes it ironically less frightening, because our imaginations fail us. The unspoken chill at the heart of the first Godzilla is that he likely kills millions of people. We are shown burned victims, devastated survivors. We watch the torment of the scientists afraid that the device developed to stop him will be turned into its own weapon of mass destruction. In later years it devolved into rubber-suited farce (some of which are pretty fun), but this first movie is a serious, bleak, melancholy story about humanity reckoning with its first true existential threat and realizing that we may not be able to stop its inexorable march towards us. Or that the cost of stopping it may be too great to bear. Godzilla was released in 1954, nine years after the bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. That’s half as long as the span between the 9/11 attacks and now. And the shadow this 50-meter-tall monster casts is just another thing everybody knows, now.