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Godzilla might have dropped nuclear horror, but Chernobyl more than makes up for it

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Pop culture’s complicated relationship to the atom

Godzilla: King of the Monsters - King Ghidorah Warner Bros. Pictures

Godzilla has been many things over the decades: a destroyer of cities, Earth’s greatest defender, an Avengers villain, and Charles Barkley’s basketball rival. But it all began with the atomic bomb.

There would be no Godzilla without the horrors of radiation, so it’s a curious bit of timing that the most iconic kaiju’s legacy continued in two very different ways last weekend. There’s Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla: King of the Monsters, obviously, and then there’s the series finale of Chernobyl. The HBO miniseries doesn’t contain any giant monsters knocking over buildings, but it treats nuclear energy as the same sort of all-powerful monster Godzilla seemed to be when he first emerged from Tokyo Bay.

But we have to go back a bit before these two very different pieces of pop culture begin to link up in ways that make sense.

Godzilla was once about fear, not thrills

The original 1954 Godzilla film is a horror movie, released less than a decade after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan and extensively firebombed Tokyo. Godzilla was a walking metaphor for the aftermath of nuclear terror.

Watching the film can be a sobering experience for genre fans who are more familiar with Godzilla’s monster brawls, or even with the American release of the original film, which adds Raymond Burr to the plot and cuts many of the more overt allusions to atomic bombs.

It’s worth revisiting the original release to see how the film’s initial intentions differed from how we understand the character’s tone now.

Godzilla briefly focuses on a mother and her three crying children as Godzilla burns Tokyo, spewing atomic breath and bringing down rubble on panicking civilians. The mother, weeping, tries to console her kids with the assurance that they’ll be joining their father soon — the implication being that he died in an earlier bombing.

There are scenes of crowded hospitals full of dead and dying people, and a Geiger counter crackles wildly when brushed against a confused, irradiated little girl after Godzilla heads back out to sea. The villagers who survived Godzilla’s first landfall are warned to stand back from dangerously irradiated footprints, and are told they can no longer use one of the wells on the island for fear of radiation poisoning. The monster’s very skin is modeled after radiation burns and scars.

But not every allusion references the old wounds of World War II, as there were more recent nuclear fears to dramatize. The film opens with an unseen Godzilla sinking and irradiating several ships, and the few sailors to survive the initial attack perish shortly after washing on shore.

In 1954, only a few months before Godzilla premiered, a tuna fishing ship called the Daigo Fukuryu Maru (“Lucky Dragon No. 5”) was caught in the fallout from an American nuclear test bombing near Bikini Atoll. White-gray ash from the irradiated remains of a destroyed coral reef rained down on the fishermen, and they sailed home while suffering from the symptoms of radiation sickness. One sailor, Aikichi Kuboyama, the boat’s chief radioman, died as a result.

Japan’s fears of nuclear power were fresh when the movie was released, in other words, and they weren’t without merit.

“At the time, I think there was an ability to grasp a thing of absolute terror,” Godzilla’s director, Ishiro Honda, recalled in a 1991 interview with G-Fan magazine about the atomic bomb’s influence on the film. “When I returned from the war and passed through Hiroshima, there was a heavy atmosphere — a fear that the Earth was already coming to an end. That was my basis.”

The real-world horror of Chernobyl

Chernobyl, a dramatization of the 1986 nuclear disaster in then-Soviet Ukraine, feels similarly apocalyptic. Without being able to resort to monstrous metaphors — or perhaps, unburdened by them — the HBO miniseries is a raw, unflinching look at the horrors of nuclear power that has slipped its leash.

People survive the reactor’s initial explosion and are seemingly unharmed, only to have their flesh turn black and liquefy due to absorbing massive doses of radiation. A pregnant wife embraces her husband, unaware that the radiation that will soon kill him will now kill their unborn child as well. Young, conscripted men shoot a litter of puppies in an attempt to stop the spread of radiation, should the animals roam freely.

Government and military officials scramble to try to make sense of a gigantic, perhaps unstoppable problem, and scores of civilians are evacuated from the area around the remains of the reactor. The villain here, radiation, is so small that it’s invisible. Yet it is everywhere, more subtle and insidious than any lumbering monster.

Though Chernobyl is historical fiction rather than science fiction, and it deals with an accident rather than warfare, the series’ subject matter and somber nature stir many of the same fears as Godzilla does in its best moments. But even the original Godzilla, for all its depictions of metaphorical nuclear death, can’t compete with the graphic nature of Chernobyl.

Nor should it be able to. Chernobyl is prestige TV in 2019, while Godzilla was a mid-’50s blockbuster from a studio that needed (and got) a big win at the box office. Godzilla manages to resonate and entertain, a tricky balance that the franchise would lose almost instantly.

The first era of Godzilla films, which lasted until 1975, dropped the nuclear metaphor very quickly. Godzilla was just a monster in the sequels, and then later Earth’s greatest defender, as he continually battled increasingly ludicrous enemies. The model buildings toppled during these fights seemed like, and were, empty props. The human cost of all that destruction was no longer the point of the series.

The only real exception to this shift is 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah, a bizarre and surprisingly graphic anti-pollution parable, though the titular Smog Monster consisted of toxic, not nuclear, waste.

No matter how high the rad count is throughout the series — which would sometimes revisit its original dread of nuclear power — the stakes often seem silly rather than existential.

Godzilla movies in the ’80s and ’90s would return to some of the series’ original themes of nuclear dread, but radiation often ended up being a plot device, rather than a thing of actual horror. The Legendary Pictures series continues this trend.

Even though the 2014 film Godzilla begins with the destruction of a nuclear power plant that appears Chernobyl-like on the surface, the monsters end up absorbing all the radiation, negating the threat. In King of the Monsters, humanity uses nukes to power up Godzilla, so radiation ultimately saves the day. Any downsides to this monster meltdown are casually brushed aside.

The Godzilla franchise quickly made radiation a spectacle rather than an ongoing source of horror, which is a trap that Chernobyl neatly avoids during its five episodes. It’s a miniseries based on historical events, which means that it doesn’t need to launch a franchise or pivot toward pure entertainment to keep the attention of its viewers.

The first Godzilla film treated the dread of nuclear war as a serious topic by turning an invisible fear into a beast whose form can be seen towering over skyscrapers, while Chernobyl takes a more direct approach. It’s able to tackle the surreal nature of radiation by describing, and showing, its dangers and effects. Both pieces of art serve as warnings, even if they exist over 70 years apart and serve those messages in vastly different ways.

The bomb and its fallout, both literal and metaphorical, were what spawned Godzilla, even if the King of the Monsters has successfully rebranded himself as the stuff of pure summer blockbusters. That’s fine. While he’s saving the world from a three-headed alien invader, Chernobyl can quietly serve as a reminder of the very real, and very scary, forces that first gave Godzilla meaning.

The half-life of radioactive material can be counted in tens of thousands of years; there is room, and time, for pop culture to continue to find ways to make sense of the terrifying potential of splitting the atom.