The Godzilla Factor

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in The New York Times Syndicate/Guardian of London on 1 July 1998

How was Wired magazine to have known that “Godzilla” would prove to be such a flop? With a three month lead-time, America’s pre-eminent futurists are bound to make a few wrong guesses. Putting Godzilla on their June cover, in anticipation that the over-budgeted lizard flick would live up to its hype, probably seemed like a good bet.

Just as good a bet as the “new economy” their Godzilla cover heralds. For if they can’t predict the success of next quarter’s movie, why should we trust them to predict the success of next century’s global economy?

Godzilla must have looked like a sure thing. As sure as the sun rising from the so-called East. But like so many of the business world’s faulty assumptions about the global marketplace, the Godzilla gambit proved disastrous – and for precisely the same reasons.

Let’s look at just the movie, for the moment. Although most critics are pointing to Godzilla’s poor ticket receipts as a sign that the age of the special effects blockbuster is over, the real reasons for the movie’s failure are much simpler: this was a bad blockbuster, with bad special effects.

The filmmakers only showed their Godzilla in the dark, in the rain, and usually underground – where the technical complexities of shadows, light sources, and color matching would be kept to a minimum. By using the now-ancient computer animation techniques of “Jurassic Park,” and implementing them in the safety of darkness, Godzilla’s filmmakers doomed themselves to smirks and yawns from the young, tech-savvy audiences for whom such effects are intended.

By the end of the film (and, presumably, their schedule and budget), the effects crew settled for replaying mirror images of already-used special effects sequences, or even putting baby Godzilla heads on sticks and pushing them through doorways. Simple Lesson one: if gee-wizardry is your trump card, you’d better be doing something that hasn’t been done before or better.

Even if the special effects had been up to today’s standards (as set, I’d argue, by the brilliantly rendered giant insects in the fascism satire “Starship Troopers”) “Godzilla” would have still needed a story or character capable of sustaining our interest. In theory, the delightful B-movie monster that we have all known and loved since the 1950’s should have fulfilled this purpose. Why didn’t he? And why couldn’t a still-relevant story about the dangers of technology survive this high budget adaptation?

Because neither Godzilla the monster nor Godzilla the fable can be fit into the mold of an American disaster movie. Godzilla is Japanese, damn it. Not everything bigger and more American is going to be somehow better or more profitable.

The Godzilla movie myth emerged from a nation that had survived a nuclear holocaust. The monster was less the enemy of the Japanese than he was the embodiment of their own defeated spirit, rising like a giant sumo wrestler to avenge the carnage wrought by Western technology. He is not nature, but a man-made freak of nature, with his own personality and free will. This is why he failed so miserably when cast in a role equivalent to the mindless tornado in the American-style natural disaster movie “Twister.”

It is an identical set of blind spots leading today’s technology pundits into equally absurd assumptions about the ability of American economic models to improve – no, overtake – the global economy. That’s why Wired chose Godzilla as cover-reptile for its “Here Comes the New Economy!” issue. According to the Wired-promoted “long boom” scenario, new technology and open markets will allow the economy to reach the colossal proportions of Godzilla and, presumably, the mega-box office Hollywood hit in which he was about to star.

The New Economists believe that the development of new technologies will fuel the creation of essentially infinite wealth. But what happens when, like kids reacting to the special effects in movies, people lose their fetishistic attraction to anything hi-tech? Will our level of technological development ever reach a plateau, even temporarily, as it did in motion pictures this year? Or what if a few of the countries we’re counting on to “buy in” to our techno-ponzi scheme simply run out of money? Is Japan really supposed to fuel an Asian buying frenzy even though the nation just reported its first year of negative earnings in two decades?

The New Economy also depends on the seamless integration (read: absorption) of the world’s economies into the American capitalist system. Not everyone’s “bottom line” is money. No matter how “open” we can make the markets, we’ll have as hard a time melting some nations into our pot as American filmmakers had reducing Godzilla to a Western disaster movie.

This is because, like the doomed “Godzilla” team, New Economists fail to recognize the personality and humanity of the societies they hope to absorb. To the techno-capitalist, the economy is like nature or the weather. There is no personality within. It’s just like a tornado. Our only choice is to join in or get out of the way. Human or government intervention is seen as inefficient meddling. The only policy is no policy. Let nature run its course.

The Internet they envision is not a collection of societies but a gateless marketplace. Humanity and, dare I say, spirit are sacrificed to corporate transactions and broadcasting, just as participatory USENET groups and bulletin boards were overrun by commercial web sites and java applets. But like Godzilla’s filmmakers, the New Economists will keep technicalities (like Indonesia or Singapore) in the dark and underground so we can’t see the mat lines (or labor practices). It can’t last for long.

The New Economy will probably have as much trouble absorbing Asia as Hollywood did abducting its monster.