19 Aug 2014

Communion with Nature in The Grey and Godzilla

By Vincent M. Gaine

“The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around. Let them fight.”
Ishiro Serizawa

The Grey (Joe Carnahan, 2011) and Godzilla (Gareth Edwards, 2014) are both stories of conflict between human and the Other, and the Other takes the form of dangerous animals, wolves in The Grey and prehistoric monsters in Godzilla. Throughout both films, humans are in danger and both films maintain a consistent mood of dread and menace. However, closer inspection reveals an underlying interest in communion between humanity and nature, although it takes different forms in the two films.


The Grey, based on a short story Ghost Walker by Ian MacKenzie Jeffers, is explicitly philosophical. It concerns a group of plane crash survivors who are marooned in the Arctic wilderness and must contend with killer wolves. The protagonist, John Ottway, was hired by the oil company that employs all the men to protect oil workers against wolf attack, so he understands the animals as well as how to survive in the wilderness. Zoologically, the film is pure fiction, as the wolves that appear are far larger than any actual wolf and their behaviour as described by Ottway does not correspond with any actual research into wolves – specifically, wolves tend to avoid humans and attacks are extremely rare. This inaccuracy led to criticisms against the film for a misleading and therefore damaging depiction of wolves, an interesting view but not one I agree with. Wolves have been persecuted and exterminated for centuries, mainly because of competition for food, to protect livestock and for “sport”. One more fictional representation is not likely to change that. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the wolves in The Grey do not really represent wolves – they represent untamed, unmitigated nature, a manifestation of nature’s savagery and indifference that is more killable (and therefore useful for narratives) than an avalanche or a snowstorm. Faced with the power of nature, the men are far removed from civilisation and must become as savage as their surroundings in order to survive.

In Godzilla, nature invades civilisation as monsters stomp through cities as if they were tall grass, demonstrating humanity’s insignificance. Military firepower is of little consequence, including nuclear weapons - both Godzilla and the MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) barely notice bullets and explosive shells. Their regard for humans is similar to that of our own regard for ants – they barely notice us. Whereas previous Godzilla films featured monsters destroying cities (usually Tokyo) because they were there, or because the monsters were controlled by aliens bent on conquest, in Edwards’ film the destruction is incidental. While the monsters are clearly dangerous and destructive, they are not vicious or malevolent – they are simply doing what they do. There is a mating ritual between the two MUTOs that recalls a scene in Edwards’ debut, the low budget romance/science fiction/road movie Monsters, which features an eerily beautiful sequence between two alien creatures. Despite the gulf between their production contexts, Godzilla echoes the director’s earlier effort in its dwarfing of humanity within landscapes, much as The Grey takes place almost entirely in external locations.

The cinematography of both films includes multiple wide shots of natural landscapes, often placing humans and animals within them. Godzilla begins and ends with images of water – the title sequence features imitation stock footage of 1950s nuclear tests in the South Pacific, with huge reptilian scales breaking the surface of the sea. In the final shot, Godzilla plunges back into the ocean, returning to his habitat having restored the balance of nature. While the viewer could be left with a sense of triumph and awe at Godzilla’s besting of the MUTOs, this final image is remarkably tranquil, suggesting that ferocity and serenity are part of the same balance. In much the same way, humanity is a part of nature, as evidenced by the continued mise-en-scene that incorporates Godzilla and the humans in the same wide shots. The MUTO are not included in these shots, ensuring that they remain Other and threatening. Similarly, the wolves of The Grey are hardly ever seen clearly, mostly appearing as dark shapes or glowing eyes. But the men of The Grey cannot escape this creeping presence, and over the course of the film are gradually integrated into their environment.

The Grey, dir. Joe Carnahan (2011)
This integration is violent and enforced in The Grey, as the group of survivors are steadily picked off. Ottway does what he can to keep them alive: making fire, seeking out water and defensible positions as well as improvising weapons, but it proves futile as he is unable to keep any of his companions alive. The Grey presents nature as irresistible and all consuming, and death is a constant presence that must be acknowledged. This is the film’s existential conceit, as the survivors of the crash each encounter death in their own way. For most of the film, this involves a desperate fight to stay alive, but at the beginning and towards the end, death is embraced as the natural conclusion of life. In an early scene, before the plane crash, Ottway almost kills himself with his own rifle but is interrupted. His motivation is essentially grief – he lost his wife and would rather die than continue living without her. Later, when only Ottway and two other survivors, Diaz and Henrick, are left, Diaz opts to die rather than push on. He decides that his life has been meaningless and he would rather die in the wilderness than go back to his worthless life. Diaz finds meaning in death, crucially because he is in a natural environment. He tells Ottway and Henrick that he will never live so well, never taste his own existence so acutely, as he has after fighting for their lives so hard, and he will never be anywhere better than the Alaskan mountains. The film shows us nature at its most beautiful and terrible, and Diaz communes with it for literally the rest of his life. As Diaz is left alone, the sound of wolves approaching offscreen is heard, but the viewer does not see them because it would be unnecessary. Whereas the other men died fighting nature, Diaz simply accepts nature, and we see his communion in a single shot in which we share his view of the mountains.

Shortly after this, Henrick drowns and Ottway is left alone. Furious at the unfairness and indifference of the world, he bellows at God:

Do something. Do something. You phony prick fraudulent motherfucker. Do something! Come on! Prove it! Fuck faith! Earn it! Show me something real! I need it now. Not later. Now! Show me and I'll believe in you until the day I die. I swear. I'm calling on you. I'm calling on you!
[receives no response]
Fuck it. I'll do it myself.

That is the view of the world in The Grey – do it yourself or something else will do it to you. In the final scene, Ottway faces the wolf pack alpha and readies himself for a final battle. Much as a wolf is armed with teeth and claws, Ottway tapes a knife and broken bottles to his hands, making himself into as savage a beast as that which confronts him. His communion with nature is a savage one, all pretence of civilisation or humanity stripped away. Significantly, before the fight he abandons the wallets of the men who have died, that he carried in the vain hope that he could tell the victims’ families what happened. Hope is lost, all that remains is the Wild, a wild that Ottway willingly embraces.

This embrace is the film’s communion with nature – from nature we come and to it we must return. The final responses of Ottway and Diaz are quite literally poetic, encapsulated by Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”. Diaz does exactly what Thomas urged against, going gentle into the good night, while Ottway rages against the dying of the light. Of course, poetry runs through the film as well, Ottway repeating a poem that his father wrote:

Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I'll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day.

Is it a good fight? It is at best a fight to stay alive, and to fight for life is to live and die, experience everything, feel life in the moments of death. Ultimately it does not matter – nature will consume all within it whatever we do. There is purity in Ottway’s final declaration of existence. He is nothing but a desire to survive, and whether he survives or not (the film is ambiguous in this respect), he embraces the savagery of the world without hesitation. Communion with nature can be a savage business, but The Grey presents it in a way that is honest in its brutality.

Godzilla, dir. Gareth Edwards (2014)
Godzilla is far gentler in its communion with nature, and cynically this can be credited to the film’s status as a major commercial product by its studio. It is available to a wider cinema audience than The Grey and remains open for a sequel (which has been green lit). But despite commercial concerns, Godzilla’s interest in communion with nature is consistent. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (a direct homage to a character in the original) warns Admiral William Stenz: “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around” and that, rather than trying to intervene in the course of natural events by attacking Godzilla and the MUTO, the best thing for the humans to do is “Let them fight”. Godzilla demonstrates that nature is beyond humans, and the best we can do is try to survive it, much like the men in The Grey and, indeed, any animal. Godzilla himself is closely associated with elemental forces, such as a great sea swell that surges through Honolulu and heralds his arrival. He seems of the earth, or more precisely of the ocean – great, mysterious and powerful. Very little is seen of Godzilla in the first hour, until he confronts the male MUTO at Honolulu Airport, after his arrival flooded most of the city. This further associates him with the forces of nature, which largely remain invisible except to sophisticated equipment. We see the results of nature, such as rising sea levels, changes in weather patterns, tremors in the earth and volcanic ash and lava, but the forces which cause these changes are generally hidden, such as increased CO2 in the atmosphere, changes in ocean salinity, and a giant monster that normally lives on the sea bed.

The contrast between human insignificance and nature’s power reaches its climax in San Francisco, where the MUTO attempt to breed. Their spawn will doom for humanity and so must be stopped, but initially the military effort is misguided. Serizawa urges against the use of nuclear weapons, and the audience are allied with him because it has been made clear that the monsters feed off radiation so assurances that the blast itself will kill them are unconvincing. The film quickly proves the scientists correct as the female MUTO uses the bomb to fertilise herself while it ticks down towards detonation, which will kill thousands. But before her eggs can hatch, both the US military and Godzilla intervene. The joint effort is incidental – Godzilla attacks the MUTO because they are competition for him while a bomb disposal unit attempts to disarm the warhead. But the incidental nature of this joint effort is crucial. Godzilla and the MUTOs fight because that it is what nature intends for them, and the humans’ contribution is to remove the intrusion of the nuke. Furthermore, while Godzilla fights the MUTO, the lead human character, Lieutenant Ford Brody, destroys the eggs with fire. The technology of the nuclear warhead is out of place in Nature’s Battle of the Titans, but fire is primal and basic, Ford completing the film’s movement back to nature. Across the film, there is a steady reduction of technology – the MUTO can release an electromagnetic pulse as a weapon that renders all electronics useless. To protect the nuke against this pulse, a mechanical timer is used, which also proves to be a mistake as Ford’s disposal team cannot disarm it in time. But with the bomb being carried away from a populated area, Ford resorts to the elemental force of fire to protect his species and fight his enemy, which proves effective as the eggs are engulfed in flame.

Godzilla’s most important moment of communion comes shortly after the destruction of the eggs, as Godzilla defeats and kills the male MUTO. Exhausted by the battle, the giant monster collapses into the rubble and is swallowed by billowing clouds of dust. Ford witnesses this collapse in awe, much like the audience. But before Godzilla disappears, he appears to see Ford and the two share a look and have a moment. It is brief but significant, Ford and Godzilla seeming to recognise their kindred spirits, their shared involvement in the current situation. There is communion between man and monster, not because Ford has tried to get closer but because nature has brought them together. Nature’s power and might is emphasised throughout Godzilla, but this moment highlights that humans are not separate from nature, but as much a part of it as these great creatures.

The communion reappears (again incidentally) at the film’s climax, as Ford is trying to get the nuke away from San Francisco by boat. The female MUTO seems to attack him as if in revenge for the destruction of her offspring, but Godzilla saves Ford by attacking and finally killing the female. Godzilla collapses and appears to have died, but then rises and departs, TV reports describing him as “Savior of Our City?” As he leaves San Francisco, he causes no further destruction, wide shots capturing him as well as the people he has saved, albeit incidentally, before he plunges back into the sea as mentioned earlier.

Godzilla demonstrates that nature is beyond human control, and the best we can do is try to survive it. In this regard, the film illustrates communion and, like The Grey, a journey to a place outside of normal human experience. Stenz explains to his troops that no one is prepared for the situation they face, before Ford and his team perform a halo jump from high above the city. The jump sequence is both terrible and beautiful, and uses the musical piece Gyorgy Ligeti's Requiem, a piece also used in key sequences of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Much as Stanley Kubrick’s film presented travelling “beyond the infinite”, so Edwards’ film presents travelling outside of human experience. Rather than travelling forward to a further stage of human evolution, Ford and his team are travelling backwards, literally away from human technology as they jump out of a plane into a battleground between forces of nature. Similarly, technology in The Grey fails to protect its characters as a plane crashes, forcing the men to rejoin nature however hard they fight it. Both films demand reconnection with nature and, while it may not be pretty, it is inevitable and a powerful reminder that, indeed, nature is never in our control.

Godzilla, dir. Gareth Edwards (2014)