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19 Aug 2014
Communion with Nature in The Grey and Godzilla
By Vincent M. Gaine
arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way
around. Let them fight.”
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.
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)
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.
after this, Henrick drowns and Ottway is left alone. Furious at the unfairness
and indifference of the world, he bellows at God:
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!
it. I'll do it myself.
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.
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:
more into the fray
the last good fight I'll ever know
and die on this day
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.
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
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
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
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