Have You Seen… Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)?

Welcome to ‘Have You Seen….’ a regular column exploring an interesting film that is worthy of greater attention – for good or for ill. The focus is on the underseen, the undersung or the underrated – or just those films you just need to write about. The focus is analysis more than evaluation so, expect spoilers!

The best moments of Godzilla vs. Biollante represent the franchise at its best since the original, though with far less stylistic flair than the severely under appreciated Godzilla vs Hedorah. At these points, the film provides a similarly nuanced approach to its themes that is shared by these two former instalments.

It is easy to view the original Godzilla as a simple anti-nuclear parable but its layers and complications make it a much more detailed exploration of the pernicious effects of militarism. The message that caries on into the, rather bad, Heisei reboot (The Return of Godzilla) is a simplistic ‘nukes are bad’ which, while true, is far from the ultimate message of its inspiration. The thesis of the first Godzilla is more that our militarisation will lead to inevitable destruction and that some sins cannot be undone.

If we are to view Godzilla (the character) as a metaphor, he symbolises the consequences of our nuclear sins. He is brought forward by experimentation and weaponisation. His wanton destruction of anywhere nearby echoes the oft-quoted words of Oppenheimer that followed a detonation during the Manhattan Project: ‘we’re all sons of bitches now.’ Godzilla is those words, cinematic proof of them, and it is no coincidence that his genesis is nuclear testing more than nuclear detonation. Again, ‘nuclear weapons are bad’ is accurate but too simplistic; entering the nuclear age is a door into destruction that will always remain open (even if only ajar) while the technology exists, which is why Godzilla keeps coming back.

Where The Return of Godzilla bungles the series’ original metaphor, the strengths of Godzilla vs. Biollante build off of it. To delve into this truly requires a brief stop off at Godzilla vs. Hedorah, which pulls off a similar trick. In this film, Godzilla retains a sense of fear and menace. Here he works as a deterrent – an interesting nuclear metaphor – and that deterrent also has wide reaching consequences (the collateral damage of a Godzilla fight). 

At this stage in the Showa continuity, Godzilla has shaken off his nuclear genesis and is more a protector of Earth (and often an adorably clumsy one). This does feel at odds with his starting point but Hedorah sidesteps this by focusing on a different metaphor. Why this film works so well, and why it deserves so much more love, is that it introduces the first kaiju since Godzilla to the franchise that is primarily a metaphor, and that functions as one in a way that is intrinsic to its existence.

Hedorah is symbolic of pollution, a different way our sins corrupt the world. The way it moves, adapts, evolves and is able to cover sea, land and air becomes an apt symbol for the spread of pollution. The way that Godzilla punches through it (seemingly echoed in Biollante by how that monster is able to pierce right through Godzilla) and is so ineffectual against it, reflects how our brute force responses cannot combat these more pernicious ills. The film is then further enhanced by including surreal and psychedelic art that makes it border on counter-cultural, feeling like the closest Godzilla gets to the Japanese New Wave (if you want to see Godzilla in the key of Obayashi or Seijun Suzuki, Hedorah is for you).

Godzilla vs. Biollante is, at points, a film of similar depth; it is, however, an inconsistent one. Godzilla resumes his symbolic role as the result of nuclear escalation but, after being felled in the previous film, he seems like a threat relegated to the past. This film, though, begins with people fighting over his remnants and DNA – a smart metaphor for the ways we cling to militarism and to the nuclear. Interestingly, a lot of this film works as a great metaphor for the fallibility of the ‘nuclear deterrent’ stance. Factions in this film want to bring back Godzilla, showing a desire to always be nuclear while the capabilities exist. Also, those who are working on weapons that could combat Godzilla, in an actual post-Godzilla world, seem alarming. The film even has characters call them out for basically wishing for Godzilla’ return so that they can try out their response. 

Here, any form of militarism is criticised. Interestingly, the most effective counter to Godzilla for a long time in this film is a mirror that blasts him back at himself – though even this is not enough. Once again, the answer was always to de-escalate and to pursue peace.

This is where Biollante comes in. It is the most interesting kaiju, visually, probably in the entire series (sorry, Mothra). This giant carnivorous rose (think Audrey Two or that Poison Ivy boss fight from Batman: Arkham Asylum) is the result of unchecked science. A scientist feels forced to flee Japan, where his experiments were under constraints, in order to be able to conduct genetic experiments. There is also a throwaway line about wanting to preserve the sperm of Nobel Prize winners, which introduces a eugenicist subtext which provides an interesting layer of critique. This slight detail shows the scientist for what he is: a supremacist. Yet, when he creates Biollante, Biollante is beautiful – and is a deterrent against Godzilla. This is lucky, because Godzilla is back (yes, they unleashed him).

But, why is Godzilla back? Well, this maelstrom of experimentation and the continuing militarisation of science has led to disputes and conflict. The experimentation that creates Biollante is key to the desire of others to bring back Godzilla. It is a very strong and very compelling critique of the consequences of militarising science. It also functions as a critique of Objectivist philosophy. Biollante is the result of unrestricted science, of a supremacist agenda that links genetics with perfection. And, on the surface, Biollante is beautiful. This is because eugenics and fascistic philosophy doesn’t arrive in plain sight, it hides behind facades and is perniciously seductive. This links back to the Nobel Prize sperm line, how eugenicist thought can seem so innocuous if you don’t really think about it. 

Biollante is beautiful because Biollante is a thorough critique – even if not intended. These people think they have created something wonderful when all they have created is destruction. This beauty did bring back Godzilla and this beautiful thing will cause great destruction. It is too easy to get caught up in theoretics and beautiful science, and the like, and thusly forget real world logic. In the same way some beautiful mathematics underpinned the creation of the nuclear bomb, some beautiful science leads to Biollante. We aestheticise the process and blind ourselves to its consequences. Science and maths are political, and deeply ethical, yet we teach them like they are not and separate their calculations from their uses.

Of course, Biollante meets Godzilla. In fact, Biollante draws Godzilla towards it. Again, the metaphor is clear, Biollante is as much a symbol of militarism as Godzilla is. While militarism dominates science, there will always be conflict. The problem at this point – for the film as a whole – is how the fight goes, with a quick dispatching. The visual result is beautiful but the thematic result is a bit of a disappointment. This is where the film drops, though it does regain itself. 

The film peaks too soon and goes for a fake-out over thematic consistency. This first showdown is an excuse to let Godzilla have a go at Japan again, Osaka gets a turn this time (which is some nice variety) and while this following scene is a very good take on the classic Godzilla invasion scenario, it is another one of those. The one interesting wrinkle is that Godzilla seems empowered; the things we made to destroy him only make him stronger. That’s a decent message.

From this point, the film loses the viewer that is in search of something more political or ideological. There is a strange sequence involve a psychic which, on a generous read, perhaps shows the other failed ways that we combat militarism. She, maybe, reflects – quite crudely – the retreat into the spiritual as opposed to the necessary steps of de-escalation and de-militirisation. Or, maybe it is just a silly scene to have in a monster movie. Whatever it is, it is fun to think of it as the former.

The themes do come full circle though, as we continue to fail in stoping Godzilla. He is a reckoning: once you play with fire you get burnt and the approaches to taking this kaiju down fall uniformly into the fight fire with fire category. Human hubris leads to human failure; the real response was to not bring Godzilla out in the first place. It is nuclear guilt logic again: when the nuke is fired you cannot unfire it, and taking it down involves some kind of damage and leads to spiralling repercussions. The only thing to do is to actually rid the world of these weapons. Their creation is a black mark on society that will forever leave a consequence. But, in Godzilla vs. Biollante we see that Godzilla did not have to return, it is our ongoing militarisation, our want for the nuclear, that brings him back. 

Of course, in our showdown, Biollante does return and there is a big fight. It is awesome. Truly awesome. It goes beyond the fabulous finale of Destroy All Monsters. The struggle has collateral impact but the threat is destroyed, or is it? Our ending is a Godzilla series staple and a pertinent reminder that if we keep making bigger weapons to fight weapons, weapons will only become more common and more dangerous. Our eugenicist doctor captures the mood of the film, finally, as he declares – where others see this as proof for more Biollantes – that the real monsters are the scientists. This actually works very well, because it is not just anti-science nonsense, it is a focused critique of militarised science. The deterrent worked but the deterrent necessitated itself. It is easy to be drawn in by that beauty of Biollante without recognising its innate evil.

Another smart point of the film is to remind you that Biollante literally is Godzilla: it is made from Godzilla’s DNA. This is not an answer to the Godzilla threat, it is a continuation. Ultimately, if Biollante had not met Godzilla it would have been the new Godzilla. This is not an Iron Giant situation, in this franchise weapons are weapons and they will cause destruction. We must not make them.

Alas, there is a bit too much baggage in the film for it to be the film that it could be. This hour and forty-five minute movie could lose fifteen minutes and be more powerful for it. There are also weird edges that get into racial stereotyping and parts that do not play into the thematics. It is not as god as the original, though it is the most nuanced since it. It is also not as audacious and as experimental as Hedorah. Ultimately, in prioritising thematics and bungling them at points it also ends up weaker than the all action Destroy All Monsters. Though, for me, this film is what Shin Godzilla (a movie I do love) wants to be. The politics are more interesting, there are fewer problematic connotations and it builds on the central metaphor of the series as opposed to rewriting it. 

This is far from a perfect film, and it is no masterpiece, but it is further proof of how interesting the Godzilla franchise is and of the symbolic potential of genre cinema.

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