Godzilla vs. Destoroyah is the last film of the Heisei era of Godzilla cinema, which began with 1984’s The Return of Godzilla/Godzilla 1985. That movie was a clever return to the original fears of nuclear terror that spawned the creation of Godzilla in the first place, with the ability to comment on how those concerns had changed over time, as well as how they hadn’t. Return of Godzilla, for the most part, shines a light on the realities of living in a nuclear world, after the devastation of the first atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It’s about the fact that this terrible power, once made, cannot be unmade. Godzilla, in that movie, still very much represents the mindless destruction of atomic power, something that levels everything in its path. He is captured in a volcano at the end of the film, because that was all that could be done in a world living with the reality of atomic power, if it can’t be destroyed it can at best be housed and contained, hopefully permanently.
The Heisei era probably stands up as my favorite time in Godzilla’s history, even just on a base monster fan level. The designs are immediately what I think of when I think of these characters, even though I didn’t see most of these entries until I was an adult. I grew up watching the Showa movies on TV, but playing with the Trendmasters action figures based on the Heisei designs, so every Heisei-era monster movie has taken me back to my childhood despite me technically having no nostalgic connection to most of them. While they vary in quality, they all sort of have a signature look, which was set by Return of Godzilla, even as the series moved on from its seriousness to plots of time travel, egg stealing and universe-saving moths.
Most of these movies, for all their ridiculous antics, revolve around trying to harness or control Godzilla’s power in some way. In Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, Godzilla is seen as a relatively benevolent entity that has consciously saved humans in the past, and news from the future that he is responsible for the destruction of Japan turn out to be a fabricated lie, so Godzilla must return to fight King Ghidorah after that alien dragon begins to devastate the countryside. In both Godzilla vs. Mothra and Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II, Godzilla is mostly an antagonist, partially because Mothra has always been depicted as benevolent and Mechagodzilla is a weapon created and piloted by humans. In each of these movies, people are either trying to use or suppress Godzilla’s power, and often attempt both in the same feature. It’s similar, at least on some level, to the nuclear debate that raged throughout the 1980s, though it’s certainly not the main focus like Gojira or Return of Godzilla.
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah brings that nuclear focus back to the forefront of the franchise in a really interesting way. Like those two before it, it’s reflective of the nuclear debate at the time. And despite only being made a decade after Return of Godzilla, that debate had once again changed, as had the general global fears about nuclear power. This time the debate no longer centered just on nuclear weapons, but those aforementioned attempts to harness and/or house atomic energy. And the thing that changed the course of the discussion could not have been more obvious, as a real life tragedy occurred that continues to haunt and fascinate us to this day.
On April 26th, 1986, a horrifying disaster occurred at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant near Pripyat in the Ukranian SSR. Everybody knows the story.
During a late night safety test, the reactor malfunctioned and caused a steam explosion that then caused a massive fire that lasted for nine days. It was a huge, devastating disaster, with the amount of deaths still disputed to this day. It is still considered the most horrific nuclear power plant accident in history. It changed how we thought of atomic power, how we talked about it, and that in turn changed how we interpreted atomic power through fiction.
This is abundantly clear in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, right from the very beginning. From the moment it starts, Godzilla is already dying. He does not look well. His body is cracking, burning, glowing from within, steaming, and it just intensifies from there as the feature goes on. By the end, he’s literally on fire. It’s the most natural reinvention of Godzilla for a post-Chernobyl world and it’s made clear right out of the gate. In a world where harnessing and housing nuclear power has proven to be anything but foolproof, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah examines the idea of Godzilla’s death as a global threat. After many attempts to destroy this creature, he is going to die on his own and that, ironically, is the worst option for the rest of humanity. Why? Because Godzilla’s body is, in essence, a storing facility for nuclear energy. Like power plants had more than proven to be at the time, this facility is not foolproof, is not permanent, and is approaching meltdown.
The stakes could not be clearer. Godzilla’s heart is basically a reactor. When it goes, he goes, and when he goes the world goes, because he is a titanic beacon of nuclear energy. This is before the plot even kicks off and long before another monster even enters the picture.
Appropriately, that monster—simply named the Destroyer—feeds on nuclear energy. Naturally, it sees Godzilla as a snack. The being is essentially made up of smaller, insect-like creatures that assemble into a giant kaiju in the grand tradition. The English dub refers to them as reptile-like, but that’s got to be a translation error because they have spider-like legs and are definitely bug shaped. One of the standout sequences from the film is about as close as ‘90s Godzilla ever got to horror and definitely speaks to the influence of Chernobyl on the film, as it depicts a scene of utter chaos inside a nuclear power plant.
To be clear, Godzilla has a long cinematic tradition of the destruction of nuclear power plants, it’s one of the things he’s most known for dating back to the original 1954 film. But that destruction was always seen from the outside, from a distance. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, however, takes us inside for a monster invasion sequence that screams of Aliens. This time, we’re seeing the chaos and destruction from within, and it’s not being taken out by one swipe of a giant tail or stomp of an enormous foot, it’s gradual. One monster followed by another monster, and another. It’s a chain reaction.
Even with Godzilla as a literal nuclear reactor on the verge of meltdown, this might be the scene that most specifically resembles Chernobyl in the movie. The film’s other monster is Godzilla Junior, who began as a hatchling in Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II and very literally grew over the course of the series since then. In this movie, the younger Godzilla has finally reached adulthood and despite its connection with some of the human characters, is also proving to be destructive even if it doesn’t mean to be. And even if this creature is inherently well-meaning, the adult Godzilla’s meltdown only shows a grim glimpse of the future for the younger one as well. Knowing that, it’s even sadder then, when the little Godzilla meets such a quicker end than expected.
Naturally, Godzilla is drawn into a fight with the Destroyer as it’s so hungry for nuclear power, and the stakes are some of the most interesting of the whole franchise, because Godzilla’s probably not making it out of this, no matter what. This is the only film where we know Godzilla is going to die from the beginning, and everything else is simply a matter of how and when it’s going to happen. For the humans, the plot revolves not around stopping Godzilla, but instead simply doing everything they can to contain the fallout. This mostly comes down to attempting to freeze him, which works well enough to keep the damage contained. And I’m sure that’s completely the point.
In many ways, this is the exact opposite of how Godzilla was depicted in The Return of Godzilla. That movie was all about the inevitability of Godzilla. It was about living in a world with nuclear weapons as a reality, knowing they would be used but not knowing when, and knowing that there was nothing that could be stopped to prevent them from existing. In Godzilla vs. Destoroyah, that changes radically. Godzilla represents nuclear power as a whole, and this time the whole film revolves around impermanence. Godzilla—as a nuclear reactor—cannot last. He’s a volcano that’s been teetering on erupting for years, and now the time has come.
This isn’t just a smart reworking of the concept after the events of Chernobyl, it’s also smart in that this was clearly planned as Godzilla’s final hour. Toho obviously knew that this would be the last film, at least of this era, and so everything about the movie feels like a final chapter. This is Godzilla’s Logan, his one last ride, and it’s a melancholy and tragic ride at that. If you’re going to do a “Death of Godzilla” storyline, as this very much is, while also attempting to keep all of the atomic age themes at the forefront, then this is the way to do it. It’s maybe the most emotional Godzilla movie ever, and that’s felt from the beginning and only grows more and more as the film goes on. This is a feature that still gives us stomped upon miniature sets and giant monster fights, but also lets the camera linger on Godzilla discovering his child’s dead body, that doesn’t pull back as the reactor inside Godzilla ultimately does just what it was expected to do and kills him. Victory in Godzilla vs. Destoroyah is defined by containing the fallout, by minimizing the accident so that the least amount of people get hurt.
It’s not about making sure that no one gets hurt because that’s not a reality that even these heightened, over-stylized characters in their kaiju universe live in. This is how the nuclear debate changed after Chernobyl, after the world saw exactly what an accident of that size could do. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah showcases an intimate understanding of that. Godzilla’s defeat of the Destroyer is almost an afterthought. It saves mankind from one threat, but the biggest threat to the movie is still Godzilla, internally. Even as the damage from the creature’s destruction is minimized, we as an audience are still forced to watch Godzilla implode. And it’s horrifying. As mentioned, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah features some of the most horrific imagery of the series, and the ending is no exception. Godzilla melts to the bone before our eyes, no longer a metaphor for the impenetrable reality of atomic power, but a metaphor for humanity’s inability to harness and control that power.
Godzilla serves as a reminder that even the most supposedly indestructible power plant, missile or containment unit is housing a power that is inherently chaotic and unpredictable. The most persistent metaphorical aspect of Godzilla is that he is nature’s course correction, a devastating way to correct mankind’s mistakes in our pursuit of power. In some way, that’s still what Godzilla’s doing at the end of this film, taking out the last, most devastating display of nuclear power by destroying himself. But there’s nothing conscious in Godzilla’s death at the end, at least as far as I can tell. There are no outside factors influencing his meltdown. It’s just time. And that’s the best, most prevalent reassessment of the mythology that Godzilla vs. Destoroyah offers. It’s just time. It’s the knowledge of living with absolutely devastating power and containing it, using it, or hiding it, all with the knowledge that no matter if we choose to harness or ignore it, eventually it’s going to blow up in our face.