Godzilla, Oppenheimer and the Nuclear Apocalypse


This act is reminiscent of kamikazes, but with the goal of destroying the monster and saving humanity from an apocalyptic war. It is something that seems unthinkable to Oppenheimer and the scientists who opened the door to the possibility of nuclear apocalypse.

In the reinterpretation of a work lies its actuality so that it does not become a museum piece or a dead historical document; that is to say, a reinterpretation has the power to update the discussion of some topic. This is the case of Godzilla, the Japanese monster invented in 1954, which returned in 2023 with a new film called Godzilla Minus One. The same is true of Oppenheimer (2023), which brings to the screen the biography of the scientist as captured in the book American Prometheus (Vintage International), published in 2005. Both works are reinterpretations that bring the public discussion of atomic bombs up to date, at a time when the specter of nuclear war has resurfaced due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO’s support for Ukraine, Russia’s abandonment of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (nuclear weapons) and from North Korea’s sustained improvement in nuclear weaponry, which poses a continuing threat to Japan and South Korea. These conflicts have their origins in World War II, which serves as the frame of reference for both films.

In Godzilla Minus One, the emergence of the creature is depicted once again, taking over parts of the original film. The creature is an unknown species of animal that inhabits the island of Odo and, as a result of the radiation received from the US nuclear bomb experiments on Bikini Atoll, transforms it into a gigantic mutant monster that attacks Japan.

Unlike its predecessors, which were set in industrial or contemporary times of growth (such as Shin Godzilla from 2016), this new film takes place immediately after the end of World War II. When it seems that it couldn’t get any worse – the situation for the population after losing the war, with the consequent economic crisis and ruin of the country – the monster makes its appearance, murdering thousands, for no reason whatsoever. Hence the title of the film, it is not just that they start from scratch after the war. Godzilla’s catastrophe takes them into negative territory: minus one.

The situation is discouraging, because – although the US is aware of Godzilla threat – it refuses to intervene due to Cold War tensions with the USSR. As a result, the problem is left in the hands of the Japanese government, which lacks the capacity to face it (due to the dismantling of the Imperial Army). The remnants of the Japanese army are quickly destroyed in the first confrontation and Godzilla arrives in Tokyo, causing destruction with its atomic breath. To deal with the crisis, a group of ex-military and businessmen create a plan to wipe out the monster using sea pressure and decompression (sinking it to a great depth and then quickly refloating it). The plan partially works, and Godzilla’s final defeat comes at the hands of former kamikaze pilot Kōichi Shikishima, who crashes his plane full of explosives into the monster’s mouth, thus redeeming his honor after deserting as a kamikaze at the end of the war and leaving his comrades to die.

The film’s allegory is very clear: Godzilla represents the USA, a sleeping monster that defends itself and gains nuclear power, causing unprecedented destruction and death for no apparent reason[1]. It is worth remembering that Japan started the war in the Pacific Ocean against the USA and that in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki between 150,000 and 246,000 people died (about half of them in the bombing, the rest later due to radiation). The atrocity was not justified militarily, as Japan was already losing the war. The purpose was to force a quick and unconditional surrender before the USSR could invade Japan after the end of hostilities on the European front. And it is even possible that Japan surrendered to the USA, to avoid the invasion of the USSR[2].

Unlike other Godzilla films, where the government is primarily responsible for safeguarding the lives of the population, “civil society” is the savior, given the unreliability of the government (since it was the government that pushed for and lost the war, while demanding enormous sacrifices from the population). Civil society, here composed of ex-military and businessmen, unites to stop the monster, win the war, and protect the population and even avoiding the sacrifices of the kamikazes. Naval technical officer Kenji Noda, who is in charge of the plan, mentions this:

Come to think of it, this country has treated life far too cheaply. Poorly armored tanks. Poor supply chains resulting in half of all deaths from starvation and disease. Fighter planes built without ejection seats and finally, kamikaze and suicide attacks. That’s why this time I’d take pride in a citizen-led effort that sacrifices no lives at all! This next battle is not one waged to the death, but a battle to live for the future.

In this way, a fantasy is constructed of how Japan could have won World War II without sacrifice, without suffering and if the government had no longer intervened. This, while revealing a political discourse highly aligned with libertarian ideas: society and the market solve the threat without government intervention. And is this possible? Do we want to leave nuclear weapons in private hands? There would be no more dangerous situation for the world than this.

Thus, Godzilla Minus One evokes the horrors of the nuclear bomb, and the trauma of defeat in World War II, resurfacing as a monster that haunts the Japanese. However, Japan was not only the victim of horror, but also a creator of it during the war in the Pacific. This is something that they continue to evade both in this story and in their current political life. The real monster under the waters is that the repression of the truth about the atrocities committed by Japanese imperialism in Asia and Oceania – including the sexual slavery of Korean women and the killing of millions of people – remains a source of conflict with several countries due to its lack of recognition. Among them, with the nuclear powers of China and North Korea.

While Godzilla has an enormous nationalistic ideology, it is a continual reminder of the horror behind nuclear weapons; something that in Oppenheimer (2023) is repressed with its historical outcome being clear. In this film, the man in charge of developing the nuclear bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, is praised for his vision and construction of a team that brought him success before Nazi Germany could supposedly develop it (it is not clear that he had the capability to do so), while at the same time narrating the palace drama under which he is singled out for being a communist in the service of the USSR and how he redeems himself in the face of these accusations. In the end, he becomes a hero for the U.S. power circles, with no explicit mention in the film of the thousands of deaths caused by the atomic weapons in Japan, of the unnecessary use of these weapons and the enormous tragedy they caused. Only the scientist shows a certain regret for the arms race that was generated and for the possibility of a nuclear holocaust. At the end of the film, Oppenheimer asks Albert Einstein, “when I came to you with those calculations, we thought we might start a chain reaction that would destroy the entire world”. Einstein replies, “I remember it well. What of it?” To which Oppenheimer states, “I believe we did…”. What matters in the film is to highlight Oppenheimer’s role as a hero in the face of the Nazi threat, the use of his work to defeat Japan and his loyalty to the US: the submission of individual genius to the American military machine.

It is worth recalling the original Godzilla movie (1954), in which the protagonists convince Dr. Serizawa, a scientist who has developed a weapon of mass destruction capable of eliminating all life (the Oxygen Destroyer), to intervene in the conflict. However, he is afraid to manufacture and use it because, once shown and the world sees how it works, it could lead to an arms race worse than the nuclear one. Dr. Serizawa’s position is as follows:

If the Oxygen Destroyer is used even once, the politicians of the world won’t stand idly by. They’ll inevitably turn it into a weapon. Bombs versus bombs, missiles versus missiles. As a scientist – no, as a human being – adding another terrifying weapon to humanity’s arsenal is something I can’t allow. 

After Dr. Serizawa builds and uses the “Oxygen Destroyer” to defeat Godzilla, he commits suicide to ensure that his knowledge of the weapon dies with him, making it impossible to recreate. This act is reminiscent of kamikazes, but with the goal of destroying the monster and saving humanity from an apocalyptic war. It is something that seems unthinkable to Oppenheimer and the scientists who opened the door to the possibility of nuclear apocalypse.

At the end of Godzilla Minus One, the monster is defeated, although it is not definitely dead. A small remnant remains alive, which can regenerate and reappear. This symbolizes the ongoing threat of nuclear war resulting from unresolved conflicts from World War II. The atomic horror persists and resurfaces with each new conflict involving a nuclear power, such as the current Russian war against Ukraine. Here, it is worth recalling the position of Dr. Serizawa, a bet for universal values over nationalist particularism. A bet against the creation of new monsters.


[1] I take this interpretation from the podcast Žižek And So On, from his chapter “Podzilla”. Available: https://open.spotify.com/episode/5x3sqTKlADmax71ldOOxOw?si=b0984a917822437e

[2] This reading of surrendering to avoid the Soviet invasion is taken from Why Theory‘s podcast, from his chapter Oppenheimer.  https://open.spotify.com/episode/399dc22MClfqX8ne77qIuT?si=2d6a797a53474e31