The Fatalistic Myopia of ‘Godzilla: King of the Monsters’
‘King of the Monsters’ follows the all-too common trend of science fiction and broadcasts Malthusian fascism in its tale of climate change
Climate Change is fast becoming the centerpiece of discussion I never thought it would be as a kid. I know what people should do to safe-keep the environment thanks to shows like Sesame Street, Sailor Moon, and Captain Planet and the Planeteers urging its young viewers to “do their part”. It was ‘stop deforestation’, ‘protect the trees’, ‘keep animals off the endangered species list’, ‘save the marshlands’, etc.. Public service announcements about recycling and energy management seemed so common, I never questioned that anyone would doubt global warming was legitimate given the potential dangers. I mean, the droughts in the early 2000s seemed incentive enough to be proactive.
Thirteen years ago, however, I became hyper-aware of how in-fashion it was to mock the efforts of people like Al Gore and Davis Guggenheim — for trying to raise public awareness of global warming through cinematic documentaries (An Inconvenient Truth, Truth to Power) where journalism and scientific essays couldn’t reach. It was easier to believe the Armageddon projections about an asteroid the size of Texas killing us because “global warming was a hoax”.
It hasn’t fallen out of style to deny climate change, even with the reveal that corporations lobbied for the obfuscation of their impact on the environment, prioritizing profit over life. Child activists like Greta Thunberg are being attacked by deniers like Andrew Bolt and Christopher Caldwell (politicians and journalists who are anti-immigrant, racist, and ableist) who promote inaction through misinformation. It’s more of a social faux pas than it was thirteen years ago, but it remains an obstacle.
With this slow transformation of social norms comes an almost full-circle attempt to control the narrative of climate change through violence. I’m referring to eco-fascism — “environmentalism” that prioritizes population culling as the absolute solution to climate change. It’s a ‘fringe’ position within [far-right] politics that mirrors the “scientific racism” of people like Thomas Malthus, a clergyman who supported selective genocide.
Malthus believed the planet would become overpopulated, that resources would deplete. The “lower class” were genetically predisposed to inferiority (and destined to die), while “the elite” were genetically superior (and god’s rightful inheritors of Earth). He’s hardly the first to run promote eugenics (social and genetic superiority) to stave off ‘overpopulation’ (even Plato and Aristotle were preaching this). These beliefs and would inspire the “elites” of America, Japan, China, and Germany (to name a few), who enforce(d) genocide on different scales, often citing environmentalism as one reason to dehumanize or strong-arm peoples across a broad spectrum.
Support of this kind of violence, while dogmatically alt and far-right, is not a stranger to centrist, leftist or even democratic positions. Its very nature is dystopic, totalitarian. It’s not a surprise that social anxieties see the myth of overpopulation become a talking point in popular media like science fiction, which leans toward status quo or authoritarianism, for all the counterfiction about better futures, if it isn’t romanticizing the end of the world. The partnership of genocide and climate change in the genre is as varied as the malicious politics that birthed it.
Through the medium of film and television, science fiction will use the talking point of overpopulation (a pillar of eugenics) as the central or background catalyst of its narrative. You’ve seen it enough in your favorite films or television shows that you probably don’t question its presence. You especially don’t question characters who espouse its philosophy.
From Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002) and Serenity (2005), the Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending (2015), Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One (2017), to Netflix’s re-imagining of Lost in Space (2017), some facet of sci-fi is proactively or passively supportive of overpopulation as the singular or symptomatic cause for planet devastation. These narratives either see mankind toiling on a polluted Earth in overcrowded urban areas, the Earth dead (and depleted), or journeying into space to find new worlds to repeat the process of industrialization, often with the stipulation that only “the best” (the rich, the affluent, able-bodied) can go to the new worlds. Everyone else is free to perish on the dying planet.
Two months ago, Godzilla: King of the Monsters came and went in the theaters, its beneficiaries unbothered by the pangs of the sophomore slump that many summer blockbusters felt this year. The novelization, written by Greg Keyes, is a rare instance where the book is a contextually better experience. It’s narrative saw screenwriters Michael Dougherty and Zack Shields — two self-professed Godzilla fans — attempt to tackle climate change through tokusatsu-born monsters King Ghidorah, Mothra, Rodan, and Godzilla. While admirable, and sure to get (more) people poking at the issue, King of the Monsters falls into the same Malthusian trap as the aforementioned media that uses apocalyptic climate change overtly or subtextually.
When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla released in theaters, there was a joke going around that you’d only get the context of if you’d seen the movie. Artwork and text memes depicting Godzilla as a conservative-minded monster who learns two monsters (the M.U.T.O.’s) plan to reproduce, came rolling out of the gates of Tumblr, Twitter, Reddit, and DeviantArt.
Diminutive works of Godzilla trying to sleep with a stuffed Mothra while the M.U.T.O. talk dirty to each other on the phone, or sensing their intent to have sex with the dramatic declaration that he must stop them, was amusing. It was amusing because it was the shallowest reading of the film whose story seemed critical of the utilization of nuclear power. But it’s not an incorrect reading either.
Legendary Entertainment’s MonsterVerse allows for a certain amount of disharmony within its narrative, letting its writers and directors do their own thing with their mythos. The new Godzilla franchise going from critical of nuclear power to critical of climate change inaction wasn’t too jarring. The two issues aren’t mutually exclusive, if anything, they’re interconnected. But that’s when things get troubling.
Both Godzilla and King of the Monsters run with this idea that Godzilla (specifically) is the Earth’s natural defense system. It’s not a new thing. Toho-produced Godzilla films rewrite Godzilla and other irradiated monsters away from metaphors for human destruction, to misunderstood animals that attack civilians unprovoked, because mankind (usually corporate or political figureheads), disturbed the natural order. 2014’s Godzilla posits Godzilla is a defense system against antagonistic Titans who grow out of control. A rough justification for his fictional existence outside of the holocaust parable (and giant monster fights). King of the Monsters goes one step further and asserts the Titans are nature’s way to control any species that “overproduce”.
It’s the inverse of Pacific Rim which saw aristocratic-inspired aliens use Western and European genocide tactics, channeled through Kaiju, to destroy a planet’s population (which only happens because of global warming) — an effort they’ve been trying to achieve since prehistoric times. Godzilla frames giant monsters reducing a population as a [natural] necessity and the solution to environmental damage, Pacific Rim frames it a negative while still being critical of the aforementioned.
The MonsterVerse sees all of Monarch’s hypothesis treated as a hard truth. If someone says the Titans are “god’s wrath”, then it’s the truth. If someone says the Titans are “nature rebelling against mankind”, then it’s the truth. Like the old Godzilla films, there’s no real ambiguity, no distinction, no separation of fact from speculation. It’s very literal, which, in my opinion, hurts any attempt to skate by on the metaphor.
King of the Monsters, using the “man is the real monster” framework, likens humans to a parasite that impedes the planet and lives on stolen land. In his argument defending the Titans as mere animals and not aberrations, Dr. Serizawa cites strip mining, seismic surveys, and atomic testing (events that occurred in Godzilla 2014 and Kong: Skull Island) as one cause for the dormant Titans awakening.
Instead of concluding their behavior stems from defending territory (Kong) or hunting for resources unavailable to them eons ago (Godzilla, the M.U.T.O.), their resurrection is framed like an oppressed species taking back a world that was “rightfully theirs” — even though natural extinction events saw most of them driven underground or killed, with no human input required.
The film’s take on humans is atypically fatalistic and myopic. It views itself as a champion of nature, but sees humanity as an unnatural inhabitant of the planet, dehumanizing the whole with cries for species extinction or reduction as retribution for aggravating the ecosystem.
By the end of the first act, the film has three villains to drive this point home. Two of them are humans (Emma Russell and Alan Jonah) and the other is a Titan (Ghidorah). Of those three villains, only one is painted as the tragic and misunderstood figure: Emma Russell.
Emma Russell is a scientist with a doctorate in paleobiology (the study of fossil animals and plants). In 2005, she was an MIT student with Mark Russell (either her husband or boyfriend at the time), a scientist with a doctorate in zoology (the study of animal behavior). The two created the machine called the ORCA: An invention that could control and manipulate whales using bioacoustics. They intended to use the machine to steer whales away from the shore. Presumably to protect them from shore-related injuries. Their intent was ‘for good’. However, when they field-tested the machine, the result was disastrous:
“Do you know what happened when we tested the ORCA? […]Did she ever tell you that? […]Beautiful day on Puget Sound. We were just going to try to — nudge them a little. Herd them. Make them turn a couple of times. Instead, they freaked out and beached themselves. But they didn’t stop at that. They kept trying to go inland. Cut themselves up on the rocks. There were five of them. Three of them died. Because we thought it was a good idea to fuck around with nature. That’s why we abandoned it.” — Mark Russell, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, pg. 122
The novelization of King of the Monsters brings a greater context to the story while the film tries to remain as light as possible about details without losing the overall message. Mark states that the ORCA was a grad student project meant to help whales in the film. The novelization reiterates this but makes clear they tested it. The death of the whales led to the dismantling of the ORCA. But, destroying the ORCA was entirely Mark’s idea.
Mark’s guilt and general respect for nature saw him cease trying to meddle with animals better off without that kind of help. He remained an observer. Emma remained steadfast in the belief that what happened with the ORCA was merely a setback, something that can be avoided. Their work on the ORCA got them hired by Monarch (who mistook the signal from the ORCA for a Titan call). They helped set up perimeters and study the dormant Titans all over the world. However, Godzilla’s indirect hand in the death of their eldest child, Andrew (he’s crushed to death by a building), saw the couple divorced later on.
Mark views the Titans as an unnatural part of nature, a goof that destroys almost as much the military did in their attempt to stop them five years ago. His hatred is marked, but he also respects them — if only out of fear. He never allows himself to act on his violent impulses. He instead removes himself from the position that would give him that power because he doesn’t want to be around Titans. He turns his grief inward and disconnects from everything except nature, where he retreats.
Emma’s grief, however, becomes an outward and malicious thing. She can weaponize it and acts on that. She rationalizes the death of Andrew not as an accident, but something she can blame on humanity. If they hadn’t nuked Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and went digging in the Philippines, Andrew would be alive, the Titans wouldn’t be ‘rebelling’. Her study of the Titans feeds into her predisposition for extremism. Her admiration becomes unhealthy, fanatical, and she eventually views her conclusions about the Titans as the only contribution in Monarch doing something in service to their world. Shortly after deciding to rebuild the ORCA, she affiliates herself with an eco-fascist and ex-military man named Alan Jonah.
Jonah believes all mankind must die. He, like Emma, justifies his avocation for genocide with the death of his child (his daughter was kidnapped, murdered and left in a gutter while he was overseas “fighting the good fight”). Emma spends five years planning to release the Titans intending to use and control them in a gambit to “restore the balance of nature” by reducing the human population. Her actions are such that she inspires similarly obsessed extremists within Monarch to join in her crusade. The group sabotages Monarch’s outposts over the years to ensure the Titans escape containment when the time comes.
In concept, King of the Monsters establishes a solid villain protagonist in Emma Russell. Her actions are reprehensible, her allies even worse, and she’s a decent realization of an eco-fascist who doesn’t see themselves as the villain. Yet, a good script avoids romanticizing the actions of its villain. It embraces their amorality, sure, but calls a spade a spade. If your film features a fascist or authoritarian figure, it should avoid caricaturing them, but clarify that their actions are ultimately not to be rallied behind. Shields and Dougherty, however, desire to frame Emma as a tragic hero. They want the audience to see her and her actions in that same light.
In The Art of Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Abbie Bernstein), the character profile for Emma Russell (pg. 19–21) constantly reiterates that Emma isn’t a “true villain”. Their reasoning? She’s not twirling her mustache, taking glee in her atrocities. She sheds tears over her actions, she apologizes for what she does. This and the child she lost, makes her sympathetic. Shields and Dougherty fancy Emma a hero put in an impossible position, someone who has to make the hard choice to save the world because her colleagues won’t.
It shows a startling lack of self-awareness on their end and worse, an apologia for fascism. The Art of King of the Monsters uses terminology like “[Emma’s] noble intentions” and remarks “the movie is not wholly on her [Emma’s] side”. But King of the Monsters is unquestionably on the side of Emma Russell.
“Emma isn’t really wrong. If she doesn’t do this thing, we will go extinct. […]and if Emma had been more thorough and hadn’t rushed the decision, then maybe she would’ve learned about King Ghidorah, kept him dormant, released the other ones, and we could’ve found an even balance.” — Zack Shields, The Art of King of the Monsters, pg. 21
Bernstein’s interviews see the production go to great pains to argue Emma’s logic is sound, that she just picked “the wrong Titan” to wake up. If she had “more time”, if she hadn’t “rushed the process” (she had five years to do her research), her actions would be justified with the right Titan. For them, that’s the only mistake she made. Otherwise, the chain reaction of death that Ghidorah triggers in her stead with the Titans, who are acting of their own volition (where they would’ve been controlled by the ORCA), would’ve been justifiable if he wasn’t in the picture.
The commentary above isn’t dissimilar to the kind’ve arguments Batman fans make when their favorite vigilante loses a fight to anyone. “If Batman had more prep time, if he had this or that, he would’ve won!” Is the usual mantra. Shields and Dougherty make explicit excuses that hand wave Emma’s actions in the same way Batfans argue away Batman losing as a personal injustice to the character “too prepared to lose”.
But, while the screenwriters argue one thing in post-production, the film makes it clear she didn’t make a mistake. She made a deliberate, reasoned choice to awaken Ghidorah. She knew as much as Dr. Graham and Dr. Serizawa that the Titan was an apex predator like Godzilla, bound to cause just as much destruction upon waking. No one rushed her from Yunnan to Antarctica (Monarch’s response time is on par with police response to crime in Black communities). She chose to go there, she chose to wake up a Titan her senior colleagues recognized as bad news from the offset.
A smarter script would’ve drawn on not only Emma’s traumatic experience but also would’ve taken into account how her social standing worked into her overall decision making. Emma is a white woman with a clear middle-class upbringing in a tremendous position of privilege and power as an employee of Monarch and an MIT alumnus. She raised her kids in the western suburbia hell of Boston — on Beacon Street, specifically. She lived a comfortable, isolated life in Massachusetts before moving her family to San Francisco to work for Monarch (to the chagrin of her husband who wanted the family to remain in Boston).
For her all her education, her lack of empathy for the greater world beyond herself is dangerous. It shows that her actions are informed by shortsightedness. Her environmentalism is about self-gratitude. Like anyone with as much power as she has at her finger tips, Emma makes it clear her pain and choices matter above everyone else’s.
“In Emma’s mind we are like elk. And Godzilla and his kind are the wolves. She’s not arguing for our extinction, she arguing that we don’t necessarily belong on the top of the food chain. Emma thinks that she restoring a natural order, that we have been holding back a process which, while initially destructive, will have long-term benefits for the health of our planet.” — Michael Dougherty, The Art of King of the Monsters, pg. 19
The tenants of eco-fascism are born of the notion that we should support any means to depopulate Earth to save it, relies on the idea that the cause of climate change (capitalism) isn’t the big problem. Only in doing so will nature begin to recover. The position is seeing a resurgence as the discussion of climate change increases across the political spectrum. The [incremental] improvements being and made regarding the planet’s overall quality-of-life won’t be as effective as solving the “population explosion”.
Emma does not hide the fact that she’s a supporter of population control or genocide. Doughtery (quoted above) states she believes humanity’s population needs to be managed by monsters. They need a predator to downsize them when they “grow out of control”. Again, something the MonsterVerse wholeheartedly agrees with. In her mind, because the planet itself will die, there is no one with a better plan. It doesn’t matter that she’s not being selective about which group of people get to live or die, or that she isn’t actively targeting marginalized groups. It hardly absolves her of enabling the prejudices that fuel genocidal violence.
During her condemnatory speech, video footage in her live feed montage uses file footage commonly associated with parts of the world that are predominantly non-white. The crowded urban areas or the ‘unsafe place to live’ imagery makes it clear to the audience who’s she indirectly targeted in her blanket speech.
“Humans have been the dominant species for thousands of years and look what’s happened […]overpopulation, pollution, war. The mass extinction we feared has already begun. And we are the cause. We are the infection. But like all living organisms, the Earth unleashed a fever to fight this infection. Its original and rightful rulers, the Titans.” — Emma Russell, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, pg.126–127
Emma says “we”, but she excludes the Titans, herself, Madison, and Jonah’s group from the cleansing process she has established for the Earth. They are individuals with the right to survive the disaster she creates with the Titans because they’re “doing something” about their circumstances.
Though she urges Monarch to save as many people as they can, she knows they won’t succeed before her justice, and not nature’s is successfully doled out. In the novelization, Alan Jonah even refers to the fact that they’ll “live like kings” in bunkers when the world ends and the dust settles.
It’s likely not a mistake that the one area we see in the film that gets destroyed and featured the biggest human element is the fictional town of Isla de Mara, in Mexico. It resides directly under the volcano where Rodan rests and is wiped off the map with ease by the monster. The tone differs from something like Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris (Shusuke Kaneko, Kazunori Itō), which treats the human loss in Shibuya, Tokyo (during Gamera’s fight with the Gyaos) like the horror it is. Rodan’s destruction is just an exciting and visual spectacle. The people who die or survive matter as much as they did in the 2014 film (not at all). Godzilla films don’t ask you to empathize with the human fodder. They have to be punished for harming the environment.
King of the Monsters posits the natural regrowth of the environment in places like the fictional Janjira, Japan of the 2014 Godzilla film — allusions to the regrowth of the environment in places like Chernobyl, Russia, and what makes up much of Abandoned America — was not the planet doing what it usually does in the absence of consistent industrial activity (ah-la I Am Legend), but a consequence of the radiation that the Titans give off. The Titans Princess Mononoke across an environment and entire forests appear out of nowhere, endangered animals magically reappear. It’s instant-gratification accredited to an act of terrorism and unburdens humans from being proactive about remedying climate change.
Godzilla films are not great about recognizing the dangers of an irradiated monster in a populated environment. They’ll criticize the actions that created the monsters, but since they need them to be heroic or anti-heroish, they’re content to pretend a product of nuclear power wouldn’t also repeat that devastating process. People and the environment dying thanks to a walking radiation monster complicates a simple narrative. So, radiation is the deus ex machina of the franchise. It kills only when the plot demands it, then doesn’t for the rest.
Emma’s plan of action is neither constructive nor helpful. She wants to solve climate change but never thinks to address the root causes, or thinks to come up with a fair resource redistribution, alternative means of continuing life, and ensuring ecosystems are protected. To her, ignoring first and destroying the latter is a small sacrifice for saving the entire planet in the long term.
But, the factors that created climate change remain intact. They didn’t dissolve in the apocalypse (the end credits imply some businesses benefited from her actions). The causes for war will probably increase now that parts of the world have been destabilized, people dislocated. Emma is the walking embodiment of Jonah’s belief (“I’ve seen human nature firsthand. It doesn’t change. It only gets worse.”), but the film excludes her from that commentary. The Titans emitting radiation onto naturally barren areas like deserts (former oceans that receded naturally) to create a magical oasis is the answer to their problems.
It’s hard to view Ghidorah — a true blue villain in all but Giant Monsters All-Out Attack — as diabolical if he’s “just an animal” following instincts, but the film argues against its idea. The argument painting the Titans as animals excludes Ghidorah. Ghidorah’s foreignness to the planet’s ecosystem is framed as inherently evil. There is no good intent. He means to destroy the planet because he enjoys killing. We’re meant to see Jonah and Ghidorah as worse than Emma, merely due to the lack of sympathy the script shows for them, but all three are on equal footing as far as action is concerned.
King of the Monsters is so determined to validate Emma Russell that it undermines Dr. Serizawa. Serizawa proposes that humans and the gradually awakening Titans can live together as he believed they did eons ago. Despite the valid reactions toward the Titans (whose destruction is deliberate, if not antagonistic), Serizawa believed a better understanding would see a far more stable situation than one they were currently dealing with. Serizawa was constantly trying to deescalate an escalating problem.
In so many words, when called out for her violence, Emma calls Serizawa weak-willed for trying to negotiate with government bodies to ensure Monarch and the Titan’s survival. Serizawa warns her that she’s meddling with forces she does not understand, but she ignores him and powers through her treatise.
“The way I (as Emma) feel about Godzilla is the way I feel about Mother Nature. I respect her wrath, and when these devastating natural occurrences come, it’s because the environment has been mistreated, and it’s showing its righteous anger.” — Vera Farmiga, The Art of King of the Monsters, pg. 18
The idea that Emma has respect for “Mother Nature’s wrath” (as it were) is laughable. The idea tries to align the film’s unsubtle metaphor that the Titan’s represent the wants and desires of God and nature, but Emma’s lack of respect for nature is the disconnect. She ultimately sees the Titans as a means to an end.
She denies playing God, but the ORCA is explicitly designed to control and manipulate animals. She controls Mothra’s mood at the beginning of the film. She attempts to control Ghidorah, and she manipulates Rodan into a spitting rage (which is only exacerbated by Monarch drawing its attention with missile fire).
There’s nothing respectful about her actions. The presumption to act in God or nature’s stead is arrogant, but fairly in keeping with the colonial idea of acting in everyone’s best interest, by way of destruction and violence, because it’s the will of God. Emma is content to allow Ghidorah to lash out on the pretense that she can control him and use him to her own ends. His worldwide call to action makes her the encapsulation of the Blue Oyster Cult “Godzilla” theme.
“You are out of your goddamn mind! […]First you put our daughter’s life in danger, now you get to decide the fate of the world? That’s rich Emma!” — Mark Russell, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, pg. 128
Emma’s failure to look to her daughter’s well-being is perhaps the most damning aspect of her plan. In a different sense, Madison is just another victim of her mother’s inhumanity. The novelization refers to how terrible a father Mark was post-2014 without ever making explicit his failures beyond a stint in depressive alcoholism (or, in his words, “a high ethanol diet”) that facilitated their divorce. It inspires shame for him, but what makes Madison wary of her father is Emma telling her he abandoned them.
Before he hit all the branches on the way down, Mark wanted to protect Madison by removing her from the proximity of the Monarch (hiding in Colorado). Emma brings her daughter on almost every Titan expedition following her son’s death, which isn’t smart parenting (but it makes for convenient story plotting). It forces Madison to mature, to compensate in the dangerous environment Emma thrives in.
Both parents have failed as caretakers, too caught up in their minutia to realize their daughter is getting a raw deal. Emma’s failing is insidious because she makes Madison party to terrorism. She’s indoctrinated into believing in eco-fascism, becomes an implicit supporter through omission of facts. Emma sanitizes her plan, convincing her daughter that no one will die in the Titan resurrection if they’re careful and do it one-at-a-time. She also fails to inform her of Jonah’s true nature. Like a doomsday prepper, Emma hypes Madison up for the apocalypse, setting them up in a little bunker where they’ll wait out the end of the world.
So Madison’s cooperation in genocide isn’t a surprise. She’s operating on a lie. You also know why she turns her father away in Antarctica. It isn’t until Emma leaves her ex-husband behind in a collapsing building, then tries to use Ghidorah to kill Mark and the G-team (people Madison knows) with the ORCA, does Madison realize her mother’s actions are the opposite of heroism or environmentalism.
Emma boasts that Madison’s a stronger person than she would’ve been in Mark’s care. Yet, the only thing she’s appears to have done is give the kid a crisis of faith and endanger her only surviving child by dragging her into her vendetta. Madison’s rose-colored view of her mother is shattered when she watches — and hears — the people dying as the Titans rampage. Madison explicitly spells out to the audience Emma’s true nature: A monster.
That Alan Jonah mocks Madison’s for buying into her mother’s false utopia pitch is the nail in the coffin. Madison starts thinking for herself and ignores her mother’s ‘wisdom’ entirely. He indirectly motivates Madison to stop what the two of them set in motion.
Madison might be the best unintentional example of how kids fall into radicalized groups (of the alt-right persuasion) and how that indoctrination sustains violent thinking across future generations like an incurable virus if something doesn’t knock them off that route.
“This changes everything. Mark realized. Emma was right. She certainly screwed up and gotten untold number of people killed, but the link between humans and these ancient beasts was now inescapable.” — Mark Russell, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, pg. 225
When Emma tries to convince Jonah that she can use the ORCA to stop Ghidorah, she isn’t realizing that genocide wasn’t the solution to her climate change crusade. Nothing drives this home more than her scramble to keep face in front of Madison. Things haven’t gone exactly to plan, but she can salvage the mission by getting rid of Ghidorah who makes it clear he won’t be controlled. When Jonah threatens to slit Madison’s throat, suddenly that “save the planet at all costs” mentality she used amounts to nothing. She’s content to leave the ball in Ghidorah’s court since everyone who matters to her isn’t actually in danger, and he is doing what she wanted — albeit at an accelerated rate.
Both the novelization and the film see the main characters denouncing and condemning Emma Russell for her actions. In the novel, Madison’s rebuttal of her mother’s actions in the old Monarch bunker is far more scathing and to the point. It doesn’t begin and end with “Is this what Andrew would’ve wanted?” Madison reminds her mother that arguing “I didn’t have a choice” is a lie. Her mother gave up on everything, humanity included, while people like her father and the G-team didn’t. Emma’s decision to work with Alan Jonah and convince herself that her son would’ve endorsed her plan only reinforces that.
Ilene Chen puts it best when she tells Emma she’s “murdering the world” — something that’s paid off when Admiral Stenz debriefs the G-team and tells of natural disasters and calamities without names occurring globally alongside disasters we know. The redacted text in the credits faux article montage describes man’s relationship with the Titans ending in cataclysm.
Emma’s actions go one step further with the release of Ghidorah, who creates an post-apocalyptic environment, where moral and financial struggle only sows deeper seeds of mistrust toward the Titans. It’s in a bad state, and the post-credits scene reinforces that parts of Mexico are dead because of the Oxygen Destroyer, launched in response to what Emma started.
In the end, it doesn’t matter how many times King of the Monsters denounces Emma’s actions. It actively undermines every condemnatory moment in the story when the same characters inwardly monologue to themselves about how “Emma was right” about the co-existence argument Serizawa has been preaching for a while now. It treats her terrorism like something deserving a simple slap on the wrist.
Fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender argue that Zuko’s redemption arc works because his actions are never irredeemable. There is always someone worse than him. He is repeatedly punished for his transgressions and forgiveness is never handed over to him. There’s a moment in Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block that sees Pest (a local thief) argue that, because he and his friends saved Sam (a local nurse) from aliens attacking their apartment complex, their previous actions against her (robbing her at knife-point) are forgiven.
Sam quickly shuts that down by reminding them that five armed teens against a single woman was hardly forgivable. Attack the Block humanizes its teen protagonists as kids unthinkingly following what is only a natural part of their environment, but reminds us they’re like Zuko. They haven’t become their equivalent of Firelord Ozai (Hi-Hatz) yet, and they’re not beyond redemption. And though redemption is achieved, Attack the Block never veers into apologia.
Emma doesn’t have that luxury as she was demonstrably written as someone willing to act on dehumanization and murder. Jonah and his group kills a fair number of her colleagues, and her daughter is exposed to this. In the grand scheme of things, they’re mere collateral in her long-term plan. Protecting her daughter and husband from Ghidorah isn’t about righting wrongs, it’s a self-serving act to win back her daughter’s favor, and in no way absolves her of previous actions.
People argue that because none of the characters openly forgive Emma, she’s not forgiven. I say the movie renders that aspect void by choosing to frame her as heroic, her sacrifice play redemptive. The Titan’s destruction and post-escape absolves Emma of wrongdoing. The environment is getting better, thanks to Emma and a couple of other Malthusian true believers.
Michael Dougherty and Zack Shields create a villain in Emma Russell, but don’t and won’t view the character’s actions as wrong, morally or factually. King of the Monsters justifies genocide as the solution to climate change with the magical regrowth of the environment. It veers into apologia.
The conservative world of the film and television industry thrives on misinformation moreso than fact. And regrettably, certain film and television shows have a great enough influence among the general audience that this information eventually becomes Word of God for them even when fact says otherwise. ‘Overpopulation’ is a racist dogwhistle that allows people dress up their often racially motivated calls for genocide as rational. Its meaning is couched in racism, classism, and ableism. It can’t be divorced from that.
Climate change and the frequency of gun violence have become intertwined because of the incidents that happened in New Zealand and El Paso, Texas. The United States’ refusal to act in the best interests of its people has given rise to [white] nationalists calling for genocide to “save” the environment.
As a villain, I want to like Emma Russell’s character. Her story is ultimately a tale of misguided revenge fueled by her grief. If the film was honest about that, if the film treated her environmentalism for the lie it was, I could’ve gotten behind it. But, the screenwriters try to paint it as heroism. And it’s for that reason, while I can enjoy other aspects of the film, I loathe how King of the Monsters handled her and her story.
Browsing Godzilla or Toho-centric fan spaces and seeing “Emma Russell did nothing wrong”, “Emma Russell is the true hero of King of the Monsters”, and “Emma Russell was Right” without the slightest hint of irony is monumentally depressing. Just like with King of the Monsters, people came out of Avengers: Infinity War trying to romanticize Thanos’ actions because the film’s counter-arguments against genocide were similarly undermined. Audiences think agreeing anti-human sentiment makes them intellectually superior realists. It doesn’t.
Film and television play a big part in how eugenics and the myth of overpopulation are passed on from generation-to-generation of media consumers, which only ties it to the historically damaging power of cinema (obvious example: Birth of a Nation). I’m tired of movies and television validating harmful ideas that are still practiced across the world. Don’t tackle a subject like genocide unless you intend to condemn the position with no reservations, no caveats.
It is not a treatise for the “tragic complex character” who is just a fascist in disguise. There is no moral gray area about acting on genocide. And of all the things that can aid in minimizing the damage of climate change, the genocide of humans and controlling who has children will never be one of them.