I couldn’t help but notice the city’s commotion as I gazed out at the Manhattan skyline from “on top of the RCA Building”—its busy yellow cabs, gridlocked streets, and throngs of people. These components, in my opinion as well as in Allen Ginsberg’s, are what make up Manhattan. But there doesn’t appear to be a gigantic reptile that could flatten the entire city in this picture.
Oddly enough, it wouldn’t be wholly inappropriate for such a monster to exist. Keep in mind that Godzilla first appeared on the Tokyo skyline in 1954, just four years before I was awestruck by the Manhattan skyline. When this iconic monster made its cinematic debut in 1956, the title of the film was changed to “Godzilla: King of the Monsters!” It’s interesting to note that Ginsberg was standing less than a kilometer from the movie’s premiere when he looked out over the city. So Allen, where is our enormous reptilian visitor?
Monsters ransacking cities first appeared in the 1950s. In movies like “Them!” (1954), two huge ants were let loose in Los Angeles, and in “The Deadly Mantis” (1957), a prehistoric praying mantis was let loose in Washington, D.C. In “The Blob” (1958), a gelatinous creature causing havoc in Phoenix, Pennsylvania, it was done in a similar manner. Naturally, one cannot talk about New York City without mentioning the iconic, Empire State Building-climbing King Kong. It’s interesting to note that Toho Productions was inspired to create Godzilla by the 1963 remake of “King Kong” (1933).
These films, which featured destructive creatures, came out at a time when many towns were still dealing with the effects of World War II. Their roars therefore resounded with metaphor. What better way to understand the destruction caused by war than to see it take place behind the protection of a screen? Despite being unnatural, these monsters gave viewers a safe space in which to experience the horrors of warlike devastation. On TV, the devastation of the city became a spectacle that was both scary and strangely liberating. It allowed post-war audiences to witness acts of violence and devastation in a way that mixed exhilaration and dread.
In the most recent episode of Warner Bros.’ Monsterverse series, “Godzilla vs. Kong” (2021), the monsters made a successful comeback. With a staggering $400 million in box office receipts, the movie outperformed all predictions. Despite a seven-decade hiatus since the first Godzilla movie, “Godzilla vs. Kong” still has a lot of allegorical significance. In addition to being a rare blockbuster in light of the 2020 shutdown of theaters, it provides a lens through which we might observe these monsters. How does it feel to witness a city being destroyed by a gigantic creature after witnessing cities being abandoned during lockdown? How does it feel to see fearful people running away from a terrifying menace, knowing that a pandemic once kept us inside our homes?
The New York Times’ Patrick McGeehan recently noted that “New York City is Reawakening.” He is correct, since musicals are once again performed, masks are no longer required, and shops are once again welcoming patrons. However, the city that is waking up is distinct from the one that shut down in last March, as McGeehan notes. Our cities and how we view them have both been permanently altered by the pandemic. Ginsberg alluded to the yellow taxis and soaring skyscrapers of New York City as symbols that represent more than simply their outward appearance. Reading his comments serves as a reminder that New York City is more than just a collection of buildings; it also represents hopes and desires.
This symbolism is at risk if a monster destroys these cabs or collides with tall structures. These emblems frequently have a nationalistic undertone. The Sydney Opera House is included on Australian postcards for the same reason that the Empire State Building is featured on American postcards: both buildings represent a country’s sense of identity. King Kong is so defying this symbolic when he climbs the Empire State Building, almost daring to bring it down. When a huge ape is ready to destroy it, how can a structure be a postcard icon?
Many people fled the cities when the epidemic first started because they were risk and infection hotspots. Cities eventually became crisis zones as the virus spread. Infrastructure deteriorated, firms closed, and hospitals struggled. During this time, we changed our attention from city landmarks to more important things like neighborhood cafes, medical offices, hospitals, and public transportation. Furthermore, leaving the city destroyed the symbolic significance of cities. We came to understand that we didn’t necessarily need cities for employment and that, if required, they could house the homeless. The epidemic posed a challenge to the city’s central position in our social, political, and economic lives by revealing these cracks beneath the shiny exterior. What does it signify, then, if King Kong makes one more effort to climb the Empire State Building?
Beyond its box office success, “Godzilla vs. Kong” has a lot going for it. I experienced a cathartic rush of excitement while watching the movie as I watched these two beasts wreck devastation on urban landscapes. It’s not only that the pandemic’s impact on urban areas has dampened the usual sense of peril in these scenes. Additionally, the destruction depicted on screen is a reflection of the pandemic’s less dramatic but no less destructive effects on towns all around the world. It’s difficult to comprehend the whole extent of the pandemic’s effects on businesses, hospitals, and employees. Though our daily doomscrolling is amplified by the erosion of healthcare systems on screen, which is as damaging as we felt it to be.
Finally, with the extra security of it being a dramatic catastrophe movie we can pause at any time, we can see the broad scope of the pandemic’s destruction.
I don’t support a Thoreauvian escape to the woods or even a ‘reawakening’ of pre-pandemic urban life in the wake of these devastated cities and our altered perspectives of them. Cities will evolve and reinvent themselves, just as “Godzilla vs. Kong” ends with the possibility of city reconstruction. The pandemic’s challenge to the relevance of cities and their function as compelling symbols will be addressed by this new viewpoint. We no longer use imposing skyscrapers or opulent casinos to represent development and power.
We have been able to look through these symbols to the underlying systemic, structural, and cultural weaknesses that are susceptible to failure. Inadequate housing options, outdated infrastructure, and rigid work schedules are a few other issues that have been highlighted, as well. It makes sense why there is a peculiar joy in seeing a city gracefully destroyed. When these symbols are destroyed, there is a common feeling of rage and grief, which is then followed by unrestrained ecstasy.
Therefore, let Godzilla wreak havoc on the city. Allow Kong to slash through downtown with his powerful sword. The same symbolic weight that used to be required for our cities is no longer necessary. ‘I’ve seen [they] must disappear,’ as Ginsberg so beautifully put it.