Take it from me: The new Godzilla movie is an utterly forgettable film. Unless you are a huge fan of the genre, don’t waste your time or money. By now, much has been written (pro and con) about this. But if there is one interesting thing left to say, it’s that the movie might (depending on your perspective) either raise awareness — or trivialize — the threat of electromagnetic pulse.
Before we continue, I suppose it’s important to discuss exactly what an EMP — which some believe could cripple civilization, sending us back to the stone age — is:
A few years ago, USA Today put it this way:
Electromagnetic pulses (EMP) are oversized outbursts of atmospheric electricity. Whether powered by geomagnetic storms or by nuclear blasts, their resultant intense magnetic fields can induce ground currents strong enough to burn out power lines and electrical equipment across state lines.
One could make a good catastrophic film based solely on the premise that terrorists could utilize this potential to cripple America, rendering all our technological advances utterly useless. In Godzilla, of course, this is merely a part of a larger plot. And as Slate’s Forrest Wickman explains, there are stylistic reasons why this works:re
In Godzilla, the monsters often arrive in an eerie silence because their supercharged bodies function like an EMP, shutting off all electronics in the area. This is an old trick of Spielberg’s: In both Close Encounters and in Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds, the aliens do the same, shutting down everyone’s electronics prior to their arrival. In Close Encounters, in particular, this is used to famously eerie effect, shutting down [Richard Dreyfuss' character] Neary’s car and radio before the aliens finally pull up behind him. Even in Jurassic Park, in which the dinosaurs do not, unfortunately, have any EMP capability, they still emerge from behind electrical fences in the midst of a complete power failure, just like the monsters in Godzilla…
In Godzilla, EMP also serves as a sort of deus ex machina to help explain the military’s impotence (it literally causes planes to fall from the sky). So there are many good reasons why this mostly bad film was smart to employ this device. But could this film help raise awareness about the potentially catastrophic threat of EMP?
“More Americans will learn about EMP — even in the flawed sense of being temporary — from Godzilla than from all the RAND studies and panel discussions at CPAC,” says Grover Norquist, a conservative who, along with former Speaker Newt Gingrich, has tried to raise awareness about the issue.
In an email, Norquist praised the ability of science fiction to help the public imagine things they might not otherwise consider. “Ted Kennedy referred to the Strategic Defense Initiative as Star Wars believing he was trivializing the issue and suggesting it was fantasy,” Norquist said. “But millions of Americans saw Star Wars the movie and the idea that we were capable of great technological leaps was more credible because of the film, not less.”
To be sure, in the past, EMPs have been featured in other films and media. And, in a world where technological advances has created an obstacle for movie narratives, it may become a frequently employed and convenient device to render humanity helpless or confused (in movies) — sort of the modern version of a crazed killer cutting the phone lines in a horror film.
But I’m not aware of this previously obscure and wonky threat receiving a larger audience than it garnered in movie theaters across the nation this weekend. Here’s hoping this bad film about a fake monster at least raises awareness about a very real national security threat.