Monday, 1 September 2014

Godzilla: the Anorexic Apex Predator

(Warning - SPOILERS!)

While I don't suggest for a second that things as trivial as actual science play any part whatsoever in the conception and writing of films like Godzilla (2014), it behooves me to comment on this movie for its startling lack of even the tiniest nod to reality. The 1998 version was at least moderately credible for minutes at a time. This new incarnation isn't just harking back to the classic films made before modern scientific understanding, it's a wholesale trip beyond the realms of common - and biological - sense.

Supersize me.
Putting aside the biological considerations of Godzilla's gargantuan anatomy (an animal of this stature would be crushed, explode and melt in various measures by his own weight and size - see Tet Zoo's blog on this subject for more info) let's pretend something that hefty could actually exist and had evolved perhaps through an evolutionary arms race with Mothra/Muto (for which the same size allowance will be made). Let's look at the ecology of these mega-fauna.

Mothra 'feeds on' radioactivity. The explanation for this diet is given during a scene that truly puts the 'brief' in briefing: we are told this primeval flapper evolved long ago when the earth was more radioactive and so, naturally, it evolved to feed on the radioactivity. (At this point I turned to my partner and repeated the film dialogue in a tone of voice one can only describe as super-heated incredulity).

Ewwwww! Moths!
Of course there are many different types of radiation and we needn't go into too much detail on that here. What's interesting is that the statement is actually true to an extent: there were higher background levels of various types of radiation in the geological past. The repair mechanisms found in living cells today hint that we evolved from simple life that had to exist on a planet with 4 to 8 times more background radiation. This meant cells had to withstand higher mutation rates, so fast repair was necessary to avoid too much damage. Despite what Hollywood would have us believe, mutations are usually bad things.

How much radiation are we talking about here? Well the average background radiation we are currently exposed to is 2.4mSv/yr so, for arguments sake, if in the Hadean/Archaen it was eight times this, 19.2mSv/yr, our little microscopic ancestors were basically exposed to the maximum allowed dosage for a nuclear industry employee, (up to 20mSv/yr). In contrast, the maximum 'safe' short term dose allowed for emergency workers evacuating civilians from a nuclear disaster zone is 500mSv/yr. To my knowledge, neither emergency workers nor power plant workers show any signs of developing an ability to absorb any of this and use it to fuel metabolic processes or build body tissues. To my knowledge. Of course, they may just not have been at it long enough, I guess only time will tell. *
Insert Godzilla here.

The aforementioned high background radiation was present about 4 billion years ago and our planet has become steadily less radioactive ever since. When they discuss the 'ancient' Mothra and Godzilla in the film, we are shown a suitably out of date evolutionary tree of life diagram, helpfully zoomed in on the dinosaurs - just to clarify. So, Godzilla and Mothra evolved between 65-250 million years ago, during the mesozoic? Probably not a whole lot of radiation around back then, perhaps at most the same exposure as the incremental dose received by the average airline crew (5mSv/yr). Clearly there was neither the dose nor the time for this to even qualify as anything but a thin, bendy straw for desperate monster movie enthusiasts to clutch.

The next puzzle for me, was Mothra/Muto's ability to produce an EMP (electromagnetic pulse). Apparently the portrayal of EMPs in popular culture is usually wrong, but putting aside the accuracy of the effects for a moment, I find myself wondering why Mothra would have evolved this ability in the first place? Is it defensive? If so, it could only be against what I guess must be Godzilla's electrical breath? Incidentally, Godzilla seems to forget s/he possesses this talent until the last minute. Why not use it earlier and save him/herself an exhausting and almost terminal battle? I can only presume the biological cost-benefit must make it a last resort attack only.

Am I shooting lightning breath, or throwing up?
(Further Spoilers - you have been warned!)
Do the film makers know what vivisection means? The second Mothra-egg/chrysalis thingy (?) was apparently vivisected before being disposed of as nuclear waste. I'm pretty sure they said vivisected, although this term refers to operating on living creatures and they thought it was dead at the time. I assume they meant dissected? Either way, they cut it up and it turned out not to be dead. Next question: were there no monitoring devices in their Nevadan waste disposal mountain? Or any staff? And when, upon realising their mistake, the military ran to check the bunkers, did no one notice the huge Mothra shaped hole in the side of the mountain and the tell-tale GIANT MONSTER galumphing away across the desert?

The final nonsensical event is at the end, where Godzilla, a super-apex-predator who has evolved to eat radioactive-mothras (and 'restore balance' according to Ken Watanabe) kills his prey using the hitherto not utilised magical lysterine breath... only to drop Mothra's body into the sea and leave it there! This massively calorie intensive animal has not snacked since at least the 1950s, yet he goes to all the trouble of circling the earth, hunting down and killing Mr and Mrs Mothra, only to go off his dinner? Granted, my first-hand experience is mainly with mammals (cats, dogs, rats, hamsters, mice and cetaceans), but I reckon its safe to say most creatures are quite keen on eating. I'd go as far as to say they even do it regularly.

Clearly, there is much study ahead for ecologists in the field of electrical and radioactive-dino-monsters.


* Perhaps the offspring of emergency workers paired with nuclear industry employees over many generations would be naturally selected until they became huge gamma-guzzling Humothras? Maybe not...