Limited Release: October 11th-18th
Directed by: Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Starring: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, and Gojira (as himself)
Shin Godzilla (or Godzilla: Resurgence) is the second Japanese reboot of the beloved kaiju franchise and a return to form for the big scaly dino-lizard-monster. This time around, there are no giant moths or three-headed dragons or other terrifying monsters to battle. It's a grudge match between Godzilla and Tokyo, and just like the original Gojira, this is a fight between man and nature.
But is it any good?
Fans of the franchise and film reviewers have been raving about the movie since its release, praising its visuals, homages, and adherence to Godzilla's roots. The movie is not about Godzilla the monster, not exactly. The rubber-suited city-smasher was originally designed as a metaphor for the atom bomb, and the devastation of nuclear power in general. The original Gojira was a bleak film that was half-monster thriller, half-commentary. Shin Godzilla is a return-to-form in that it is essentially an updated metaphor. Here, Godzilla is the same force of nature, created by our own misuse of nuclear material (and the film specifically names the U.S. as the culprit). Additionally, the film is also a satire on Japan's cripplingly inefficient government bureaucracy, especially in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster and the Tōhoku earthquake/tsunami in 2011.
The first third of the movie is a series of long, drawn-out board room meetings, where every character that speaks (every single one of them) has their name and title flash on screen. Meetings make way to committees which make way to conferences that only have three people attending, all within the two-hour limit of Godzilla's first appearance and retreat. Nothing productive is done, and without the proper protocols in place to deal with such a disaster, no one is able to commit to a course of action. By the time they have their stuff together, Godzilla has already slinked back into the bay, leaving devastation in his wake.
I picked up on the satire fairly quickly during this first section, but the truth is I don't know enough about Japanese society or Japanese government to really appreciate it. There are entire swathes of geopolitical maneuvering between Japan, America, the U.N., and I think Germany had a cameo too? At several points, characters discuss how Godzilla is hurting the economy, a concern that overshadowed the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are essentially homeless and in danger. Is the economy a serious, crass concern, or is this callousness part of the satire? I really couldn't tell.
And the truth is, I didn't care. There are also several running plot lines between different politicians and dignitaries concerning non-Godzilla related issues. My suspension of disbelief was not strained by a giant radioactive lizard as much as the fact that characters spend time having mundane discussions on protocols and political ambition when there's a goddamn Godzilla right outside, holy crap don't you people see that thing?!?
The film does do an excellent job of relating the monster's attacks with Japan's recent disasters, and even calls back several times Nagasaki and Hiroshima. "Post war Japan" is a major topic in the later part of the film, as the remaining politicians wonder if Godzilla will force the U.N.'s hand on another atomic bomb. The cinematography is gorgeous at times, and some of the shots are just magnificent. Several shout-outs to the original film, including the music and Godzilla's roar, are welcome tributes to the movie's origins.
But who care about all of that? You want to know about Godzilla! That's why we're here! An interesting change the movie makes is that Godzilla appears in about three different forms throughout the film. The first is a weird elongated lizard-tadpole that propels itself on giant legs. It has enormous, lidless fish-like eyes, and strongly resembles a mutated baby crocodile. To top it off, there are no arms, just stumps suggesting where they will eventually grow, and a set of enormous gills that spill blood as it ceaselessly pushes itself through Tokyo's streets. This was a bizarre creature, and sadly had the worst CGI in the film (it's particularly bad when its shown pushing countless boats up a canal). Eventually, he stands himself up on his hind legs and begins changing again, growing larger and walking upright. Afterwards he retreats, but Godzilla eventually returns in a shape we're more familiar with.
And I need to hand this to the designers at Toho Pictures: Godzilla is frightening.
When he reappears, he towers menacingly over everything, his sickly-looking tail swaying back and forth with malice. His skin is a cracked, tumorous blood-veined mess, his teeth growing painfully around the inside and outside of his mouth. He has small, beady eyes that are animalistic and off-putting. There is nothing here that would remind you of rubber-suited monsters stepping on toy cars and cardboard buildings. This is a beast of nightmares. During his second attack midway through the film, he unleashes his famous breath weapon in one of the scariest scenes of destruction I've ever seen on screen. There's no "misunderstood monster," here: Godzilla is destruction and despair. There are powerful scenes of characters standing in his aftermath, floored by the amount of destruction he is capable of unleashing just by walking.
Sadly, Godzilla and the brief moments of satire are the only parts of the film that work. Otherwise, there is a complete lack of Godzilla. Toho Pictures was inspired to create this reboot after the success of the 2014 American Godzilla, which I didn't enjoy. I found it boring, poorly executed, and poorly acted (by a talented cast, too!) with an infuriating habit of cutting away from revealing the monsters or seeing the action right as it's about to happen. When I go to a monster movie, I want to see the monsters. I understand the Spielberg Jaws principle, where monsters should be revealed slowly for maximum effect. But '14 Godzilla was still hiding Godzilla by the third act, because the film thought I cared about Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen (spoiler alert: I don't). In Shin Godzilla, we have a similar issue. We see a lot of Godzilla: he spends half the movie frozen in place within Tokyo, "recharging." But we only see him do his thing for maybe 10-15 minutes of the film, tops. I want you to think about that: in a 2-hour film, we see the titular monster being a monster for maybe 8-10% of the movie. What's left are boring and confusing political scenes that, even with a countdown, lack tension or interest.
If the film was shorter, had less subplots, stuck to a few central characters, and a bit more Godzilla, I think I would have liked this film a lot more. But in the end, I walked out unsatisfied and bored. It's an over-padded and dull disaster film that just happens to have a giant, albeit frightening, monster in it.