Movie Review: Shin Godzilla (Godzilla Resurgence)
Green is good! Toho revives Godzilla once again for a rampage through Tokyo that is exciting, insightful, but just shy of perfection.
This the birthday gift I have been waiting for. I’ve loved Godzilla since I was little, starting with a grainy double-feature VHS that saw the green titan taking on Megalon with the help of Jet Jaguar. From there, I was hooked, and raided my local rental store for copies of Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. Mecha-Godzilla, and one of my favorites, Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters! I even watched the short-lived animated series on re-runs. I love me some giant monster fights, and I love me some Godzilla.
While I was disappointed by Hollywood’s 2014 attempt to bring the king of all monsters to the States, there were certainly moments in that movie that made me hopeful going forward. The human element was sappy, but goddamn did Godzilla look like ten pounds of kick-ass in a nine pound bag. While we wait to see how America moves forward with the franchise, the original parent company, Toho, decided to create a new film with a much more Japanese sensibility. While they couldn’t match Western visuals, they delivered a strong story, good tension, exciting action sequences, and a fresh take on Godzilla that captures the dread of the 1954 original.
Shin Godzilla (Godzilla Resurgence)
A disgraced researcher’s boat is found abandoned in the bay of Tokyo, but before authorities can figure out what has transpired, a geyser of ominously bloody water threatens to sink the boat. Under the bay, a seismic shock almost collapses the trans-bay tunnel, forcing an evacuation. As the government flounders for explanations, a colossal creature heads towards land, plowing boats and structures in it’s wake. Once on land, it destroys the unprepared city as it crawls towards the heart of Tokyo. The government reluctantly gives the order to fire upon the creature, but it suddenly undergoes a transformation. Now bipedal, it regards the attack squad and abruptly heads back to the bay.
A young cabinet secretary named Yaguchi is tasked with investigating the creature and coming up with counter-measures since the current administration is reluctant to make any commitments to using force. He discovers that the US has knowledge of the creature and the researchers notes about it. In those notes he learns the monsters name: Godzilla.
Shin Godzilla is only available in Japanese with subtitles. This poses a bit of a problem since the real meat of the film is the fast paced political discussions and arguments. These interactions function as both a satire (scathing at times) of the current bureaucracy in the Japanese government, and as the main driver of the plot. Godzilla is more of a ticking time bomb than a natural disaster, so the frantic pace of the dialogue supports the tension directors Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi create throughout the piece.
Having to speed read multiple layers of dialogue can become a nuisance, but at the end of the day somewhat enhances the piece. People are panic stricken or furiously arguing, and missing bits here and there offers some verisimilitude. My limited ear for Japanese helped to pick up major points, but even someone without any knowledge of the language is going to get the message based on tone, delivery, and body language.
Like the best films in the Godzilla cannon (notably 1954’s original and 1984’s sequel, The Return of Godzilla) this movie is a nuanced allegory. Godzilla represented the specter of nuclear devestation from the bombs dropped on Japan in WW2, and then morphed into a commentary on the political instability of the Cold War era. In this film, Godzilla is both an allegory for the natural disasters struck Japan in the 2000’s and the devastating nuclear meltdown at Fukushima.
The directors deftly weave elements of those tragedies into the piece, often recreating scenes of destruction and loss that looks more like news reel footage of the actual events. They also use realistic uniforms for the governmental aid workers that would no doubt cause pangs of panic in any Japanese citizen who had to witness workers actually combating the nuclear disaster of 2011.
In addition to allegory, the directors use satire to great effect. They show a timid and self-defeating government that fumbles the situation almost to complete ruin. Several times the Prime Minister is an object of mockery, as are his ministers and other foreign leaders. Anno and Higuchi are not callous or condescending though; they often pivot from a scene where the PM is useless to a striking example where he shows great heart or steadfast determination. Likewise, the hero Yaguchi is shown in contrast as being fervent and forthright, but also naive and hot-headed. They still mostly function as archetypes, but they are not flat characters.
The social commentary is a rebuke of the current system, but also a celebration of core national values, and of a national spirit that is able to embrace their failings and strive to overcome obstacles. It mocks, but doesn’t deride; it offers an olive branch to the status quo and points to a brighter future.
Go Go Godzilla
OK, enough plot and characterization…how’s the monster? He’s pretty great, actually. While not as visually striking as 2014’s American version, he definitely has his own character and unique stamp. Indeed, instead of being one monster, this Godzilla is four. Due to his unstable radioactive nature, Godzilla morphs several times, each time with a unique visual style and set of abilities (an obvious influence from Anno who has worked so long on the Neon Genesis Evangelion franchise, where the antagonists are extraterrestrial beings who change form as the series progresses.)
I was particularly impressed with Godzilla’s larval form, which is simultaneously silly and horrifying. Anno and Higuchi use the completely novel look for their Godzilla’s early stages to reinvigorate him as a viscerally terrifying creature. If the fully formed Godzilla had just waded into Tokyo, I wouldn’t have been very frightened, as we’ve seen that a million times. Instead, each time he shows up he is visually different and it makes him feel new and exciting again.
There are some stumbles, visually. Some of the CG action is shoddy by Hollywood standards…including a few scenes involving flying exploding trains. Yes. I said it. You’ll have to see it for yourself.
The choice to use a live actor to mokap Godzilla has benefits and draw-backs. He moves like the traditional king of the monsters, which can be stilted at times, but also seem more natural than a purely computer generated construct. I’m also not a fan of the ludicrously long tail he sports in this version, which becomes one of his new weapons in a slightly silly way. Likewise, his spines look more grotesque, but also become weapons in a less than credible fashion. That being said, when he finally flips out and decides to go HAM on Tokyo, he is a burning tsunami of glorious destruction, so I guess the new additions find their place.
The action is solid. Godzilla looks pretty good when he’s doing his thing, and the scenes where humanity attacks with conventional weapons are pretty exhilarating. The US bushwacks Godzilla with a bunker buster, and it made me whoop out loud, it was such a palpable moment. There’s quite a few scenes that were like that, so fans of monster mayhem will be happy.
The Final Verdict
This is a smart Godzilla movie. It is willing to take risks while still remaining true to the core of the character. It adopts motifs and imagery from earlier iterations (as well as the classic soundtrack of the original) and puts its own spin on the franchise. The social commentary is well constructed and organic, rarely pulling you out of the experience of a monster/disaster movie. It knows when to be serious, and when to step back and be humorous. It is only the slightly wonky additions to Godzilla’s arsenal and the less than satisfying way in which humanity bests him that keeps this film from being perfect. As it is, I still would put this in the top five, perhaps top three Godzilla films of all time. That’s damn fine work.