REVIEW: Shin Godzilla

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Hideaki Anno (Neon Genesis Evangelion) takes Godzilla all the way back to start for the first time in the Toho film series and he turns in a masterpiece. 

Something that kind of hit me after the recent Godzilla (Produced by Legendary Pictures) is how intrinsically tied to Japan Godzilla is. There’s plenty about that movie I don’t love, but it does so much right about depicting Godzilla himself. In turn though that made me realize the ceiling on Godzilla outside of Japan just isn’t as high. The potential is still there for entertaining monster flicks; he can still be “The King of the Monsters,” but he leaves everything else behind.

So much of what Godzilla is, what a Godzilla movie is, and very specifically what that first movie is, is tied up in the wound the US inflicted upon Japan by dropping two nuclear bombs on them. Godzilla is a metaphor with no subtlety, but it’s one that lets you look directly at its idea, starring nakedly at it. Sure it’s silly and camp, but that allows you the ability to dig deeper and harder on issues that would be too daunting and unpleasant to bring in a large audience. Godzilla gives a face to the nuclear nightmare that is somehow compelling to look at.

Despite being such a specific metaphor Godzilla is also somehow incredibly versatile, able to fit into serious grim drama and ridiculous kid friendly camp. Live long enough to see yourself become the hero. What I’m saying is that Godzilla is basically Japanese Batman.

There are plenty of Godzilla movies that don’t mine the depths of the character, that are just pure popcorn monster flicks. There’s a place for those movies, they’re entertaining (mostly) and I like them. I just think that only Toho, only Japan, is ever going to really take Godzilla to new heights and fully explore his cinematic potential.

Shin Godzilla is the first time Toho has completely rebooted Godzilla. Seriously. Up until now they’d just reset the continuity back to the first film. Over and over back to the first movie. Four times in a row during the millennium series.

So why start fresh?

Well, let’s start with the specifics the original movie was dealing with. In 1954’s Gojira what creates Godzilla is not actually those two famous bombings, but more recent nuclear testing. Gojira came out 9 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but it also made direct reference to another incident which had occurred that same year where a Japanese tuna fishing boat (Daigo Fukury? Maru) and its crew were exposed to nuclear fallout from a US thermonuclear weapons test at Bikini Atoll.

Gojira is very much a product of speculative fiction of the era and as such a lot of the movie is about looking forward to the dangers of continued weapon advancements in the form of the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon capable of defeating Godzilla. At the time the idea of the next terrible weapon, something even worse was a worthwhile fear to tap into. But 62 years latter, nuclear weapons are still the scariest weapons around.

Toho had not made a Godzilla movie since 2004 Godzilla: Final Wars, the most action packed and over the top of the entire franchise. Since then the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster once again confronted Japan with the terror of radiation. So there were clearly still modern issues to draw on for a new Godzilla movie (in fact even Godzilla (2014) slightlys draw on it, but to little end).

So a picture starts to form about how some elements of the original are less relevant and where there’s room to drawn on some more modern topics. But that doesn’t quite prepare you for what Shin Godzilla draws on unless you’re more clued in on current Japanese politics: Shin Godzilla is completely and explicitly tied up in Japan’s modern relationship with the United States.

The whole beginning of the movie is this kinda dry but very funny parody of bureaucracy. It wasn’t something I expected but I kinda loved it. A lot of people talking very fast saying basically nothing before deciding they need to figure something specific out, and then they all walk over to a different conference room to talk about that. 

And then Godzilla shows up, except it’s not Godzilla in any way you’ve seen him before. 

Early on he’s making his way up a canal, creating this wall of boats and debris as he pushes forward. There are some amazing shots here (and throughout the movie frankly). It builds up to his first full appearance really well… And then the movie pulls the ripcord…

Godzilla’s first form is like a tadpole version of himself. It has these large unblinking cloudy eyeballs, and his neck is long and swings back and forth awkwardly. He looks fucking hilarious. Clearly intentionally so.

This movie recognizes the importance of the goofier aspects of Godzilla movies and that is entirely to its benefit.

But it doesn’t get lost in that humor either. As the movie goes on the effort against Godzilla turns from being a joke to serious and credible, as Godzilla himself becomes a more serious threat.

That’s a big part of what’s so great about this version of Godzilla: his ability to change makes him unpredictable again. The characters in the movie are experiencing Godzilla for the first time and the movie makes the audience feel that way too. After so many movies it’s great to see that Godzilla can still be surprising.

Let’s go back to the 2014 movie for a minute. When Godzilla finally gets to be in the movie and use his atomic breath it was exhilarating and empowering. It gave you that feeling of “Fuck yeah Godzilla!” When Godzilla uses his nuclear breath for the first time in this movie… What we get is a scene that will haunt me.

I also thought I was burnt out on cities being destroyed, since every big budget Hollywood action movie indulges in some of that these days in a way that’s just kind of a bummer. But, like with most things, it’s not that they’re just doing it too much, it’s that they’re not doing it very well.

The city destruction in Shin Godzilla is spectacular. It’s beautiful, impressive devastation and not really like any city destruction I’ve seen before. It’s some special cinema worth seeing on a big screen. Exactly what I wanted, and executed in way a way I didn’t expect. And it’s not an issue of practical versus CG because the effects in this movie are mostly CG, there’s just a great artistry and thoughtful purpose to how those tools are used here. 

Godzilla (2014) had to be just that, Godzilla as we knew him, Shin Godzilla gets to push farther and reach greater heights.

Again though, this is a Godzilla movie, not just a monster movie with Godzilla. Most of the movie is focused on the effort to understand and stop Godzilla and Japan’s effort to solve this problem while at the mercy of the US government. Those politics play a huge role in the movie. If you’re just looking for wall to wall monster action, you’re not gonna get that.

I’ll also say the final sequence is not the most spectacular. To an extent the movie blows its load the first time Godzilla goes off. That’s partly for the needs of the story; this isn’t a movie where Godzilla gets to win. It’s really the only complaint I can come up with, and let’s be real: I’m always going to want more Godzilla action. This isn’t the goofy over the top spectacle that Final Wars was, if you just want sheer dumb monster fightin’ and spectacle that’s the movie for you. This is a movie that has spectacle (It’s fucking glorious when it does) but it’s not just about spectacle either. 

Shin Godzilla is written and directed by Hideaki Anno, who created the anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. And you can tell. Anno’s fingerprints are all over this movie and there’s a lot of Evangelion mixed up into this concoction.The composer on the movie is Shir? Sagisu who was also the composer on Neon Genesis Evangelion, and there‘s evenmusic from that show in this movie. What they use is used basically the same way it was in Evangelion. Everyone else has taken stuff from Evangelion, including Godzilla movies so it’s only fair that Anno do it himself; and again it works well. There’s also a lot of classic Godzilla music in its original mono form throughout the movie (converting that stuff to stereo ended up being too daunting.) It all works together great; this soundtrack is phenomenal.

All in all I just think this is a great fucking movie. It manages to hit Godzilla right on all the levels: it’s funny, tense, beautiful, horrifying, surprising, and smart. I really loved it.