Shin Godzilla and all the images you see in this review are owned by Toho
Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
I may not be the biggest fan of the King of the Monsters as I’ve probably seen seven or eight of his movies at most, but giant monster movies are right up my alley when they’re done right. Now we’ve recently gotten our own Born in the USA Godzilla movies which is another of his films I haven’t seen (yet somehow I’ve seen the Roland Emmerich one), but this is the first Godzilla movie in over a decade from Japan and Toho itself, with their last outing being Godzilla: Final Wars which is one of the more… interesting entries in the franchise and is one of the films I’ve actually seen (imagine if there were WWE monster matches happening the background of a Matrix sequel and you get the basic idea). Now while I would have liked to get a more toned down version of that kind of movie with updated effects, this time around they’re trying to get back to basics and rediscover what made the character such a force to be reckoned with when he first premiered in 1954; a mere nine years after we dropped the nukes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oh look! It’s been five years since the earthquake that causes that nuclear crisis in Japan! Maybe it really is the perfect time to take this character out of retirement. Does the movie succeed in making Godzilla the cinematic powerhouse he once was, or is this yet another failed reboot of a series long past its prime? Let’s find out!!
The movie begins with some odd seismic activity happening just off the coast of Tokyo that’s causing underwater tunnels to leak and a major disruption of government services to the area. The Prime Minister (Ren Ohsugi) has called in various experts to find out what the hell is going on in the bay, but only one of his aides, Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), is paying attention to social media which is saying that there’s a giant monster just below the waves. Sure enough, Godzilla comes roaring out and rampages the city before diving back underwater. Well CLEARLY no one was ready for that, so the Prime Minister assigns Rando to head up an Anti-Godzilla task force where the best minds of Japan will try to figure out the monster’s weakness before the next attack which can put the entire country, if not the whole world, at great risk. Of course, this creature didn’t just come out of nowhere. Well okay; I THINK it did, but there’s one country (take a guess which one) that seems to have a bit more information than they’re leading on and have sent a special envoy, Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), to assist in whatever ways she can… while keeping her country’s interest in mind. Can the Anti-Godzilla Task force stop this creature from taking its problems out on the citizens of Japan? Where exactly did this creature come from and what does the rest of the world know about him? Can I please get a plushie of this new Godzilla design!?
I… think I liked it? It’s a pretty uniquely frustrating movie where the problems from story, pacing, framing, special effects, and so on, are REALLY pronounced BUT end up getting addressed in the movie and fixed at some point. There are also parts in this movie that are so great as to be some of the highlights of the Godzilla franchise, but then there are other points that seem doomed to live in infamy as some of the worst moments in any movie ever made, and the dichotomy makes it hard to come down to a single opinion on the damn thing. Taken as a whole, it’s a somewhat tedious movie that has some fantastic ideas, executes some of them well, but never really manages to gather momentum effectively. There’s a lot of starting and stopping here where it will give us something interesting and then not do much with it, or they’ll set up some scenarios that show a lot of promise, but drag them out for seemingly no reason other than to pump up the run time. I definitely think it’s worth watching, and in many ways I do feel it’s a good movie, but it’s not quite what I was expecting and I’m still not sure how to feel about that.
The best way I can probably frame this is that it ABSOLUTELY feels like an auteur effort which isn’t surprising because they got the maniac behind Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hideaki Anno, to direct AND write this movie. It honestly makes since that they went with him (as well as Shinji Higuchi who directed the Attack on Titan movies) because this is trying to get back to the roots of Godzilla as an allegory for nuclear destruction with a modern spin on the material. The clear goal of this movie is to make Godzilla as frightening as possible and to ground the material so that we can connect to the destruction on a visceral level. There’s no other monsters, there aren’t any robots or aliens, and the societal and political ramifications (let alone the magnitude of the destruction itself) are not brushed over in the slightest, and there are points in this movie that capture that to a startling and chilling degree. Then there are points where it does NOT, and it just kills me how much they screw this up in places. Right off the bat, it becomes clear that this movie tries to play the scenario out as it would in the real world by focusing almost exclusively on the politicians in the Japanese government who are on duty when a giant gorilla whale comes out of the ocean. The film isn’t necessarily playing it straight, but the attention to detail as far as what a herculean task it is to do ANYTHING in government is fascinating to watch in real time as they’re up against an unstoppable force that isn’t bound to such concerns as fiscal responsibility, casualty management, and resource allocation. This works… at first. The problem is that the film gets repetitive as we go to meeting after meeting, and the film gets bogged down in jargon that makes it even harder to keep the situations from becoming dull. Not only that, but the progress these politicians and scientists make come out in fits and spurts so there’s not a lot of satisfaction to be had watching them work when so much of it seems like they’re spinning their wheels. This approach also creates an odd distance from the destruction for most of the movie (particularly the first half) as we don’t have a ground level character to follow who isn’t trying to stop Godzilla but merely survive its rampage. Without that, the death and horror that Godzilla is unleashing on Japan doesn’t have as much impact as it should and the movie ends up feeling more like a procedural than a monster flick. Now EVENTUALLY things get better as the destruction does eventually reach our heroes in the government and we have one of the most spectacular monster rampage scenes of all time, but it’s a shame that they couldn’t pull that off a little bit earlier so that the Godzilla’s presence can be felt a bit stronger through the entire movie instead of mostly in the second half.
Now you may argue that the human characters aren’t as important as the monster itself. After all, the movie’s called Shin GODZILLA: not, Shin Prime Minister and His Aides! How does the king of the monsters fare in this? Sadly, he’s an even more flawed aspect of this movie than the odd pacing and framing of the plot. While the humans always seem to be stopping and starting in their efforts to defeat Godzilla, at least it has a degree of consistency and never really dips into straight up film making incompetence. For the first half, Godzilla is a god damn mess. The editing is weird and takes away a lot of his gravitas; especially when the movie begins and they do such a good job of keeping his presence a mystery… but then all of a sudden and out of the blue, BAM! There he is! Almost as if we skipped a scene or something. It only gets worse once you actually see the design they have for Godzilla at first which is even more embarrassing and poorly rendered than the Roland Emmerich movie! Yes, I will go there when talking about Godzilla’s initial form in this move! For me, Godzilla has three forms in this; his Initial Form, his Final Form, and his GOOD Final Form. Now I’ll give the filmmakers at least a bit of credit that his Initial Form is somewhat off-putting which I assume was the goal considering the attempt to get back to the horror roots of the character, but it’s not off-putting like Cronenberg’s The Fly design, or even some of the darker imagery in Evangelion; rather it looks like some horrible animated abomination from Garry’s Mod. Now a lot of this is fixed when he EVOLVES into his Final Form, and it does indeed look pretty damn good, but this is the point where we get into some technical issues. In his Final Form (which is most of the second act) he looks REALLY fake, and I know that people love the rubber suits over CG, but this was a pretty bad rubber suit. There wasn’t a lot of mobility or articulation which means he never looked all that convincing as a giant monster; an issue that’s exacerbated by the fact that they kept shooting him during the day in pretty unflattering lighting. Sure, they used solid camera angles and managed to shoot him in a way that conveys a sense of SCALE as he feels REALLY big, but there’s not a lot of menace to the way he’s filmed or the way he moves.
AND YET! Somehow in the same movie where he looks like a half-baked abomination and then a clunky suit, they get it PERFECT in what I call his GOOD Final Form. The big horrific action scene at the end of the second act is MAGNIFICENT. I’m pretty sure they start using a lot more CG at this point with the rubber suit, but even if it’s still all just puppetry and practical effects, it looks leaps and bounds better in this scene than it does at any other point in the movie and pretty much any other Godzilla movie. The action is intense, it’s shot at night with BEAUTIFUL lighting, Godzilla manages to express believable reactions to the situation and his surroundings, and the destruction he’s able to unleash is daunting and frightening. HOW DO YOU GET THIS SO PERFECT HERE BUT MISS THE MARK EVERYWHERE ELSE!?
A lot of that sounds negative so I want to reiterate that this isn’t one of those movies where you suffer through it just to see one or two killer scenes. The political stuff may be overlong, but it does remain interesting for the most part and the film gets into some pretty dark places once the rest of the world starts to take note and worry about what could happen if Japan can’t contain this monster. There comes a point towards the end of the movie where Godzilla is no longer the biggest threat in the movie, yet you can still sort of understand where the rest of the world is coming from what with the sheer magnitude of a threat that Godzilla can pose on the rest of the world and it’s just unfortunate that Japan is caught in the middle. I’m sure this aspect plays a lot better in Japan than it would in the rest of the world for obvious reasons, but it’s well executed here and I did appreciate the nuance in what’s supposed to be a movie about a dinosaur monster smashing buildings. Even if this movie isn’t firing on all cylinders through its two hour run time, it’s always doing just a bit more than you’d expect from a movie like this and you never lose the sense that Hideaki Anno put his heart and soul into every moment onscreen.
Despite its many flaws, I would still advise anyone with the slightest bit of interest in the character to go check this out at the theater… except it got a REALLY limited run and there’s no way to check it out at this point. I don’t know, wait for the blu-ray I guess? It’s not a perfect Godzilla film, and it’s definitely not my favorite one which is still the 2002 Godzilla vs Mechagodzilla movie (basically a less self-important Pacific Rim), but it’s probably one of the most interesting in the series as it’s not often they try to go for straight up horror when the destruction and monster fights have been the series’ bread and butter for the last four decades. For a franchise that has lasted this long though, a fresh perspective was probably the right call, especially someone like Hideaki Anno who proves to be a great (if maybe a bit unpolished) choice to give us that. Now that they got this one out of the way though, can the next one have Mothra or Jet Jaguar? OH! How about a crossover between this and Pacific Rim!? Maybe throw in the Cloverfield Monster for good measure? It’s not any more ridiculous than Godzilla fighting King Kong, right?
ADDENDUM: I honestly don’t know how the special effects were done in this and I’m hearing it’s almost entirely CG. Whether or not that’s the case, the Final Form still looks really stiff as if it as a rubber suit… so good job at making it look convincingly fake… I guess.