Shin Godzilla, or “New Godzilla” translated to English, opened this past Tuesday for a limited engagement across the US. As a childhood fan of Godzilla, I had been waiting very impatiently to get a glimpse of this new take on the OG Kaiju king. The early reviews had me stepping into the theater with a mix of simmering excitement and slight trepidation. Some have hailed Shin Godzilla “a masterpiece” while others have shot the film down as “boring”. Both are sort of right.
Shin Godzilla does something with the franchise that hasn’t been done since the original 54′ film stomped onto the scene; it dares to be smart and contemplative. This isn’t a return to the sci-fi/horror tinged adventures of the Heisei series or the unmitigated cheese fests of the Millennium era, this is something all together different. Much like the 2014 American Godzilla, the monster is handled with the utmost seriousness. He’s truly a force of nature of which man can not control. However, unlike the 2014 American Godzilla, the human story has some dramatic weight to it.
As a matter of fact, Godzilla is only on screen for maybe a third of the runtime, a critique leveled at the American reboot (though, in my opinion, Godzilla is rarely front in center in these films). This is surely a more adult take for the series and not for kids. Which, speaking of kids, there were numerous children in the screening I attended. I understand parents might not be aware this isn’t a fun monster rampage flick, but surely they knew it would be subtitled? “My kindergarten child reads subtitles at a 5th grade level.” Who does that? They must have been bored out of their minds. Oh, well – END RANT.
That said, moments with the King of the Monsters in action are quite a sight to behold. Several epic set-pieces ensure your money’s worth of unbridled giant creature feature goodness. One scene in particular taking place at night is just as thrilling as it is beautifully shot, glowing with otherworldly reds and purples amidst the realistic fire of warfare. The main thrust of the narrative, though, falls on the government’s handling, or lack thereof, of the situation.
I’d heard word this take on the series was intrinsically Japanese and could potentially alienate an American audience once it hit US shores. I’m sorry, but what country are you living in? Yes, the film is a thinly veiled metaphor for the trifecta of disasters to hit Japan in March of 2011 (earthquake, tsunami, Fukushima nuclear meltdown). At the time, the Japanese government was ill-prepared to handle such large scale destruction.
In the film, Godzilla’s threat is known almost immediately. The problem lies in how will the government handle such an unprecedented disaster? The first thirty minutes are a flurry of meetings. We move from one conference room to another, meeting one official after the other, theories and possible resolutions are tossed out as quickly as they are shot down. One scene literally ends with them saying they must go to a different conference room to continue the conversation, and we witness every minute of it. It’s a dryly satyric look at the inner workings of government in the face of unplanned disaster.
One moment, a title card informs us, “The Following Has Been Abbreviated”. It’s hilarious in that this entire charade has gone on for what feels like an eternity, yet THIS has been abbreviated. As if it matters. There is little urgency to the actions of the Prime Minister, yet social media messages fly across the screen contrasting the city’s panic to the languid deliberation we’re witness to. The information has spread online before worming its way into the stuffy conference rooms of the men who are actually in charge of Japan’s protection. By the time a decision is made, and it’s made with a grave deal of hesitation, it’s too late.
Godzilla’s first scene of destruction is not at all what you might expect going in, but it’s destruction nonetheless. Lives are lost, evacuation efforts have caused nothing but mass hysteria, and officials are left to try and save face while they scramble to pick up the pieces. Metaphor for Fukushima? Sure, but I couldn’t help but sit in the cinema and think of something much closer to home, Hurricane Katrina. Its damage still felt in New Orleans to this day. Stories of FEMA and then President Bush’s failings to act quickly are still fresh in people’s minds despite happening over eleven years ago.
SLIGHT SPOILER WARNING: Godzilla is a force of nature that can not be contained or controlled. Even upon his “defeat” in the end, he is merely frozen in place amidst the destruction of Tokyo. He stands as a reminder of the errors and missteps of the government and the loss that the Japanese people will never forget. We’re told that it’s not if but when Godzilla reawakens, they must be ready to fight back. This is the same lesson hopefully learned by governments after the crippling events of the hurricane and tsunami. END SPOILERS
Driving into New Orleans, areas can still be seen that remain undeveloped since Katrina, while there are restricted zones in Fukushima due to lingering threats from radiation. Like the best movie monsters, Godzilla came to life in 54′ as metaphor for the atomic bomb. He has now been reborn in a modern context, freed from any sense of camp, and has proven that the big green (slightly reddish in this incarnation) behemoth still has the power to send a chill down your spine with a powerful roar.
On purely cinematic terms, the film is top notch across the board. In past Toho Godzilla productions, part of the fun was always searching for the “seams” that spoil the illusion, and to be honest – they were never that hard to spot. Directors, Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, bring an epic scope to the film. While the upgraded effects are mostly accomplished using CGI (sorry, monster suit purists), they rival anything coming out of Hollywood these days. This is a big, blockbuster style movie done with passion and smarts, though, some might balk at the Big G’s new design. Personally, it “grew” on me throughout the film, especially in an eerie final shot that leaves some big questions and exciting possibilities for the inevitable sequel.
I can see how a lot of people walked out of Shin disappointed they didn’t get their giant monster fix. The “boring” label is accurate if you’re expecting Shin Godzilla to be an over the top monster mash. I read enough beforehand to know that the film spends a majority of it’s 2 hour runtime inside various conference rooms. I was somewhat prepared for the film I saw, I prepared my friend who went with me, and now I am preparing you. Go in with the correct expectations, and hopefully you’ll enjoy the film as much as I did. It’s a triumphant return for one of cinema’s longest standing movie monsters, and I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us next.
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