Review: Shin Godzilla
Directors: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi
By Rhys Tarling
Gojira, or Godzilla (1954), was, like many science fiction films from the 50s, a metaphor for the the awesome destructive capabilities of the atomic bomb. It was a hugely influential film that spawned a number of sequels and imitators which traded rich metaphor for cheap thrills. So far there are two American remakes. One was insultingly awful (1998) and the other was a well directed if empty headed (2014). Shin Godzilla, the fourth Japanese Godzilla film, is a return to the roots of the monster franchise in that it deals in contemporary Japanese concerns; namely, the question of where Japan stands in the current geopolitical landscape. Indeed, one bureaucrat grumbles something to the effect of “It seems there is no end to the Post War period” when confronted with the notion that the US will interfere with their efforts to kill the unstoppable beast. But there are enough frighteningly convincing displays of wanton destruction to make the on-the-nose political commentary palatable.
And it’s also to the film’s credit that the “on-the-nose-ness” of the commentary is delivered with a wink. Shin Godzilla wastes no time in introducing Godzilla laying waste to Tokyo. But his mad rampage is merely a backdrop to the team of politicians and bureaucrats hurriedly moving from one flatly-lit beige conference room to the next for reasons pertaining to some cultural formality, and attempting to sensibly ascertain the economic damage caused by this gargantuan sea creature that looks like an enlarged sock puppet and moves like a tsunami. And before a single bullet can be fired at the rough beast that is roaring human extinction’s call, proper bureaucratic procedure must be followed.
It’s all so absurd in theory, and yet Shin Godzilla is savvy enough to straddle, with an olympic gymnast’s skill, the razor-thin line between earnest and silly.
I appreciated the film’s simple message that bureaucracy and teamwork, while unsexy and slow to results, is the only way to pull through an unexpected disaster. Righteously angry outbursts from individuals are treated as a moment to be ashamed of, not the obligatory inspirational call-to-arms they are in American action flicks. There is no single character who saves the day. Rather, Shin Godzilla champions the ordinary and forgettable sleeping in their cramped offices, chowing down on bad takeout food, and doing their best. The downside to this approach is that no character stands out or has a traditional arc. But it’s bold writing that serves to strengthen the thematic and, frankly nationalistic, elements of the film. Whether it works for you or not is a matter of taste.
Which brings us to the creature of this feature himself, Godzilla.
Unlike in 2014’s Godzilla where, during the very few times he was on screen, there seemed to be a determination to smother the creature with as much smoke and debris as possible, this Godzilla is captured in all his freakish glory. He’s a mixture of practical effects and CGI, although it’s not quite as seamless as you’d like; he’s horribly believable in one scene and laughably phoney in the next. Also, he’s decidedly not mankind’s untameable ally this time; through and through he’s a big dumb wild-eyed goofball, wreaking havoc with every clumsy move he makes. But when Godzilla finally unleashes his infamous atomic breath all goofiness is temporarily forgotten as the spectre of the Bomb that haunts Japan returns in all its hellish horror. It’s a magnificent, reverent scene.
Shin Godzilla is worthy. It’s canny mix of satire, earnestness, and big dumb thrills ensures that this one stands tall in the pantheon of monster movies.