Director: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi
Godzilla, as a franchise, has gone through a number of transitions over the years. What began in 1954 as a serious warning against nuclear weapons testing quickly transitioned into a shameless barrage of kaiju battle films. That’s not to say they weren’t awesome though, because they were. I loved watching Godzilla go toe-to-toe with King Kong. The battle with King Ghidorah and Monster Zero on an alien planet was fantastic in a ‘so bad it’s good’ sort of way. As fun as it all was though, each film that got produced under the Toho banner just got sillier and more formulaic as time went on: New monster arrives, Godzilla shows up to lay the smack down, and then he goes back to sleep at the bottom of the sea… rinse and repeat. That’s all well and good, but I prefer scary Godzilla. When they brought him back in 1984 and ignored all the Toho cheese before it, he was once again a force to be reckoned with. But again, the studio still didn’t know how to progress without resorting to silliness. Eventually, they knew they milked as much out of the big green lizard as they could, and put him to rest after 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. Now, after a slumber of 12 years (not including the American reboot in 2014), the world’s favorite monster is back in Shin Godzilla.
Now, regardless of which era of the franchise we’re talking about – Showa, Heisei, or Millennium – it’s been the same Godzilla each time, more or less. But the 29th entry by Toho is a reboot, and thankfully, the studio has finally decided to make some changes. That’s not to say they went hog wild, though. A lot of plot threads are still rooted in familiarity, but different enough to feel fresh.
Godzilla is still a byproduct of radioactive contamination. Not because the filmmakers are paying homage, mind you, but because radiation is still a major concern for the Japanese. In 2011, a tsunami caused the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant to leak large amounts of radiation. Not as much as Chernobyl, but still enough to have the Japanese government declare a nuclear emergency and instruct people living within 12 miles of the site to evacuate. According to Wikipedia:
‘Japanese authorities admitted that lax standards and poor oversight contributed to the nuclear disaster. The government came under fire for their handling of the emergency, including the slow release of data on areas which were likely to be exposed to the radioactive plume from the reactor, as well as the severity of the disaster.’
And that’s Shin Godzilla in a nutshell; watching a monster bring civilization to the ground while the government is too busy cutting through its own red tape. Nobody wants to assume responsibility because nobody wants to be blamed for the fallout. So, decisions are only made after too much deliberation, and as a result, their course of action is always two steps behind. When Godzilla’s out at sea, for example, the government sits on their hands, hoping their readings in the ocean are the result of a passing anomaly. Better yet, as they hold a press conference to assure people the monster would collapse under its own weight if it were to come ashore, Godzilla’s already in the process of leveling city blocks. Once they’ve decided nuclear might be their only option to stop the beast, it’s already found its way to a densely populated Tokyo. It’s just one massive blunder after another.
I didn’t expect to find intelligent satire in a 2016 Godzilla film, yet here we are. In many ways, I’m reminded of Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which also featured governments so focused on protocol, their common sense had long since flown out the window. Likewise, watching the Japanese government stumble over itself provides a layer of dry humor to Shin Godzilla, but it’s equally terrifying, if not more so, because it’s a reminder of how inept major political powers in the real world are. I mean, could you imagine if this world was in real jeopardy? If a ‘monster’ by another face and name were to appear and threaten millions? Do our governments have plans in place, or will they freeze up like deer caught in headlights? Personally, I think they’d be caught with their pants down, but regardless of whether or not you agree, it’s something to think about, and I appreciate Shin Godzilla for presenting these questions in the first place.
That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole ‘government satire’ thing split the Godzilla fan base a bit, as it comprises a fair majority of the film. That means you’ll be watching politicians bullshit themselves for nearly two hours, and if you’re hoping Godzilla will have a generous amount of screen time to space it out, you’ll be sorely disappointed.
Godzilla is only on-screen for about 8 or 9 minutes. “Aw man, they pulled that crap a couple of years ago in the American reboot!” Well, actually, they’ve ‘pulled that crap’ since 1954, because that’s how long the big lizard had appeared in the original. So I’d argue that it doesn’t matter how long the monster actually appears on screen, but how much of an impact their presence leaves across the film in its entirety. Take a look at Jurassic Park for example. Nobody complained how the dinosaurs had only graced the screen for 14 minutes, but because of how well the film was made, the audience walked away feeling like they were in a majority of the picture. In Shin Godzilla, the monster’s presence definitely carries the picture. Without it, the politicians wouldn’t be in such a mad dash, and the filmmakers have sprinkled Godzilla throughout the film’s runtime with masterful placement.
And when Godzilla is on-screen… Ho. Ly. Shit.
I don’t want to get into too much detail here, because seeing how the filmmakers decided to present Godzilla is part of the surprise. But this is, by far, the meanest, most destructive iteration of Godzilla yet. Just look at this thing:
Its tiny eyes and mouth loaded with pointy, crooked teeth are a sharp contrast to the monster (and its iterations) we’ve watched over the last 62 years. The open radiation sores glow red as a warning to all that dare oppose him… and for those that do, his powers are far more devastating than anything we’ve ever witnessed.
Yes, folks, there’s reason to fear Godzilla again.
What really helped to sell how frightful he is, though, are the special effects. I’ve never seen a Toho produced Godzilla film with this kind of budget behind it. I mean, we’re so used to watching men in suits trample across elaborate sets littered with destructible models, and over the years those sets became much more convincing… but after all was said and done, it still looked fake. Not so in Shin Godzilla. In this movie, every bit of destruction looks real. Everything from water splashing out of the ocean to buildings collapsing in a pile of rubble was as convincing as could be. There were a couple of effects in the film that seemed unfinished compared to the rest, but the rest of the film more than makes up for it.
As a side note, I was really upset when Toho had finally retired their large wave pool – which is pretty much where all the ‘Godzilla in water’ shots had been taken over the years – but now that I’ve seen what Toho can do without it, I think I can finally let it go… as long as Toho keeps producing films for the franchise with a large budget.
As a result of its political satire, I don’t think this film is going to be for everyone. But as far as I’m concerned, it’s what elevates this film to something greater, making Shin Godzilla one of the best entries in the franchise to date. It took a 12 year cool down for Toho to figure out how to transition this property into something far more relevant, but they’ve done it. Godzilla has entered the modern world with ferocity, reminding everyone that no matter how many King Kong’s or Jurassic Park’s there are, Godzilla will always be the King of the Monsters.