This is my first bonafide original post on this “blog” (I’ve used it exclusively to retain copies of my output from Unreality and Gamemoir thus far), but with Amazon being a fetid wasteland and no other sites I’m actively writing for, I’ve decided to post the only review you need to read for Japan’s first Godzilla film in a dozen years. Why would a normally humble and self-deprecating fellow like myself declare his halfass amateur review the one review to rule them all? Because a) I’m a rabid kaijuphile and anime fan, but not an otaku, b) I’m a longstanding admirer of Japanese pop culture, but not a weeaboo, c) I’ve seen every last Godzilla film-including Godzilla 1985 (aka Godzilla Returns) in theaters when I was seven- and retain a undying passion for the big lizard that hasn’t diminished in the least, and d) if we’re using Wikipedia as a judge, I’m the foremost expert on all things Neon Genesis Evangelion and, by extension, Hideaki Anno. Okay, that was a bit much, but a quote of mine does head up the “Reception” section of my all-time favorite anime’s Wikipedia page (and I didn’t put it there), so I figure that’s got to mean something. Enough preamble. Let’s do this.
Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence) is if nothing else, an interesting film. I think I would have loved it if it wasn’t a Godzilla film. But it is, and in a lot of ways it simply does not live up to the legend that this icon of cinema has built. After twelve years, this is a bizarre way for Japan relaunch the brand and reclaim ownership of their most famous export. I was a huge fan of Gareth Edward’s 2014 American reboot. I was seven years old all over again watching the final act of that film. Edward’s Godzilla felt like a legendary rock act making a triumphant return playing all the hits. By comparison, Anno’s Godzilla is in its weird experimental phase. It’s got some truly inspiring ideas and a brand new approach, but it’s also confounding at times. I believe that Anno is a genius who always knows what he’s doing, but I also think he’s a madman and the audience doesn’t/can’t always know what the hell he’s doing.
I was slightly concerned that out of the three feature length films (not counting the Eva remake) of his I’d watched, two out of the three featured a male character ejaculating into a non-consenting teenage girl’s hand. I mean what are the odds? On the other hand, End of Evangelion is a fucking masterpiece and the best series finale of any show ever, and Love and Pop put on display the director’s penchant for creative camerawork, making even the most mundane actions seem interesting with crazy shots from places you’d never expect. And really, what’s a little errant semen between an auteur and his fans? Thankfully, Godzilla keeps it in his pants, and there are definitely some awe-inspiring shots, but overall, I feel that the Big G’s return to his native stomping grounds is a bit of a let-down.
Without getting into too many spoilers, let me break down the good, the bad, and the ugly of the version of the king of monsters that I have dubbed “Godzillavangelion”. First, let me note the overall tone and style of the film. As other reviews have noted, the plot is less about the monster himself and more about the bureaucracy and logistics involved with a giant unstoppable monster laying waste to one of the greatest cities on Earth. While a great fresh take on the kaiju genre, in Anno’s hands that means a lot of the scenes are “shot of character/line/shot of different character/line/shot of a third character/line” and so on with rapid fire exposition. It’s not a particularly dynamic storytelling approach and it’s not great for building characters either, it only serves to convey information before moving along and the director’s apathy kind of shows.
The film’s score alternates between a limited number of themes that often brought Eva to mind, interspersed with some of the classic themes we all remember. All of is good-to-great music, but they often feel lackadaisically implemented. A well-applied soundtrack can make a cool moment goosebump-inducing or a killer scene truly epic. I feel like the material was there for Shin Godzilla, but seem to be used indifferently. Almost randomly. The classic Akira Ifukube pieces are among my most cherished cinema score classics, but they need an update. The way they are used here, they almost sound like they are being played through a gramophone or some other ancient audio technology. This may have been a deliberate choice to tug on our nostalgia strings, but it feels artificial. Those are evocative, powerful, and timeless pieces of music. But even timeless music can do with an upgrade every now and then. The cast gets the job done, but don’t really stand out much. Some ironic humor makes its way into the political wrangling, but the only character who really leaves an impression is a beautiful bilingual Japanese-American woman aspiring to be president of the United States in spite of the fact that she’s clearly not a native English speaker.
Then there is the titular monster. Shin Godzilla is most certainly a win for Godzilla as a metaphor for potentially apocalyptic disaster. But for Godzilla as an icon of cinema, not so much. The first time he is shown onscreen, I thought it was a joke. I literally laughed out loud in the theater and I was not the only one to do so by a long shot. I kept waiting for the real Godzilla to show up and eat that goofy-looking thing. But this isn’t even the resurgent Godzilla’s final form. He’s able to evolve himself with a thought. Yes, like a Pokemon. I don’t want to give away how far they take this silly idea, but let’s just say that by the end he’s more mecha than kaiju. And I don’t mean MechaGodzilla. And the fact that he spends a large chunk of the movie sleeping upright for no reason with his beady eyes wide open and his tail still sticking up in the air in the middle of Tokyo is just….why? Why would anybody do that?
Speaking of Godzilla’s eyes, if you were building a case that an entire film could be ruined by a single pair of eyes, Shin Godzilla would be your star witness. They looked better in the ’60s. Way better. From that first comedic shot where the eyes are obnoxiously large (they’d be cute if they weren’t so goddamn lifeless) to the climax where the eyes are still the same size but the rest of him is several times larger and his eyelids are metal sheets or something, I can’t imagine how they decided that was the look they wanted to go for. It’ becomes an unnecessary focal point that threatens to make the movie an unintentional comedy. Even the killer fish in Beneath looked more lifelike, and that was practically a Roger Corman flick.
The monster is designed, I think, to put the “God” back into Godzilla. He’s portrayed as extremely massive, indifferent, and all-powerful. Given Anno’s obvious fascination with religion -evident from Eva (Evadent?)- I’m pretty sure that’s what he was going for. He stomps through Tokyo tanking headshots from every piece of artillery the Japanese SDF can muster up without so much as turning his head to acknowledge them. Like a Lovecraftian elder god, he just does not care about the impotent and cosmically insignificant race known as humanity. We rage and flee and plan his demise while our cities crumble around us and he just keeps ambling along, oblivious to any of it. Until we really piss him off, that is. Again, cool as a metaphor, but is a Godzilla this boring and devoid of personality really Godzilla? I guess it has to be since the GINO acronym was already taken by Roland Emmerich’s 1998 abomination, but I feel like this is the least lifelike kaiju I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen a whole lot of kaiju.
Along with some jaw-dropping shots, the interest generated by the new approach of focusing on the government’s dilemmas with figuring out what the hell to do when a gigantic irradiated beast starts tearing your country to shreds definitely saves the film, though. The Japanese government struggles with all sorts of problems of when and where to open fire while citizens evacuate and how much control to surrender to outside forces. Naturally, the good ol’ US is concerned about where the big lizard might go once Japan is stomped flat and their preferred reaction is to let history repeat itself and drop the bomb. I mean, they’ve already eaten two thermonuclear blasts. What’s one more? As one character says, they must be prepared to “scrap and rebuild” for the good of the nation and the world. Naturally, there are some in Japan who would rather not blow up their country’s crown jewel metropolis, and therein lies the fascination. At what point does a creature like this become a world issue and not a local one? As Godzilla evolves more and more powerful and destructive traits and could potentially even begin replicating itself, it becomes clear that something drastic must be done NOW. But what?
Personally, after all of the political intrigue I found the resolution of all this to be rather lame. While the artistic aspirations were clearly reaching for that first perfect 1954 masterpiece of Japanese cinema -the American cut was little more than a narrated highlight reel, check out the original Gojira for reference- for the first time since then, I’m afraid they fall well short. That said, I still recommend this film to any kaiju fanatic. It’s certainly not all that it could have been, and that hurts because it’s so close to great in some aspects. But the handling of the titular monster is stiff and often unnecessarily cartoonish, which is kind of a dealbreaker when dealing with such a beloved icon. Like I said, if it wasn’t a Godzilla movie, I think it would have fared better. But on the other hand, Anno’s fresh set of eyes have provided a lot that could be built upon and refined. Political intrigue is all the rage in pop culture and if they could integrate that approach into a more realistic and recognizable version of the king of monsters, I can see this as a stepping stone to a potentially amazing future.
Shin Godzilla didn’t make me feel like a seven year old trying to stop myself from jumping out of my seat and cheer for my favorite giant fire-breathing dinosaur, but the adult in me appreciated a lot of the intellectual aspects of it regardless. Marrying the former with the latter is all I want from the franchise and it seems only a movie away at this point. There was greatness in this concept, but too many poor choices along the way that I feel will alienate both older fans looking for nostalgia and younger ones looking for more action and visual stimulation. The final shot before the credits roll implies the possibility of a sequel, but I’m not convinced that I want one unless the next is a different beast altogether. Literally. I feel like there’s nowhere else I want to see this version of Godzilla go. It was an interesting experiment with some successes that arguably trump the failures, but I feel like the best thing to do is to nuke this stiff, beady-eyed lizard and move on to yet another reboot a few years down the road utilizing more aspects of what we love about the franchise along with the more adult themes. In other words: scrap and rebuild. I just hope it doesn’t take twelve more years.