Shin Godzilla Review


Keith Zevallos

An underwater tunnel in Japan suddenly fractures, flooding in water from Tokyo Bay and grinding the road to a halt. In pristine board rooms, the finely suited personnel of Japan’s various government and public safety departments shoot ideas between each other as they try and determine what caused the damage and how to approach it. Between flurries of swift, to-the-point cuts of new reports and cellphone footage, the Japanese government shoots down the possibility that the tunnel damage was caused by seismic or volcanic activity.

And then we see it. On the news, a viral video of a massive tail whipping about above the waters of Tokyo Bay. Massive fins emerge and make their way towards the shore. Japan is facing the threat of an unidentified giant creature.

Shin Godzilla is the first Godzilla production to come out of its home country since the fan-service heavy Final Wars in 2004, and Toho Pictures brings the franchise back with a BANG worthy of the King of the Monsters.

This movie takes itself far more seriously than any other monster movie, something one might not expect from a genre made famous by men in foam suits stomping on miniature cities. The beginning of the film takes the audience on an almost step-by-step simulation of how Japan would realistically respond to the initial threat of a giant monster. In this film, nothing like Godzilla had ever been seen before, shirking the tradition of all previous Godzilla productions to at least count the original 1954 film within its continuity. Scientists and politicians alike gauge the creature’s destructive potential amidst a backdrop of public uncertainty.

A major weakness in many Godzilla films, and monster films in general, is a tendency to linger on scenes of human conversation amidst a giant monster crisis on their doorstep. Director Hideaki Anno solves this problem with rapid cuts during these dialogue-heavy political discussions. Not a frame is wasted, but the peoples’ actions and words still look and feel natural. The characters are rushing, but the scenes don’t feel rushed.

It’s also commendable that, despite this form of Godzilla’s undeveloped and comical appearance, the film still makes it seem threatening with strong musical cues and competent acting. What might seem like typical monster movie cheese normally, here comes across as something very alien and foreboding.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government is arguing back and forth over the interpretation of laws that would allow them to mobilize the Japanese Self Defense Force to combat the monster. Debates over semantics and the spirit of the law take place as these men and women try to reconcile how to best protect Japanese citizens while maintaining order in the international community. Complaints are made of red tape and general inefficiency in the system. When the Self Defense Force finally stares down Godzilla, the movie cuts to every person in the chain of communication that must be involved in a rapidly escalating situation. A scene that might seem superfluous and slow in most other movies here instead contrasts perfectly with the imminent threat of Godzilla and encapsulates the frustration of a country that must defend itself under the restrictions laid upon them in the aftermath of World War II.

Godzilla himself is very different from how it’s begun. It starts as a brown lump, but when confronted by the Self-Defense Force, it rapidly mutates. It grows longer and builds muscle, enough to be able to balance on its hind legs. Its brown skin becomes black and ragged, revealing a dangerous red glow beneath. Its comical eyes shrink and become beady. Though this “teenage” Godzilla escapes, it returns later even larger, darker, with horrendous fangs and a formidable roar. Godzilla stands at almost 400 feet, the largest it’s ever been, and its presence is emphasized artfully with sweeping views of its gargantuan figure amidst Tokyo, ground shots staring upwards at its monolithic stature, and close-ups of its terrifying face coming out of the smoke and debris. Godzilla looks, sounds, and most importantly, feels like a giant monster.

One detail from the original film that was waved away in all future Godzilla films was the creature’s tendency to contaminate anything with dangerous levels of radiation through its footsteps. That catastrophic, deadly trait is revisited here. Godzilla forges a path through Tokyo, leaving behind a wake of caustic black smoke. Its path becomes active on the Geiger counter, making the prospect of destroying or containing him all the more urgent.

And Godzilla in this movie has never been more deadly. When confronted again with the Japanese Self Defense Force, the fully evolved Godzilla spews its iconic atomic breath. It starts as a gaseous inferno that engulfs multiple city blocks in all-consuming flame before it focuses into a lethal, unstoppable beam of nuclear energy. Godzilla here also has the ability to fire atomic lasers from almost anywhere on its body. Its fins light up the night sky in an atomic light show, and even its tail now is capable of firing. With the city around him practically leveled, Godzilla goes dormant. Its energy spent, it stands as an indestructible statue amidst the destruction, but it will only be a matter of time before its energy is restored and it becomes active again.

The second half of the movie is a political scramble of Japan trying to handle the Godzilla threat while facing intense pressure from the international community, notably the United States. A major thread of the drama comes when the United States insists on using a nuclear bomb to eradicate Godzilla, a strategy encouraged and enforced by the United Nations.

After all the destruction, the casualties, the political intrigue, the movie ends somewhat anticlimactically, though still satisfactorily, with an idealistic hope of rebuilding what Godzilla has destroyed—a miracle revelation that the nuclear isotope that power Godzilla having a half-life of only twenty days (setting up the possibility of an environmentally friendly nuclear power source in the future) and the sentiment that “Humans must learn to co-exist with Godzilla”, an interesting message that breaks the mold of the usual tradition of having Godzilla represent a nuclear future that must be avoided.

Overall, Shin Godzilla is a strong return for the franchise. Godzilla is far more terrifying and destructive than ever. The plot, while typical in the formula, is a well-executed, even realistic simulation of how a nation might combat the threat of Godzilla. (Not that they’d need to but hey, better safe than sorry, right?) Despite some moments of notably weak special effects (there’s a scene with some trains “snaking” around Godzilla that looks especially silly compared to the seriousness of the situation) the sets, the suit, and the practical effects look great, complemented by the gorgeous cinematography. The musical scores, though some seem ripped from Neon Genesis Evangelion (perhaps Anno’s most famous work), drive the film exactly where it needs to go, building anticipation, dread, and excitement and highlighting the strengths of each scene. While there have been some notable examples in previous Godzilla films, Shin Godzilla and its cast treat both the film and its audience with respect. While there are some weak performances (notably a Japanese-American envoy that speaks in gratuitous English) this isn’t a kitschy experience that needs to be defended with noting that “it’s a monster movie”, it’s a strong film on its own merits.

If you have even a passing interest in the spectacle of a giant monster wreaking havoc and the tension of humans trying to stop it, you owe it to yourself to see this movie. It’s being distributed in America by Funimation Productions and is in select theaters for a limited time, with prospects of a DVD and BluRay release to be announced.