Written by Stu Cooper
Hitting theaters for the first time in over a decade, Godzilla makes his theatrical return, and it's against his biggest enemy yet...POLITICS! That's right, the 29th installment in the ever changing Godzilla legacy revolves around a group of various politicians struggling to come up with a solution to their BIGGEST problem ever. (see what I did there?)
Shin Godzilla is the first TOHO produced Godzilla film since 2004's Godzilla Final Wars. American audiences would be treated to their own version in 2014's Godzilla, but it was not affiliated with TOHO or the universe established by their films. This film and creature are a separate beast entirely. Shin Godzilla started production when TOHO announced the film in December 2014, possibly as a response to the US film. Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi were set to direct, and throughout 2015 the film began to take shape. The film was released on July 29th, 2016 in Japan, though American viewers would have to wait until October. Saying that the Japanese release was a success would be a massive understatement. The film was not only the highest grossing live action Japanese film of 2016, but also the highest grossing Japanese produced Godzilla film in history. That is a massive achievement! Whether it's success will carry over to America is uncertain considering the subject matter is heavily tied to current Japanese culture and politics.
After leaving the theater, I was quite unsure what to think. The film is completely different than any Godzilla film before it. You have a 2 hour movie, where most of the scenes are dialogue. It's interesting and thought provoking, but different. If you are looking for a Pacific Rim thrill ride, you won't find that here. The film transcends the definition of a monster movie, and brings to light a new kind of monster, political chaos. While the film is most certainly about Godzilla and his path of destruction, the sub text and commentary is spelled out for the viewer. Every human character in the film is some type of bureaucrat, ambassador, or politically charged scientist. This makes for lots of conversations about legalities, political red tape, and most prominently the idea of mankind simply destroying itself from the inside.
While the politics in the film are mostly satire, there is some very serious commentary at hand. There are several moments in the film that may echo recent Japanese disasters like Fukishima, or the 2011 Earthquake. There are scenes of people buried under destruction and buildings collapsing, as well as massive doses of radiation flooding the nearby cities. These are very real problems that Japan has come face to face with recently. There is also a strong suggestion that the Japanese government fears the political ignorance of Americans, and wants out of our shadow. The Americans are often shown as trigger happy and self important. At one point in the film it's the American government that actually forces Japan to confront the possibility of another Hiroshima. That serves as one of the most intense and dramatic moments in the film, and Godzilla has little to do with it, he is merely a catalyst. Just one example of the many ways this movie transcends your basic sci-fi creature feature.
It's clear the story of the film is deep and rooted in the history of Japan. I could write pages on that very subject alone, but what about the rest of the film? The creature itself was certainly a sight to behold. At first Godzilla resembles something akin to a giant Turkey, but without going into spoiler territory I will say that the audience laughed every time this part of the creature was shown on screen. Thankfully the laughter is quickly turned to intimidation as Godzilla becomes increasingly threatening. This new version of Godzilla also shows off quite a few tricks, which adds a layer of unpredictability to the film. This ain't your daddy's Godzilla! At 118 meters tall (the biggest Godzilla ever), he is no laughing matter.
I remember when the first images of this version were released I was actually quite disappointed. I thought his eyes and hands looked a bit goofy, but I am happy to report he looks absolutely terrifying in the actual film. It's almost like an undead demon Godzilla by the end of the film. Something that you'd see in a Sam Raimi movie, and I loved every bit of it. Speaking of horror nods, I actually found some parts of the creature design to be similar to the John Carpenter's The Thing. As a life long Godzilla fan I found this version of the creature to be shocking and scary. That's exactly how the original 1954 Godzilla made audiences feel, so I take that as a good sign.
The CGI for Godzilla and the action sequences is remarkable. I legitimately could not tell what was CGI for most of the film, other than the infamous “Turkey” scene I mentioned earlier. The effects on the creature design are flawless and do a very good job of representing his size and scale. I'm not sure if any of the creature scenes were filmed via man in a suit, but the fact that I can't tell should speak volumes about the effects team.
In terms of screen performances, the shining stars were definitely Hiroki Hasegawa as Rando Yuguchi, the Deputy Chief Secretary; and U.S. Ambassador character Kayoko played by the lovely Satomi Ishihara. The two characters exist in a world of chaotic political characters that they bump into throughout the film. The pair is forced to work with these individuals to find a solution to the Godzilla threat. They do a good job of conveying the stress and drama that a situation like this would present. While being mostly serious, there are several moments of satirical comic relief as the characters begin to realize how clueless some of the higher ups are. You may say these actors are mediocre, but compared to previous acting performances in TOHO Godzilla films, they are award winning.
The sound design on the film was one of the most intriguing parts. The film actually used several sound effects and unused tracks from the 1954 Godzilla. Combined with the usage of the always wonderful TOHO Godzilla theme song, the soundtrack was spot on. There was also a few new tracks which fit in well with the Japanese Godzilla style. I can't say enough positive things about the sound, a true highlight in the film.
When it's all said and done, I think audiences may find Shin Godzilla to be a very puzzling film. If you appreciate satire and deeper meaning in films, you will be pleasantly surprised. If you are looking for an all out monster brawl, you'll be disappointed. I consider myself a die hard Godzilla fan and even I found myself yawning at points. But as soon as I would start to feel bored, the film would slap me with a huge dose of cinematic radiation, and I was back into it. I would say if you enjoy science fiction or Godzilla films, you should give it a chance. Who knows when you'll get another chance to see a TOHO Godzilla film on the big screen? Go Go Godzilla.