The latest take on ‘Godzilla’ is a strong re-entry into the storied franchise that feels fresh, smart, and frightening
Let’s get this started with the disclaimer that I’m not a big Godzilla fan. I know the general beats of the franchise and have seen the “bigger” films from the series, but I’m not some die-hard fan, nor do I subscribe to some arbitrary entrenched set of ideals like how Godzilla’s tail must be 55.427 feet long or how his roar needs to sound like a lion mixed with a shark. I just want to see a good monster rampage film here and honestly, it’s the writer and co-director, Hideaki Anno’s, involvement with the mind fuck of a series Neon Genesis Evangelion, that is really what got me to check this out in the end. He’s a pro in this area and I was beyond curious to see his take on such a famous, influential franchise. It also doesn’t hurt that Anno’s co-director is Shinji Higuchi who not only cut his teeth over at Evangelion, but is responsible for the two live-action film adaptations of Attack on Titan. That’s kind of an incredible team-up. Maybe it’s because Anno has been itching for so long to complete the final Rebuild of Evangelion film, but he enters the Godzilla series like a force of nature and delivers a poignant, compelling disaster picture.
The destruction in Shin Godzilla starts right from the jump and it might all feel like fairly familiar territory, but the film truly takes its time and shows restraint. In spite of showing you the mighty beast relatively early on, it’s not until about half way through the film until any attacks on Godzilla are being launched. The reason for this lies in the fact that the real meat of the film is in watching how this disaster relief movement develops and is handled by the government. There are many scenes of government officials arguing, hashing out think tank solutions, and wracking their brains as they try to figure out the best plan of action here.
In doing all of this, Shin Godzilla ends up functioning as a very successful model on what to do if you’re actually being attacked by a giant monster. This isn’t a film that’s just blatant destruction and towering kaiju carnage. The government truly thinks here and tries to avoid combat if it’s going to endanger the population. There’s just as much in this film on evacuation procedures as there is on extermination methods. In spite of the film keeping the action sequences surprising sparse, it makes all of them count and still has a feeling of tension and urgency coursing through everything. The film never feels like a drag, even though a lot of it is just talking about what to do. That’s a deeply difficult balance to reconcile but Shin Godzilla finds it and has you roped into its plans, as curious as its characters regarding what tactic is actually going to work here. It’s like you’re a part of the big think tank and round table that have been assembled.
In spite of these government characters mostly talking about policy and war tactics, I still got invested in them to a surprising degree. You’re dealing with a Prime Minister who genuinely cares about his country and doesn’t want to see civilians get hurt, even if that means that this radioactive abomination gets to survive for longer. You get invested in their plight and want to see their brainstorming yield results. The film makes you care for these suits.
It also might not seem like a pivotal deal, but Shin Godzilla also features a healthy amount of strong, influential female characters. This is something that I wasn’t expecting, but it’s a great touch here and more of a reflection of the sort of gender politics that Anno and Higuchi are used to playing with in Evangelion. The film also depicts help steadily being brought in from other nations, making this epidemic feel increasingly real and as if matters are evolving. It’s a slow, changing plan, but one that doesn’t feel out of sync with what would actually be done if things came down to this.
This Godzilla in question is explained in the film to have been born in a combination of the wake of the Great East Japan earthquake, tsunami, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011. Amazingly, in another very smart move on the film’s part, the picture uses these factors to result in an evolving Godzilla. It’s crazy how laughable Anno’s “first form” of the beast is with it hardly seeming intimidating at all, only for the monster’s “fourth form” to be such an unbeatable God of destruction. Anno highlighting Godzilla’s growth and self-sustaining evolution process ends up emphasizing the power of this monstrosity and that once more, this is something different. This is not your typical Godzilla picture; this has a much larger scope.
There’s a bewildering sequence where the military just tests increasing artillery on the creature gauging what will work on it, with the results absolutely being a sight to behold. That being said, the fodder digging into Godzilla’s radioactive abilities is truly the highlight of the picture. Watching the birth and retaliation of his laser beam atomic breath is a truly terrifying, surprising sequence that carries a degree of awe that hasn’t been present in a Godzilla film in some time (from what I understand). Even though these films follow such a formula, Shin Godzilla feels genuinely surprising at times, which is the most important thing for a “reboot” or rebranding of this nature. Furthermore, just tiny touches like the “science” that we see involving Godzilla’s atomic laser breath are beautiful and well developed. We see fire flame out and shake into concentrated nuclear energy as this beast slowly refines its abilities. Other complications like his blood and carbon footprint leaving trails of irrevocable radioactive damage is a whole other issue, too.
The film gets a lot of currency by banking on destruction footage like a deluge of boats or parked cars piling up, collecting, and collapsing over each other. All of these moments make for some stark, effective visuals that represent the scale of destruction that’s going on here. Additionally, there are so many foreboding shots of Godzilla simply looming over the city of Tokyo that all hit really hard. In fact, all of the effects here are so well handled, whether it’s the destruction of the city of just the practical work done on Godzilla itself. Apparently the same mix of practical and computer-generated augmentation that Higuchi used for his Attack on Titan features is what is in play here. There’s such a fight and want for Godzilla to be practically done, but when you see the ability and weight of what’s created here, you can easily see why such a fuss is created over these things.
At a number of points Shin Godzilla had me thinking about Bong Joon-ho’s gripping monster film, The Host, only with a little less of the saccharine message being crammed down your throat. The other obvious comparison point is Anno’s most famous body of work, the Evangelion series, and granted the destruction here does feel reminiscent of his work there. They’re still really different, but elements like Godzilla’s ongoing evolution as well as the responses within government feel very close to his other series in a way that’s not distracting, but rather complimentary. He was chosen to helm this film for a reason, after all. Anno even gets to implement plenty of his quirky, avant-garde camera angles and filming techniques. There are plenty of fish eye lenses set on government officials as they pontificate plans of action. Frequent use of handheld and security footage adds another welcome aesthetic to this “real-life” destruction that’s taking place.
The film’s score, by Shiro Sagisu (also known for his work in Evangelion), is also great, epic stuff. It features plenty of new tracks that emphasize the hopelessness and scope of the situation at hand. Sagisu however also respectfully features a handful of classic Godzilla tracks like “Persecution of the Masses,” to touch upon the franchise’s sprawling legacy. Even as a casual fan of this historic series I was able to pick up on these musical cues, so I’m sure the real Godzilla nerds would be losing their minds and catching even more.
In the film’s final act, as plan after plan fail to take down Godzilla, the film puts you in the same mindset of everyone else. You’re left wondering if there’s anything that will take down this creature. The ultimate plan of attack here deals with introducing a coagulant to Godzilla’s bloodstream to slow him down and make him immobile. This seems pretty inspired to me and it’s an approach that I’ve never seen done in a Godzilla film before, but that being said, for all I know this is a pretty overdone solution for the series rather than something that’s innovative and new. I also thought that it was kind of touching that this saving grace of a plan is implemented by the people through the think tank, rather than specifically the government or some stuffed shirt official. This ends up pushing an overwhelming message about opportunity, listening to everyone, and working together. The whole nation is needed to take down a threat of this nature and the film doesn’t let you forget that.
I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect with this one, but I enjoyed my time with Shin Godzilla more than I thought I would. The film even managed to surprise me, which I didn’t think such an old franchise would be capable of doing. I like what is going on here though and if this reboot continues I’m into seeing more of Anno and Higuchi’s take on the series (or at the least still having their guidance and story ideas in place for whoever takes on the next picture). Godzilla films might have moved to a point where they feel perfunctory and like non-events. Shin Godzilla sheds that negative image and gets the series back on the right foot while imbuing it with the same power that’s present in the monster itself. Whether that translates into a strong bunch of accompanying films or simply this monument love letter of a movie, this film accomplishes what it sets out to do. Much like that final, ghostly image that the film concludes on, Shin Godzilla will stick with you and continue to trash the architecture of your mind while you ruminate on what you just saw.
It’s hard to argue with the fact that the King of Lizards is back on his throne.