“Protecting a country isn’t easy.” – Shin Godzilla (2016)
I’m big enough to admit when I’m wrong. I had been kind of reticent about watching Shin Godzilla because I wasn’t expecting to like it much. I thought I was going to be getting another “dark and gritty” take on something that, frankly, I didn’t need a dark and gritty take on, and while that isn’t exactly inaccurate, it also doesn’t do the film justice at all. As it turns out, Shin Godzilla isn’t just a great alternative take on Godzilla, it’s just great. Period. Full stop.
One of the things I was most concerned about going in was that I kind of hate the new Godzilla design. Don’t get me wrong, I love him when he’s a stupid, goggle-eyed lungfish dragging himself around and coughing radioactive blood out of his gills all over the place. But the actual “final” Godzilla design doesn’t do it for me in still photos, or in action figures, or anyplace else I had seen it before finally sitting down to watch the movie. And, admittedly, there are problems with the suit’s execution, maybe most notably that it is remarkably immobile, to the point where Godzilla may as well be a giant sculpture being dragged through the city on a track for long stretches. In the course of the film, though, even when he isn’t moving much–and, it must be noted, this iteration of Godzilla does just up and literally shut down for long stretches of the movie for plot reasons, standing in the middle of the ruins of Tokyo and not doing anything–this new Godzilla design works.
Part of why it works is because this Godzilla is something very different than previous iterations. Not only is Godzilla scary for probably the first time since 1954, but this Godzilla is constantly mutating, changing from that dumb lungfish version (which, do I need to reiterate, I absolutely love) through a couple of metamorphoses before we reach the “final” form. (And the movie teases us with the possibility of other, further mutations that we never actually get to see.) As a sort of living nuclear reactor that is in a constant state of biological flux, this new Godzilla no longer seems like just a way to make one of our most classic monsters “more extreme” as envisioned by a 90s comic book artist, but instead seems like a coherent design decision. (They even address his ridiculous jagged teeth.)
And while Godzilla’s rampage lacks the immediacy of the 1954 original’s image of Tokyo as a “sea of flames,” there’s no denying its impact, especially in the sequence when Godzilla unleashes his most destructive power. Nor has there probably ever been another disaster movie–kaiju or otherwise–that showcased such an absurdly realistic take on this kind of devastation. In this case, however, “realism” does not mean a lot of shots of filthy, bloody people suffering. It means a lot of shots of people sitting around in conference rooms and talking on phones.
And that is where Shin Godzilla‘s greatest strength comes to bear. As an attempt at taking Godzilla seriously, it works remarkably well. As an attempt to make Godzilla scary again it works perhaps even better. But it works best as a black comic satire of bureaucracy. The 2014 American Godzilla remake took a lot of (deserved) flak for sidelining Godzilla, or shrouding his skirmishes in smoke and debris, or burying them on the screens of televisions in the background. But the real crime in Godzilla (2014) wasn’t “not enough Godzilla,” it was “too many boring people.”
Shin Godzilla seems to take that challenge and extend it to the next level. It’s a film that is perhaps best summarized by a montage sequence in which intense rock music plays over shots of people talking on phones. The reaction to Godzilla’s abrupt arrival on the scene is mired in red tape and internecine conflicts. One of the funniest parts of Shin Godzilla isn’t even anything that would normally be considered a joke. Instead, it’s that literally every time anyone speaks or we are shown anything, there are subtitles on the screen identifying who or what it is in weirdly minute detail. So many, in fact, that it often becomes nearly impossible to read all the words that are being hurled at you. It’s both a play on the form of the modern disaster movie, and an effective way to drop the viewer into the bureaucratic quagmire of the film.
Helping everything along is great music–often repurposing the classic score of the original film–and the fact that, aside from some dodgy CGI and the aforementioned weirdly immobile suit, Shin Godzilla looks great. It utilizes a lot of found footage elements, especially early on, but it is also full of lingering, pulled back shots of everything from crowded conference rooms to empty streets to rain-soaked railroad tracks to a bowl of ramen. It’s a beautiful movie, and a potent one, and a surprisingly funny one, if not often in a laugh-out-loud sort of way. And while the characters are constantly bogged down in quotidian tasks, everything is shot and edited with a faux-documentarian flair that never makes any of it feel boring.
Would I want every Godzilla movie to be like this? No, not at all. This feels like one-of-a-kind, and I think it is probably the better for it. But judged on its own merits, I can say without a doubt that I was wrong about Shin Godzilla. It’s a hell of a thing.
Spot on, Orrin. I agree with nearly every point!