I have always loved monster movies so the one day only UK cinema release of Shin Godzilla was not something I was going to miss. Review follows…
Along with sometimes foe King Kong, Godzilla is one of the great heavyweight icons of monster movies. For western audiences of a certain age (ie, my age) the character was for a long time most widely known for a fairly crappy Saturday morning cartoon co-produced by Toho and Hanna Barbera between 1978 and 1981. In the cartoon Godzilla defended the earth against other monsters along with a group of scientists and his nephew Godzookie (yeah we all call him odious now, but we loved him once).
Thanks to Channel 4 showing a season of Godzilla sequels, we became more familiar with Toho’s signature monster in films like Ebirah: Horror of the Deep (1966), Son of Godzilla (1967), and Destroy all Monsters (1968), to name just a few favorites. Channel 4 aimed the season at kids, and the films are pretty goofy, but a lot of fun. Something heightened by the often hilarious dubbing.
But these films represented a lightening of a creature that originally appeared in a much darker, tougher film, 1954’s Godzilla, directed by Ishirō Honda. Made only nine years after the US dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Honda’s film presented its titular monster as the physical embodiment of the nuclear age come to wreak havoc on Japan. It is a true horror film.
While the golden age of the Godzilla franchise was from 1954 to 1975, the character has periodically been revived by Japan, first in 1984’s The Return of Godzilla, a direct sequel to Honda’s original, then with 1999’s Godzilla 2000. Toho put the series on hiatus following Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), but the character’s huge appeal meant that Hollywood had been looking towards the land of the rising sun with envious eyes.
The first American film Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998) predictably replaced the classic man-in-a-suit effects of the Japanese films with state of the art VFX. Godzilla was again a global threat, but the human drama was weak slapstick. The film was a moderate financial success but in blockbuster terms an underperformer.
Then in 2014 British director Gareth Edwards, fresh from low budget success with his film Monsters (2010), was tapped to again bring the creature up from the depths. Edwards’ Godzilla was far closer to Honda’s dark original than Emmerich’s, it tried to create a sense of mystery and awe. It was a conditional success sparking a new shared universe of films that continued with Kong: Skull Island (2017) and will have a sequel followed by a Kong vs Godzilla smackdown.
I loved Edwards’ film, but it received a mixed reception with some complaining it was too dark and there was not enough Godzilla. Certainly the tone of Kong: Skull Island was far lighter and more adventure orientated, The Land That Time Forgot with good special effects rather than sock puppets.
Toho has clearly decided to bring the character back to his roots with 2016’s Shin Godzilla, their first true reboot of the series. Shin Godzilla is not a sequel and posits the first appearance of Godzilla in contemporary Japan.
Co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi the film begins with a sudden underwater explosion in Tokyo Bay. The film then presents the unfolding crisis from a high level and bureaucratic point of view, as the Japanese government and wings of their civil service try to deal with a rapidly escalating crisis.
The film uses a docudrama style, cutting between police and later military ops centres and government board rooms with a huge cast of characters delivering a lot of dialogue very rapidly with very serious expressions sometimes whilst very walking quickly down corridors.
The early scenes are interesting as the first wave of devastation hits Tokyo in scenes reminiscent of news coverage of natural disasters. As the politicians argue, and argue, and argue people on the ground are suffering. When the cause of the chaos is revealed as a gigantic slithering newt monster with crazy googly eyes, an initial response is hampered by inter departmental wrangling and red tape.
The problem is, that the film then continues in this same sub-Paul Greengrass style for two hours. There are too many characters and too little characterisation, and because the film largely concerns itself with the point of view of the politicians there is a disastrous lack of tension. We see the destruction from a distant vantage point, with only occasional cut-ins to the effects of the monster at ground zero.
It soon becomes apparent that the ungainly giant tadpole is merely the early stage of a rapidly mutating creature that soon becomes recognizably Godzilla. Although this version has some new tricks, he/she/it has a neon glow from the radiation that powers it, in fact, it may be that Godzilla is merely looking for a warehouse party and some E’s, but this is not an avenue that the military pursues, preferring instead to try the more obvious strategy of blowing seven shades of shit out of it.
There is some great man-in-a-suit** Gojira action in Shin Godzilla. Some of the CGI enhancements are a little ropey, but the new Godzilla design is mean as hell. But there is far too little of it interspersed among interminable scenes of people in suits growling in boardrooms, it’s like The Thick of It with a big monster instead of jokes. Or to put it another way Shin the Loop*.
There is a fantastic scene where the US tries to muscle in, elbowing the ineffective Japanese government aside to rain down ‘fire and fury’ on the creature from stealth bombers. At this point, Godzilla winks at the audience and asks us to hold his drink before coughing up a radioactive loogie and taking out half the city.
Some have hailed this film for its political satire, but it is pretty thin stuff. So politicians are ineffective in a crisis? Not exactly a Dr. Strangelove level of insight. To be fair, western comprehension is hampered by the sheer volume of subtitles. These are often on-screen at the same time as character names and locations are flashed up so that it is hard to know what to read.
I did like the score by Shirō Sagisu which modernizes the classic themes of Akira Ifukube’s original Godzilla music, although it was great to have Ifukube’s Godzilla march play out over the closing credits. Cult movie fans will also get a thrill from Tetsuo director Shinya Tsukamoto among the cast (although not quite as cool as his being in Scorsese’s Silence earlier this year).
It’s hard not to feel rather deflated after Shin Godzilla, with is far too much jaw-jaw, and not nearly enough Skreeeonk!
*Full credit to the genius of my friend David Hall for coming up with this. He is a pun generating machine!
**Correction: the creature effects are apparently 100% CG rendered as this video demonstrates. Which makes them more impressive than I thought as they perfectly replicate the look of a man in a suit.