2017 – Japan
Directed by – Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi
Starring – Hiroki Hasegawa, Satomi Ishihara, Jun Kunimara, Ren Osuga
Words: Nathan Scatcherd
Shin Godzilla is the first Godzilla movie from Toho Studios in twelve years. The studio’s last instalment, Final Wars, was an exuberantly ridiculous battle royale featuring the Big G scrapping with almost every other Kaiju monster from the franchise, in celebration of the most feverishly over the top elements of the series.
However, as Godzilla’s image has morphed in cycles over the decades – from terrifying incarnation of nuclear destruction to more benevolent, or at least morally unknowable, ally of humanity and back again – so this newest entry in the franchise returns our gigantic radioactive lizard to his scary, antagonistic roots.
The film is an ambitious attempt to show the devastation wrought by Godzilla from the ground level; specifically, from the point of view of the Japanese government, as they desperately try to destroy – and then merely contain – the King of the Monsters, struggling to maintain the wellbeing of Japan and its citizens with increasingly grasping attempts at stopping the rampage.
The sombre tone and the focus on governmental response to Godzilla harkens back to the original 1954 classic as well as The Return of Godzilla from 1984.
It also refers to the franchise’s allegorical roots; what begins as a slightly farcical satire on the ineptitude of government officials quickly becomes a much more focused analogue of the 2011 Tohoku tsunami disaster, and the subsequent meltdown of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
The imagery of destruction here offers franchise-honoured parallels between Godzilla and real-world disaster, the camera sweeping over the ruined cityscape, mirroring news coverage of the 2011 tragedy.
However, the film’s laudable seriousness and probity do occasionally get in the way of its own pacing, and crucially, it becomes slightly dry and disengaging as a monster movie (which is of course its main identity at heart).
Godzilla is barely in his own film, as we are shown scene after scene of the Japanese Prime Minister and his aides discussing the difficult decisions to be made regarding evacuation and possible nuclear attack; scientists attempting to come up with a way of immobilising Godzilla rather than killing him; meetings held in drab offices… all this ends up offering are variations on the same theme that has been prevalent throughout the series and is, by now, self-evident: Godzilla is a force of nature, unkillable, unstoppable.
Shin Godzilla awkwardly positions itself as both sequel and reboot, set in a world where this is apparently Godzilla’s first appearance, although we as an audience of course know the ‘rules’ of Godzilla by now, and so have to wait for the initially clueless human characters to catch up with us.
When Godzilla himself is onscreen, there is still a primal, visceral thrill to be had in watching this implacable dragon shifting his massive weight around a city, toppling buildings and generally being a terrifying prospect to consider. His various new evolutionary stages, and the couple of new or updated offensive capabilities he displays in his path of destruction, offer a fresh slant on the big guy (at least visually), although some of the CGI is alternately endearingly goofy, and just plain goofy.
It’s a shame that Godzilla is surrounded with fairly stock, uninteresting human characters the film forces us to spend much more time with (this is also a common complaint about Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla movie, and one I personally share; since when did it become fashionable to hold out so much on the one thing people really want, or at least expect, to see in these films?).
Overall, Shin Godzilla is an admirable attempt to call back to the franchise’s roots while taking the character of Godzilla himself into new territory, although it continually undercuts itself by overestimating how engaging its governmental POV approach is, spending too long in various offices as people we never really grow to care about wring their hands and worry about the same issues that have been covered more successfully in previous films.
The theme of ‘Godzilla as destructive metaphor’ was perfected in Ishiro Honda’s original film. At this point, Shin Godzilla just feels strangely redundant.