A high tech thriller with plenty of tech and not enough thrills.
The title of Japanese monster movie "Shin Godzilla," an idiosyncratic take on the by-now iconic kaiju monster, can be interpreted in a few different ways: "New Godzilla," "True Godzilla" or "God Godzilla." "God Godzilla" seems most fitting since "Gojira," originally a combination of the Japanese words for "gorilla" and "whale," is translated as "God Incarnate" by characters in the film.
"Shin Godzilla" is a reboot, making this the first time that the Japanese military—or the world at large—have ever encountered Godzilla. The American government is responsible for dumping nuclear waste that an extinct lizard feeds off of. But "Shin Godzilla," the first Japanese Godzilla film since deliriously kitschy 2004 battle royale "Godzilla: Final Wars," treats Godzilla like an act of God: He's here, and must be dealt with regardless of who made Him.
"Shin Godzilla" is, in that sense, about damage control. There are singular heroes, like Disaster Prevention bureau analyst/leader Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) and consulting biologist Ogashira (Mikako Ichikawa). But for the most part, the film's human segments are a wall of dialogue/consultation between various superintendents, supervisory committees, ministers, scientists, bureau chiefs and cabinet secretaries. Politicians scramble to take care of their end of the Godzilla situation regardless of their reasons. Some are careerists looking to get ahead, others are civil servants looking to serve the public. Writer/co-director Hideaki Anno (creator of anime cult classic "Neon Genesis Evangelion") makes it easy to tell who the real good guys are in this film and who are just ineffectual bureaucrats. But every human politician must work together to stop Godzilla regardless of their intentions or skill sets. There's no "I" in this team.
Like a quasi-Aaron Sorkin-esque civics lesson that happens to be about a giant monster, "Shin Godzilla" is about how the really good politicians are accountable for their actions, a message that American politicians should heed. And it's about adaptability, which we see when we look at the new creature design for Godzilla. The last shot of the film is an admiring shot of Godzilla's monstrous tail. He, after rapidly evolving from a belly-crawling moray-esque sea creature into the dinosaur-like creature we know and love, is in a constant state of flux. His arms grow bigger before our eyes, and he stops breathing through gills once he reaches land. Like the xenomorph in "Alien," this Godzilla, a computer-generated special effect performed by a real actor in a motion-capture suit, is referred to as "a perfect organism surpassing man." In order to stop this creature, Japan's leaders must evolve with Godzilla. This movie is a response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster, but only indirectly. It concerns the lessons that politicians can learn from such a nuclear disaster and how they can move forward with a minimum of finger-wagging and chest-thumping.
By now, I'm sure you can tell that "Shin Godzilla" is a little different than other Godzilla films. It's probably drier, and more dialogue-centric than fans may want. But Anno and co-director Shinji Higuchi's (anime/manga hit "Attack on Titan") idiosyncratic emphasis on the endless discussions and politicking that precedes the Japanese military is genuinely exciting. Their vision of the character is thoughtful and clever without straying too far from the Godzilla formula established in films like the original 1954 "Gojira." Fans of what Godzilla have become may be upset to see Godzilla treated like a villain again after years of seeing him fight against more villainous "kaiju" monsters, like Hedorah, Biollante and Gigan. But they should be excited at the thought of seeing a modern monster movie that isn't just the same ol', same 'ol.
"Shin Godzilla" reassures fans that their version of Godzilla is, unlike the equally tremendous 2014 American "Godzilla," the "true" Godzilla by including and expanding on themes from "Gojira" composer Akira Ifukube's iconic score. These are pieces of music that Ifukube previously expanded over the course of his decades-long tenure as Godzilla's official composer. "Shin Godzilla" composer Shiro Sagisu honors that tradition of adaptation with an orchestral score that feels simultaneously retro and modern. Sagisu, one of Anno's collaborators on "Neon Genesis Evangelion," alternates the tempo of his music from bombastic, "Dies Irae"-style battle themes to rococo John Barry-esque spy music (complete with snare and bongo drums). Sagisu's score makes "Shin Godzilla" feel like it's perpetually dynamic, even when parts of the film devolve into discussions about relief bills, urban evacuation and pre-planning military actions.
Then again, the pace of Anno's wall-of-dialogue style of cross-cut conversations makes it so that "Shin Godzilla" never slows down long enough to feel boring. One person speaks, then another—not necessarily in the same room, or even the same part of the city—responds with their own concerns, then another and another. Anno's dialogue infrequently suffers during exchanges where he distinguishes the good humans from the selfish ones, especially scenes involving bratty Japanese-American diplomat Kayoko (Satomi Ishihara). But these tiresome conversations are ultimately negligible.
Compare these human-centric sequences to any scene featuring Godzilla himself. "Shin Godzilla"'s action scenes are satisfying, though relatively sluggish and stylistically sedate when compared to the set pieces in the 2014 "Godzilla." In fact, Godzilla stands still in many scenes. He takes punishment because he knows humankind isn't a threat to him.
Still: you shouldn't watch "Shin Godzilla" for Godzilla alone. He's not really the star of the film—Yaguchi and the rest of his human adversaries are. They credibly resist the end of the world with ingenuity and teamwork, making "Shin Godzilla" just as winningly optimistic as it is pleasurably eccentric.
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One of the most important and dazzlingly original works by Coppola comes to Criterion Blu-ray.