Since 1954, the Godzilla franchise from Toho Studios has operated on the cyclical track of having Godzilla be a villain–really just a stand-in for the threat of nuclear annihilation–only to have him change into a hero/guardian figure to fight even worse monsters, and then turned back into a baddie when the series needs a shake-up. There had not been a Toho-produced Godzilla movie since 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, and with the U.S. reboot from 2014 that firmly established Godzilla as a protector, we might not expect him to be the adversary any time soon… but Shin Godzilla turns that on its ear, offering a version of Godzilla as a natural disaster, with the whole of Japanese authorities trying to contain it.
Also called Godzilla: Resurgence, Shin Godzilla is informed by a lot of what was done in both the ’54 original and the 1984 rebootquel, The Return of Godzilla, namely the idea that it is an ensemble movie, with many people from different aspects of the Japanese government and infrastructure working together to save the day rather than a lone hero. In fact, what immediately stands out about the movie is that there is hardly any of the spacey monster-mash weirdness of some of the other entries in the franchise. Being written and co-directed by Hideaki Anno (creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion), I half expected a giant mech suit to be employed at some point or another. However, there’s none of that. Interesting twists on the creature itself are explored, but it’s surprisingly grounded and weirdly realistic.
After a yacht and a freighter are attacked in Tokyo Bay, a viral video showing a mass of something surfaces online. Japan’s Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) believes it to be some kind of creature, but he’s initially dismissed before a national news report shows what appears to be a giant tail wriggling out of the water. Well, guess what? It’s a huge beast, with bulgy eyes, no arms, a squirmy body, and a tail. It makes landfall and begins crashing through buildings like a weird snake before being chased back to sea. But that isn’t the end by a long shot; the monster grows to twice its size, and finishes developing to its final form.
The U.S. sends special envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara) who reveals to Rando that a disgraced zoologist discovered the beast while studying mutations due to radioactive contamination, but the U.S. covered it up. The scientist, who committed suicide after being discredited, called the beast Gojira, and Godzilla in English. Kayoko works with Rando and the military for different ways to try to stop the marauding behemoth, and it doesn’t go great, which is to say that many explosions ensue.
There’s not a whole lot of storyline needed to be able to understand this movie, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, or impressive. Even if some of the CGI effects aren’t much to write home about, the handling of everything else in the movie goes out of its way to feel like a docu-drama about a real natural disaster. We meet dozens of characters, and each are introduced with onscreen chyrons telling us their name and job. It seems very formal and distant, which is why, when we do get nice character beats for them, it feels somehow more exciting.
The structure is like a pure disaster movie, and I especially enjoyed the juxtaposition of the government’s very practical response to a huge, pointy, toothy, spewer of atomic fire-breath. If you’re expecting (or hoping for) the kind of Godzilla movie on the goofier side of things, you might be left wanting, but if you go in expecting a cool, refreshing take on the old paradigm, Shin Godzilla will be a hell of a fun time.
Shin Godzilla stomps into select theaters from October 11-18.
Images: FUNimation/Toho Studios