Monday, October 17, 2016

The Halloween List: Shin Godzilla is a Return to the Soul of Kaiju Film

It’s a two-second shot that defines the movie. The camera points up a cramped street as wreckage overflows into it, literal tons of boats and cottages rolling up the pavement like waves in a hellish river. A single young man runs from the camera and the tide of destruction so fast that his limbs are losing coordination. We don’t see him escape this street, and we never see him again. We can only hope he made it out of here. Shin Godzilla is an angry movie, angry that government has failed to save us, and insistent that it do better.

Shin Godzilla is the most political entry in the series since the original in 1954, which was an allegory for the horrors of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Eventually kaiju film became more about giant monsters and robots fighting each other, and while fun, Shin Godzilla is from an older school. Godzilla has always been a hybrid of metaphors, and this movie shares influences from the 3/11 earthquake, Fukushima reactor incident, and recent tsunamis. It’s unnerving from its haunting score, to the camera so frequently switching to the point of view of his victims seconds before they die, to the pure nightmare fuel of Godzilla’s new appearance.

You may have seen the new Godzilla, littered with scar tissue made of lava. What was off-putting in trailers works in the film, particularly when those patches of its body glow with charging radiation. Beginning life as an aquatic creature, its eyes are lidless, unblinking, and increasingly freaky. And if the monster’s unorthodox look bothers you, then strap in, because it gets much weirder. Godzilla is an adapting creature this time, going through viscerally disturbing phases that are always marked by visual and sound cues to its cinematic history. Despite mixing in new ideas for how Godzilla operates and fights, it never stops feeling respectful. Well, respectful of past giant engines of destruction.

The Gareth Edwards Godzilla (2014) put its monster on screen for fewer than fifteen minutes of a two-hour runtime, in favor of endless angst and nonsense of vapid characters. Even the final fight scene was perpetually interrupted by humans having to do human things in parallel to the actual star, which made the film disorienting and disappointing. Shin Godzilla might put its monster on screen for little longer than Gareth Edwards did, but the scenes are often uninterrupted and far more satisfying. And there’s a point to the focus on humans this time.

Because besides Godzilla, the leading character is government. In a fashion far too absent from U.S. film (comparable only really to Contagion or Spotlight), dozens of characters come together with different knowledge, specialties, and connections, handing off bits of research, or negotiations with foreign powers. We’re grounded in the same few main players cooperating in the face of old politicians who react too conservatively and slowly to crisis, but no single special person can save the day. They always have to rely on another person in their networks.

Instead it’s about the resilience of a culture, studying scraps of Godzilla’s flesh, radiation maps, evacuation plans, theories from a missing genius professor, and so-on. If they slow down, citizens die – and that leads to massive conflict between Japan’s leaders. Godzilla is already the real main character, and is such an awesome force in this film that it makes sense an entire culture would have to collaborate on a way to slow him down. For once a kaiju movie shows us how structures actually deal with natural disasters.

All of this works because Shin Godzilla is the best-edited and best-shot kaiju film ever made. Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi put you on a train narrowly zipping beneath the giant’s tail, or so close to action that it’s uncomfortable, before resuming city shots that frame how huge this creature is. They know when to make the film massive or intimate. I cannot overstate how effective it is when the movie brings you through a rampage, then cuts to inside a tank to watch its operator just long enough to see them crushed to death, or jumping inside an apartment building to see a family just as Godzilla knocks it over with them (and us) inside. And the scene – the Scene of Scenes for the movie – when the military actually hurts and angers Godzilla, causing the beast to retaliate, struck me with legitimate awe.

The political side will be too chatty for some people – the last third of the film feels a bit long. Particularly if you want to see giant monsters fight each other, you’re better served by Shuseke Kaneko’s 1990s Gamera trilogy, Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah (1991), Godzilla: Final Wars (2004), or Pacific Rim (2013). It’s invigorating to have a different kaiju film that again remembers why these came into existence in the first place, akin to Godzilla (1954) and Cloverfield (2008), but with an even greater sense of cultural struggle against events outside of our control.

I deeply hope Toho allows the same crew to make a direct sequel, because there’s so much to do after this film. The world feels different with the arrival of Godzilla, the international landscape is different, and when you see that final shot of… well, you’re going to freak out when you see it.

I'm ramping up my Halloween movie watching. I'll be back on Wednesday with Creep and The Good Neighbor, and then Friday with the big Korean hits Flu and Train to Busan. What are you watching?


  1. I did like Edwards' Godzilla, but I want to see this one as well. Will be prepared for that final shot.

  2. And again you are showing me how much I am missing out on. Thank you.


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