Review: Shin Godzilla (Japan 2016)

As a Godzilla fan of the old school, I’ve always loathed the occasional American attempts at the Big G – whether the truly awful Matthew Broderick version or the decent-monster-movie-but-in-no-way-Godzilla attempt by Gareth Edwards from 2014 – but I think I’ve had the wrong idea. I should be welcoming them, because every time Hollywood farts out another pseudo-zilla, Toho responds by reinvigorating the dormant franchise and starts anew. And if Shin Godzilla, which opened late last year in limited release in New York and LA, is any example, we’re in for a very good cycle indeed.

Aside from Shusuke Kaneko’s tremendous Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001), Shin Godzilla is easily the best of the millennial Godzilla films, and one of the stronger entries in the entire film cycle. While in my heart I still prefer the “rubber suit and wrasslin” iteration of the character, if we are going to have a modern Godzilla this is the way to do it. While the effects are not perfect, Hideaki Anno (of Evangelion acclaim) and Shinji Higuchi (of GMK and the 90s Gamera trilogy) generally do an excellent job of combining CGI, puppets and models to create a truly towering (and creepy but recognizable) Godzilla and some jaw-dropping scenes of combat and urban devastation. The middle of the film in particular features a lengthy attack on Tokyo that is one of the best I’ve ever seen in a kaiju film.

The direction is also unconventional for a kaiju film, evoking found footage and making surprisingly spare use of the classic Akira Ifukube score. Anno and Higuchi also use strong imagery to evoke the recent tsunami and its attendant nuclear disaster, as well as the bombing of Hiroshima, bringing the series back around to its origin point.

Now every Godzilla fan knows that you have to eat a lot of human drama vegetables with your tasty Godzilla steak. Rather than on old G standbys like silly subplots, crack military units or intrepid reporters, Shin Godzilla instead focuses on the political and bureaucratic reactions and machinations that emerge during and following the attacks, providing some subtle lampooning of the hidebound Japanese government, but also allowing for some legitimate human drama. Not all of it works – a subplot involving the overly pretty Satomi Ishihara as a US envoy is painfully awkward – and with so many characters, few are fleshed out, but by and large the non-city-stomping portions of the film are well done.

Shin Godzilla is far from perfect. The human scenes, as always, are overlong and the CGI does not always integrate perfectly. More problematically, the third act is somewhat weak and overlong, and the finale is surprisingly un-cinematic and anticlimactic, especially after the blockbuster middle. But those complaints aside, this is the most fun I’ve had at a new Godzilla movie in many years, and I think the film, which is clearly set up for a sequel, is a harbinger of good things to come. Looking forward to seeing this Godzilla tussle with some king-size adversaries. 3 out of 4 stars (Great).

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