Review: In ‘Shin Godzilla,’ The Real Bad Guy Is Big Government

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Toho/Funimation

Even though Toho’s Godzilla series is the longest-running cinematic franchise of all time, having begun in 1954, its results stateside have been very mixed. We recognize the big G as an iconic character for sure, yet most of his Japanese movies, including the last big reboot, Godzilla 2000 ($10m domestic), have only made it over here theatrically with cheesy dubs that emphasize the property’s other budgetary limitations relative to Hollywood. Yes, it’s a man in a suit, and yes, he’s stomping on toy tanks and knocking over cardboard cities inhabited by dolls. This will gain you viewers who are either kids too young to know the difference or hipsters who find the camp factor hilarious, but it’s not a recipe for mainstream success; American reboots, both faithful (2014, $529 million international gross) and less so (1998, $242 million international gross) have done better. But with the world now more interconnected, there’s both a bigger interest in the newest Japanese Toho reboot and a greater incentive for Toho to make something up to par with international special-effects movies. Combine that with a plot that truly goes back to the basics of nuclear disaster metaphor that launched the very first Gojira, and you have a winner.

Shin Godzilla, originally promoted on these shores as Godzilla: Resurgence before it became apparent that hardcore fans were not thrown off by Japanese words, takes place in a world that has never known the giant spine-backed lizard. He initially emerges in a more limited form than usual, one that recalls the creature in Bong Joon-ho’s 2006 The Host, with chicken legs and a front-heavy dinosaur neck, all topped with wide fish-eyes that make him look a little bit goofy. The movie cannily plays on things we know from the character’s long history but people in the movie don’t – as they laughably assume it cannot sufficiently support its own body weight to maneuver on land, everyone in the audience will be thinking, “Yeah, right!!!”

And that’s part of the joke. The human story this time around is solely concerned with the government’s reaction, and nearly every character onscreen is introduced with an important-sounding official title. Their reaction to the emergence of a monster in the harbor is to call meeting after meeting, often with the same group of people, but by necessity of protocol, in another room on another floor. At one point, attack helicopters surround the enlarged and now more-familiar Godzilla, and it takes a chain of command of five or so people to obtain permission to actually open fire…permission that is denied when two civilians wander into frame.

The new creature (billed as the tallest Godzilla yet, in any movie), in its final mutated stage and every phase in between, is designed to be an unsympathetic force of nature, rather than a crying Kong who can’t have the tiny woman he adores. Indeed, he’s equipped with so many new powers that humanity ought to not pose any threat whatsoever. As with the American incarnations, however, the plot contrives ways for him to disappear for long periods of time, that the humans may strategize and not be wiped out immediately. And said strategies, again, are fraught with bureaucratic procedures, and a long approval process, which is complicated once the U.S. becomes involved and insists on running things.

Indeed, what we have here may be the first truly libertarian kaiju movie, one in which excess government and deference to international treaties is the problem, tying the population’s hands while a big ol’ party animal does whatever the hell it wants, complete with a big swinging dick of a tail that sprays radioactive fluids. The obvious inspiration, especially in the way Godzilla attacks in ever -increasing waves, is the tsunami that also caused the Fukushima nuclear plant meltdown. Yes, the story suggests, if we come together we can beat the threat, but we have to do so through a maze of regulations that nobody dares challenge.

Godzilla redesigns can be disastrous, but Toho here have incorporated fish elements to give the new monster frightening unblinking eyes, gills that discharge floods of toxic red run-off, and a segmented, three-part mouth that brings to mind Resident Evil monsters. This ain’t Roland Emmerich’s radioactive Rancor, nor is it Legendary’s overly heroic homage. This guy – no longer a man in suit, but a motion-captured actor enhanced with CGI, looks like a nuclear mutant with all the deformities that implies, and has the destructive firepower of a tactical nuke (albeit with conveniently quick-decaying fallout).

Eventually, the bureaucratic satire can get a little too repetitive – it is obviously supposed to be, but it’s entirely possible some levels of the humor are lost on a non-Japanese audience. In particular, Satomi Ishihara’s character of an American Senator’s daughter, seemingly added to the cast to provide some sex appeal, does nothing much and speaks English like she can’t understand it. It is arguably progressive that she isn’t used for a token love story; it is also tedious that she’s not given much of anything else interesting to do.

But that’s not why you come to a Godzilla movie, is it? You want to see Tokyo get trashed good, and it does, more cinematically so than in most of the previous franchise installments. If this is the direction in which the reboot series plans to continue going, I look forward to the equally grotesque revamps of Toho’s other classic monsters as they presumably join the fray. Alternately, references are made to the possibility Godzilla could evolve wings and eventually evolve to human size while reproducing asexually, two utterly bizarre new possibilities I wouldn’t mind seeing explored down the line.

Courtesy of Funimation, Shin Godzilla opens in American theaters starting today and running for a week. It could probably last longer, except we still seem to lack faith in the general public’s ability/desire to read subtitles. While it probably won’t make here anywhere close to the $60 million it grossed in Japan, a packed week might ensure we get future installments in larger doses. Because, as the highest-grossing live-action film in Japan this year, you know it’s getting a sequel.

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