by Mike Toole,

Shin Godzilla
A mysterious, boiling cloud of vapor appears in Tokyo Bay, seemingly causing a series of accidents in the tunnel below. As Japan's top officials discuss the developing crisis, they learn that the truth is much scarier than simple seismic activity—it's a monster! As the wheels of power turn all too slowly to address the creature, a junior politician named Yaguchi puts together his own team of outsiders. Their mission? To investigate the origins of the creature, and develop a plan to stop it! As the monster, code-named “Gojira,” lays terrifying waste to Tokyo, Yaguchi and his associates desperately search for answers. The clock is ticking – if Gojira isn't stopped in time, then the US will deal with the threat on their own terms!

Every time a western film studio steps into the ring to produce a Godzilla movie, it's inevitably followed by Toho spinning the franchise back up again, to show those silly foreigners how proper kaiju movies get made. Director Kazuki Omori answered New World Pictures' shambolic Godzilla 1985 with one of the most enjoyable films in the series, Godzilla vs Biollante. Roland Emmerich's train wreck of a 1998 Godzilla film was followed by Takao Okawara's generally solid Godzilla 2000. And while Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla was a pretty good summer blockbuster, it really wasn't that great of a Godzilla movie; it kept the focus off of the titular monster for too long, in favor of the silly personal drama of its characters. Now, here's Evangelion architect Hideaki Anno and top SFX man Shinji Higuchi, with a Godzilla that's one of the biggest yet.

Think of that part in the movie when Godzilla first appears, lurching out of the ocean, letting out that trademark, weirdly charming roar/screech that it likes to do when it's causing chaos. We always see the public panicking, and often with the Japanese films there's some sort of scientific agency leaping into action. In Shin Godzilla, we cut straight to the secondary conference room of the Diet, where the prime minister and his advisors fuss over the appearance of a mysterious steam cloud in Tokyo Bay. First, the cabinet all quickly agree that this has got to be some sort of earthquake, and obligingly shuffle over to the main conference room to start planning a recovery operation. When videos of the monster surface on social media, the entrenched politicians gape at each other; this scenario isn't in the disaster response manual!

Anno and Higuchi start with this, a fairly pointed criticism of Japan's notoriously stagnant national political scene. The pols agree that this is going to be a very expensive problem, argue about what to call the thing, and then call up the experts to convene an Emergency Academic Conference on the Giant Unidentified Creature. All the while, the mysterious monster merrily collapses a tunnel and makes its way up the Nomi river, scattering boats in its wake. Before long, its distinctively spiny tail is visible. The senior politicians are starting to panic; how the hell do you evacuate an entire ward of Tokyo in a matter of hours? Only the young political protege Yaguchi keeps his head; he gets permission to call together a gang of scientific and academic outsiders—nerds, basically—and craft his own response plan. This all happens in the first twenty minutes of the film, and it's at this point that we really know we're watching a Hideaki Anno production; the assembly of nerds is edited in a frenetic style that evokes Anno's earliest Daicon Film projects, and then the music, that trademark Shiro Sagisu booming drum riff from Evangelion, starts up. The composer doesn't totally ape the Evangelion track (“Decisive Battle”) but you can tell he's gleefully ripping himself off. At this point, Godzilla has revealed itself, so it's time for SFX hero and co-director Shinji Higuchi to step into the breach.

Higuchi first gives us a vision of Godzilla that is both eye-catchingly practical (it's a puppet rather than CG) and deeply unsettling to look at—while it eventually assumes a more familiar form (courtesy of yet another anime luminary, Mahiro Maeda), it starts off looking totally different, more like a worm or fish than a biped. This is followed by a whole lot of amazing imagery of Tokyo trying to deal with the monster. At a gigantic Bic Camera, a clerk watches the Prime Minister address the nation on 40 TVs, all alone in the store. Hordes of evacuees rush into the subway, only to start screaming in panic when the power cuts out. Outside, the darkened city is only visible in silhouette, with an eerily glowing Godzilla in the center. The government has to activate the Japan Self-Defense Force and send their military into full combat for the first time since World War II, but how will they avoid killing civilians along with the monster?

To say that this is a politically informed film would be an understatement. Anno's script presents huge questions of Japan's role in modern global politics, its struggle with bureaucracy and recession, and its seemingly neverending post-WWII emotional hangover. Echoes of the atom bombs, Cold War paranoia, and the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami are all present and accounted for. There's a great scene where the younger set of characters discuss whether or not activating the military to fight a monster would violate the constitution, and it's actually framed by the constitution itself. Yaguchi is confronted by Kayoco Anne Patterson, a US diplomat who tries to aid him, even as she's doing the usual US thing where we storm in, decide what's going to happen, and start doing absurd, destructive shit without consulting the locals. Through all of this, Godzilla marches, largely undaunted. As always, the monster is a force of nature in this film, and when it eventually uses its full power, it's terrifyingly destructive. Its attacks on Tokyo are both familiar and wholly original-looking, again thanks to Higuchi and Maeda and the rest of the creature and VFX team. Eventually, with the old guard faltering, the monster will have to be dealt with by the heroic young politicians and JSDF leaders of the future, along with some old-boy political allies; the finale is eye-popping, and involves the brave people of Japan attacking Godzilla with proud symbols of human progress, along with a ton of bombs, drones, and more bombs. Shin Godzilla is on the edge of greatness, but it doesn't quite make it over the top. It's got two problems—at two hours, it's a little too long, and its second half is bogged down with all too many scenes of characters sitting in chairs, describing things that are happening offscreen. This isn't always a problem, but Anno's script is a bit verbose during this period of the movie, and it's not helped by the charming but low-key cast, who are mostly veterans of TV dramas. Satomi Ishihara as Kayoco is a particularly weak spot; she looks great, and her moments of playful rapprochement with Hiroshi Hasegawa's Yaguchi are enjoyable, but she moves and emotes more like a runway model than a crafty senator's daughter.

In spite of the dead spots in the second half of Shin Godzilla, Anno and Higuchi have made themselves the latest in a long line of filmmakers to breathe new life into Japan's most famous monster. In doing so, they've made the most intelligent Godzilla movie yet, a film that both revels in the chaos the creature brings and, in depicting the nation's response to it, relentlessly questions whether Japan should remain a tributary state or finally start doing what they want. It's sharp, exciting, and at times unexpectedly funny. And watch carefully—the film's final moment presents a hell of a twist, one last moment that'll keep you guessing while the credits roll. Every Godzilla movie should leave you wanting more, and Shin Godzilla gets the job done with aplomb.

Production Info:
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-
Music : B+

+ Snappy direction by Anno and Higuchi, and fantastic special effects and monster imagery; fierce political intelligence makes Shin Godzilla the smartest Godzilla film yet.
Major lull in the second act. Anno's ideas work, but his script and actors don't always keep up.

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