In an alternate universe, Hollywood's second film in its latest attempt at a Godzilla franchise is due in 2018. In the real world, Toho studios returned to the game it invented this past summer with a picture modestly entitled "New Godzilla." It's as new as a New Godzilla can get, since if I'm not mistaken this is the first film since the 1954 not in continuity with that film. That is, Shin Godzilla shows the ever-popular kaiju attacking Tokyo for the first time in the year 2016. That's a big part of its novelty as envisioned by screenwriter and co-director Hideaki Anno. He and co-director Shinji Highuchi are fascinated by the idea of 21st century Japanese society, and especially its government bureaucracy, confronting a "giant unidentified creature" without any precedent. It allows them to reconstruct many of the old monster-movie tropes from scratch, with what strikes me as a new touch of satire. The first half of the film in particular may make American audiences impatient with all the bureaucratic conferences and talking heads, no matter how the directors try to keep things lively with whipcrack editing. Shin is a kind of apocalyptic procedural, and a quick Google search just now shows that I wasn't the only person who felt a resemblance to another movie that would fit that description: Sidney Lumet's Fail Safe (1964). I don't know whether either of the filmmakers have acknowledged any debt to Lumet, but little details like intercom conversations between heads of governments, with translators standing by, and a brief mention of a theoretical nuclear strike on New York City make me wonder. Ultimately it's a trivial question, since Anno and Higuchi do an admirable job giving their Godzilla film its own identity.
Theirs is a new Godzilla in this sense, too: when you first see it, you won't be sure what the hell you're looking at. It seems that this sea creature has been chowing down on nuclear waste in the vicinity of good old Ohdo Island for the last 60 years before deciding to explore Japan, and it takes him a while to get his land legs. He crawls ashore, creating waves of boats, cars and trucks in his wake as he putters along, looking very little like his traditional self in this almost larval state. He finally hauls himself to his feet on the side of a tall building, only to immediately flop again. The poor creature seems to have a puppet face grafted onto a CGI body, but he soon outgrows this. He proves capable of auto-mutation and quickly becomes more or less bipedal, plus tail. He's still pretty wobbly, though, and you can believe that the Self-Defense Force could have taken him out if not for two stragglers, one on the other's back, getting in the way when they should have been evacuated. The Prime Minister, terrified of collateral damage, scratches what proves the last best chance to nip the creature in the bud.
In effect, Godzilla -- so the Americans have called him, having learned of a creature living near Ohdo Island years earlier, though the Japanese quickly correct this -- can program himself to grow. After slinking back into the ocean, he returns in much larger, more familiar form. He's still rather ropey looking, with perhaps his tiniest hands ever and quite the snaggletoothed and largely immobile face, but you'd definitely call him Godzilla, or Gojira if you insist. Now the full might of the SDF is unleashed on him, but from bullets to bombs they have no effect. It takes an American bunker-buster to get to the monster, and that only makes him mad. In the film's most outlandishly original moment -- one that drew applause from the monster-loving crowd at my local theater -- Godzilla unloads with not only laser breath but tail lasers and dorsal fin lasers, shredding large parts of the capital and nearly wiping out the government. Fortunately, even though the creature is a living nuclear reactor, he can't quite go all night and now needs to rest.
The last phase of the picture is a race against time as a team of malcontents and renegades led by fast-rising bureaucrat Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) rushes to perfect their wild plan to freeze the monster from the inside out before the UN, pressed by the US, Russia and China, greenlights a preemptive thermonuclear strike on Tokyo. This isn't as dire as threat as it could have been since Godzilla's dormancy gives the Japanese a fortnight-window to evacuate the city and a conscientious world pledges massive contributions to reconstruction, but the Japanese understandably resent the idea of taking yet another atomic hit. For that matter, so does our hero's American liaison, a Japanese-American U.S. Senator's daughter (Satomi Ishihara) whose grandmother survived the Hiroshima bomb. She has ambitions of becoming the first Asian-American President, but Americans viewers can't avoid noticing that the actress doesn't sound like a native English speaker. No matter. While there's plenty of (again) understandable bristling at American domination throughout Shin Godzilla, the filmmakers don't try to demonize all Americans and shows the military willing to help out crucially in the alternate plan. The big finish is epic stuff in which the city of Tokyo is virtually weaponized, the very buildings claiming payback against their tormentor. Maybe I'm a mark for "destruction porn," but I found it one of the best action sequences I've seen in a while. It was fun to root against Godzilla for once, other audience members notwithstanding, and it was exhilarating to see Yaguchi's plan come together against the odds after Godzilla had come to seem, well, godlike in his invincibility. Despite many dry moments -- I imagine an actual American edition, as opposed to the subtitled original playing limited engagements this week, would cut out a lot of the bureaucratic satire -- and despite some initial difficulty trying to follow two layers of subtitles, one for the dialogue, another for all the Japanese on-screen subtitles identifying characters, weaponry, etc., Shin Godzilla is a fun film for monster-movie fans, happily unencumbered by the mundane character arcs that burdened the most recent American Godzilla, despite its virtues. It's a textbook reboot, proving that something like the original narrative could be made fresh again after all these years.