Shin Godzilla, directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, is the newest reboot of a 60-plus year franchise. In between, he’s been portrayed as a walking nuclear bomb, a superhero, and for a short while, a Cold War allegory. Shin Godzilla most closely echoes the roots lay down by the original film, but it rather excellently manages to carve itself a new path on the same fears and questions, but with a modern face and references.
The film opens without ceremony in a way that many modern found footage horror movies do, but within minutes we’re away from ground level, getting our first glimpse of the titular monster in the form of a bloodied oil slick staining Tokyo bay. Godzilla films throughout the decades have (for the most part) maintained a strong theme of ecological horror, the worst practices of modern science transformed in a lumbering, physical presence, and Shin Godzilla delivers that tradition in spades.
The human cast can barely be registered in individual characters, more as differing committees. Shin Godzilla may have invented a new sub genre: the giant monster procedural. The cast almost never act with Godzilla on a tactile level, always through camera footage and mile-a-minute data streams. Large portions of the film are devoted to government officials measuring responses, scientists sleuthing through the unknowable. In one slightly comical scene, a pair of Tokyo inhabitants wander into the firing line between a squadron of attack helicopters and Godzilla, and the various government functionaries one after the other after the other after the other all the way up the chain of command, request permission to fire. Bureaucracy vs Godzilla. The film still manages to hustle along at an electric pace, however, a testament to the skill of the directors. It’s an odd feeling knowing that there are more tense board room meetings in a Godzilla movie than your average political thriller.
Godzilla himself has undergone a fairly radical makeover. His first nascent form is equal parts ludicrous and terrifying, like a deep-sea creature dragged to the surface and viewed in harsh daylight. He’s a gibbering, clumsy mess of an organism, seemingly in complete agony just due to his very existence, one of the many committees even arguing to the proto-Godzilla’s plausibility, suggesting that he could never support his own weight. Its design, its movement, everything about it is unnatural and is one of the most effective creature designs in recent memory.
Godzilla’s second appearance is more familiar. The lumbering brute returns, this time looking like he’s been cast in leaking bloody resin. The madness caused by his earlier growing pains has now passed, or at least hidden, giving way to Godzilla’s signature cold and implacable stride. The stoney outward facade only barely covers the impossible inner agony however, the throbbing exposed flesh and stunted naked arms looking like a painful evolutionary afterthought. No amount of outward firepower leveled on it can contend with what’s happening within, but when American bombs finally do manage to pierce Godzilla’s hide, all that is unleashed in one incredibly brutal instant. It’s a scene that instantly brought up the feelings I had when I first read the famous destruction scene in Otomo’s Akira, the catatonic armor of a god-like being momentarily broken, the pain and power within surging without, more instinctual than a measured response.
But, whereas the original 1950’s film made the human cost real, echoing the disturbing imagery of walking wounded Japanese civilians from the all too recent and horrifying Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Shin Godzilla’s destruction is almost entirely infrastructural. Off hand mentions are made to the casualties inflicted, but the real cost is calculated in real estate, in measures of Godzilla’s radioactive half life on the surrounding livable area.
In the end, after all of the bombs, tanks, and implements of war have failed to do anything but cause more destruction, Godzilla is finally defeated by a fleet of cranes, trains, and other symbols of reconstruction. It’s a strong, rather in your face metaphor that goes against the grain of these types of alien disaster films, where a secret military weapon is the normal monster foil. But still, Shin Godzilla retains a franchise norm and is not a wholly optimistic film, more cautionary. The last few shots are framed with a frozen-in-time Godzilla amidst the ruins of a Tokyo district, the right set of circumstances ready to unleash him and the world’s misguided response right where they were halted. Godzilla and all he represents is a ticking clock that can only be paused, never truly stopped.