Wednesday, August 9, 2017
Kaiju Watch: Shin Godzilla (2016)
I had two failed attempts to see Shin Godzilla (2016) when it was released in October 2016 and then had a quick return to the screen around New Years 2017. The first time something at work came up and I had to cancel. The second time I went to see the movie with PaulT and Jamie and something was wrong with the film. It started and a 1K tone was laid over the soundtrack to the movie. Which was both awful and hilarious. Anyway, they stopped the movie about three minutes in, we had this weirdly informal conversation with the manager about what we should do, and I got a couple passes to come back, but couldn't attend the next screening as it was my first day back to work after the holiday break.
And the more stuff I saw about the movie, the more goggle-eyed I became. I really wanted to see this flick.
In case you don't know what Shin Godzilla is, essentially Toho Studios rebooted the Godzilla franchise from square one (it was also marketed in the US as Godzilla: Resurgence). And if you've never seen Gojira, the 1954 Godzilla that is the Japanese version and lacks Raymond Burr (a) shaaaaaaame on you, and (b) fix that immediately. It's a terrific film. And aside from Godzilla 1985, Gojira is one of the only movies that's just about Godzilla (aka: Gojira) attacking Tokyo by himself and for mysterious reasons and is not fighting, say, Anguirus*. Here, in a re-booted universe that's never heard of Godzilla, our scaly pal returns again for the first time to wreak just horrible, unthinkable havoc upon an unsuspecting Tokyo.
And it is really, really good.
Now, we watched this on BluRay, and we had to stop the movie three minutes in and abandon trying to watch the movie in Japanese with subtitles. The movie is essentially framed like a disaster movie. A really aggressively paced disaster movie, with lots of cuts, locations, characters and rapid-fire dialog. And as I couldn't keep up reading subtitles (I'm a slow reader, okay?), I had to switch to English VO, which I think was basically okay. It's not like I'd never seen a Godzilla movie with dubbed American actors before.
I don't want to give much away, but, yes, a monster comes ashore and heads towards Tokyo. Stuff gets destroyed, the monster changes directions and disappears back into the bay. Soon enough, it returns, bigger and angrier, and - frankly- scarier.
Wisely, and wonderfully, the movie retains the score from Gojira, the famous Godzilla march, and despite the fact he may look a tad different, Godzilla's audio is classic Toho sound FX. Don't mess with perfection.
Normally the human plots in Godzilla movies push the narrative along, keep the guy in the suit (RIP, Harou Nakajima) a break and frame the incidents of the movie in a way that makes sense from a human perspective. Unless you're watching Final Wars, and then all bets are off. This movie, much like 1954's Gojira, portrays Godzilla as a force of nature, unstoppable as a hurricane or tsunami. Rather than casting the humans as mere observers to a match of titans in the world's most bizarre WWE challenge, we get the POV of the Japanese government as they struggle to take on something that they've never even conceived.
And, much like Gojira, there's more than a hint that Godzilla is an angry god here to punish Japan for it's sins. 1954 might have seen a monster bred from radioactivity (in a country that had suffered two atomic bombs 9 years prior) haunting the revitalized Tokyo, maybe a punishment for a failed war, maybe a punishment for westernization, maybe for turning away from old ways. In 2016 we see a Japanese government that's mired in bureaucracy, red-tape, rules and policy. Every decision must be run through all members of the cabinet, and any decision that impacts a department can't go forward - paralyzing action. Any step forward must have been pre-approved in policy, or it cannot be taken. The inability to move forward leaves Japan at the mercy of a rampaging beast as bureaucrats hope for the best and sweat out how to maneuver within a maze of their own making. Meanwhile, unlike Gojira, this movie has no room for academics, whom would rather let Japan burn than hedge a guess as to the nature of the monster, get it wrong and ruin their professional standing.
To add to the scenario, a bit like 2006's The Host (which is a Korean monster film), there's no hiding the distrust and tension caused by Japan's deeply interwoven relationship with the United States, all while the Japanese seem fully aware of the US's exploitative nature and lack of a sense of responsibility when it comes to their partner nation. An American played by a Japanese actor gives you a pretty good idea what the Japanese think of Americans.
That these themes work so well and carry the narrative as much as the special FX is no small feat, when it's hard to say the same for most Godzilla pictures.
All in all, the characters, politics, etc.. aren't a distraction, they're actually well realized and surprisingly nuanced. Good stuff.
I tend to think of post-1954 Godzilla as pretty kid-friendly stuff. It's what I watched on the local UHF channel growing up and there's nothing objectionable in the movies. Shin Godzilla is scary. We're back to a seemingly mindless beast rampaging through a population center and burning everything in his path. Truthfully, - and spoilers here I guess - but when Godzilla cuts loose with his atomic breath at long last - it wasn't fun, it reminded you that this was a monster, and he was here to destroy.
At first I was bummed that the design of Godzilla had changed yet again, but the movie sold me on all of it. And unlike the beefy Godzilla of recent American films or the weirdo 1998 misfire of a design, this one carries some horror, wonder and awe baked right in. Truly, the scenes with Godzilla are a straight up spectacle, even when the CGI shows a lack of polish from time to time. It all still works.
I can't wait to watch this movie again, and watch it enough that I can skip the American VO and keep up with the subtitles.
*straight up, Anguirius always fill my heart with joy