Is the New Godzilla Film Worth Watching? A Pre and Post Viewing Review

  • CULTURE
  • As a child, I loved Saturday mornings and afternoon tv. One of my favorite channels in the mid to late ’90s was the Sci-Fi Channel. Almost every weekend, they would play a lot of the old classic sci-fi movies or B-movies from the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s. Some of my favorite were the Godzilla (ゴジラ) movies. Godzilla movies were a perennial staple of these Saturday marathons. A few years ago when British Director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla premiered in 2014, I embarked on an epic nerd quest. In the month leading up to the Japanese premiere, I watched one Godzilla movie every day for the entire month (you can find my impressions and reviews of many of the movies on this site here). I also spent a ridiculous amount of time researching the background and making of each movie. I consider myself somewhat of an amateur Godzilla expert.

    So with the pending Japanese release of the latest entry in the long-running series, I would like to do something a little different. I am writing this on July 26th, 2016 and the movie premieres on the 29th in Japan. Given that, I intend to write my impressions of the trailers and pre-release materials, and hopes or expectations of the movie in the first half of this article. The second half of this article will be written on the 29th right after I see the movie. Godzilla Resurgence (Shin-Godzilla – シン・ゴジラ) will be premiering in other Southeast Asian countries around August and TOHO has announced that it will be released in America (on video) later this 2016, probably in the fall.

    Background and Table Setting

    Godzilla

    I was not at all surprised when TOHO announced that they were developing a new Godzilla movie. Anyone familiar with the Godzilla cannon knows that this is just how TOHO rolls with this series. The original Godzilla came out in 1954 and a sequel came out the following year. After a 7-year break, the series released the third entry King Kong vs. Godzilla (キングコング対ゴジラ – one of my personal favorites) and successive movies were produced almost every year after that until 1975’s Terror of Mechagodzilla (メカゴジラの逆襲). This largest group of films in the series is known as the Showa (昭和) series (named after the Emperor). The Showa films all take place in one continuity (but some do jump back and forth in the timeline).

    In 1984, TOHO released The Return of Godzilla. This entry is memorable for many reasons: one, it was a reboot of the series. It marketed itself as a direct sequel of the original 1954 Godzilla. It also did away with the light and playful tone of the later Showa entries and made Godzilla a bad guy again. This would mark the beginning of a new era not only in Japanese history (with having a new Emperor) but also a new era of Godzilla films. The Return of Godzilla and the following 6 movies after that are known as the Heisei (平成) series.

    After Roland Emmerich’s cinematic abomination that was Godzilla (1998), TOHO resurrected the series once more with Godzilla 2000: Millennium (ゴジラ2000 ミレニアム). This would mark the beginning of a new era of Godzilla films known as the Millennium series. This series was all over the map. With 6 movies, 3 of which being soft reboots, this series just could not get any traction. It contains some of the most boring and forgettable entries in the series. In 2004, TOHO released Godzilla: Final Wars (which is another of my favorites) and claimed that the series was finally over… Until it wasn’t.

    For years, American studios had been working trying to resurrect the King of Monsters again for American audiences. TOHO, after being burned out by their previous outing, was understandably cautious. But they eventually sold the rights to Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures who released Godzilla in 2014. I personally love this entry in the series. The story has a lot of problems and the characters are paper thin (but that is pretty run-of-the-mill in Godzilla movies), but the camera work and direction of the film are amazing! Gareth Edwards has a real gift for showing scale and constructing the action so that it is all clear and easy to follow.

    Why Now?

    shin-godzilla-godzilla

    One reason I love Godzilla is that it is very topical. The original 1954 version was a reaction to hydrogen bombs, the bombings of Hiroshima (広島) and Nagasaki (長崎), and weapon testing at Bikini Atoll. In the Showa series, we can see Japan’s shifting relationship with nuclear power. As the Showa series progresses, Godzilla shifts from the force of ultimate destruction to earth’s protector and friend of children. This is obviously a symbol of how Japanese people were coming to grow comfortable with the idea of nuclear power and its role in Japan’s post-war economic boom.

    The Heisei series seems to push back on the overly optimistic view of the Showa series. In the Heisei series, Godzilla is always a baddie. He might fight against other bad monsters but usually causing a lot of damage anyways. This can be seen as symbolizing how attitudes began to shift against nuclear power in the ’80s and ’90s after the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents.

    The Millennium series was simply a crass cash grab after the American-made 1998 entry angered a lot of fans. The series has no real wider social commentary which is why I feel that it is far less successful than the others.

    Even Gareth Edwards’ entry is topical. The movie is obviously based on the fear of both nuclear power and nature after the terrible events of Japan’s 3/11 earthquake and Fukushima (福島) disaster. Which leaves us a core question: What is this new entry reacting to? If it is just in reaction to the 2014 entry, we are going to get a repeat of Godzilla 2000 (which was very forgettable). What social commentary does this film have for us? I have some ideas but these are purely speculation.

    From all the trailers I have seen, they focus a lot on the military reacting to Godzilla and being seemingly impudent to stop him. While this is a feature in all of the Godzilla films, this new entry does not seem to have another giant monster to fight. Which means that Godzilla will be facing off against Japan. Perhaps the message is about Japan’s recent moves toward militarization and nationalism. You can even find a lot of posters on and around police stations showing Godzilla in uniform. So, the message might be pro-military. Once again, this is pure speculation on my part from the promotional materials I have seen.

    Pre-Viewing Thoughts

    I am cautiously optimistic. On the one hand, it’s Godzilla. It is a hard formula to mess up. Even the worst entries in the series are at least watchable. On the other hand, I am very worried about some of the people making the movie. This newest entry is co-directed by Hideaki Anno (庵野秀明) and Shinji Higuchi (樋口真嗣). Anno is best known for Neon Genesis Evangelion, a cult anime series that is famous for having giant robot vs. monster battles, deep post-modernist themes, and a lot of religious symbolisms. Higuchi, on the other hand, was the director of the live-action Attack on Titan (進撃の巨人) movies. One of my main problems with both filmmakers is that they are subtle. But both have made really solid works in the past, and this might just be the thing that will work well for them.

    I also do worry about the film’s visuals. Of course, TOHO lacks the capital of a Disney or Marvel film so one can’t expect the same level of visual candy. But sometimes, Japanese films with computer graphic elements look so behind the times that it takes you completely out of the movie experience.

    But I am hoping against hope that I will really enjoy this movie. I really want to like it. Wish me luck…

    Post-View Thoughts

    (Please beware: Some very minor plot spoilers to follow.)

    I just got out of the theater. I was worried that this movie would be so serious that it was ridiculous. It is very obvious that the film was made by two different directors with very different sensibilities. The movie is rather uneven and rather plodding at times. The first 20 or 30 minutes are really good. It mixed some hand cam (as if it was taken from someone’s mobile phone) and that was surprisingly effective. At first, I thought, “Is this going to be a ‘found footage’ style of movie (like The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield)?” And I thought it was a cool, bold choice. But after the first couple of minutes, it gives up the ‘found footage’ angle entirely.

    In this movie, the opening is the sudden appearance of Godzilla and the government scrambling to figure out what is happening. I liked this part. It has some rather cutting political satire on the inefficiency of the Japanese bureaucracy in times of emergency. The first act of the movie is fast-paced, intense, and exciting. But it has a flaw that pervades the entire movie. There are no real characters. Usually, you are introduced to your main characters in the first act, and they collide with the problem they must overcome throughout the movie. This movie does not really do that. It is constantly throwing new characters at you. Even in the last scenes of the movie, it introduces new characters which left me thinking, “Why should I care about this person?”

    I think the director was going for more of a documentary style movie. But the camera work does not denote that. If you want to make someone think they are watching a documentary or “day in the life” style movie, you have to rely mostly on hand cam and follow one or two main characters. This movie does not do that, which leaves the viewer without anyone to really root for. Now there is a main character, but he is never introduced or given a backstory or motivation. He is simply a tool for the screenwriter to spew information out of.

    But the point of going to see a Godzilla movie is, of course, big-G himself. The Godzilla in this movie is pretty good. I won’t spoil anything, but I think they overpowered Godzilla too much (you’ll see…). The Godzilla parts of the movie are really good. The second act really slows down and drags for a long time, and the third act picks up with some more cool action.

    The music was also good. I was very happy to hear that they brought back a lot of the themes from the original movies. I love some of the classic Godzilla music, especially the Godzilla theme.

    My biggest issue with the movie was Satomi Ishihara(石原さとみ)’s character. She plays a half-Japanese half-American political intermediary. Now I don’t mean to sound cruel or insensitive, but her English skills are not nearly good enough to make me think she is American. A good 30 or 40 percent of her lines are in English and I had to read the Japanese subtitles to figure out what she was saying. There are a great number of Japanese-American actresses who would have fit this role much better. Her character also just does not fit with the rest of the tone of the movie. She seems like a character who walked in from an entirely different movie.

    Conclusion

    shin-godzilla-scene

    All in all, Godzilla Resurgence (Shin-Godzilla) was mostly fun. I wouldn’t recommend seeing it in Japanese theaters if you are not really fluent in Japanese. I pride myself on having pretty good Japanese skills but I had a very hard time following the movie. All the characters speak formally at all times, at an incredibly fast pace, and there is a lot of scientific jabber. This is a movie best watched with subtitles.

    In terms of tone, it is more similar to the 2014 Godzilla or the 1954 original. It is not at all fun or playful. But I like that. If you did not like the 2014 version or the 1954 version, you will probably not like this one. I can’t say you need to see this in a theater, I would recommend catching this on Blu-ray or DVD.

    Related Articles:
    Godzilla Reviews: Godzilla 1984
    Godzilla Reviews: Terror of Mechagodzilla