'Shin Godzilla' Is A Fascinating And Frustrating Return For The King Of The Monsters [Fantastic Fest Review]

What is Shin Godzilla?

Known as Godzilla: Resurgence in Japan, it is the 29th Godzilla movie produced by the legendary production company Toho. It is directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi and no connection whatsoever to Gareth Edwards' 2014 film or the giant monster universe Warner Bros. is currently building.

But that doesn't really answer the question, because Shin Godzilla isn't what many viewers think it will be. So, what is Shin Godzilla? That's a difficult question to answer because Anno and Higuchi have really made four movies in one package and each one is fascinating and frustrating and genuinely revealing about what this iconic, and wholly Japanese, series actually represents in the year 2016.

The Old School Godzilla Movie

The first movie within Shin Godzilla is the Traditional Godzilla Movie. It's no accident that the sparse, unsettling opening credits directly echo the first moments of the original 1954 film and the rest of the film isn't afraid to lean on familiar imagery and ideas when necessary. Godzilla's iconic roar is back, sounding mostly unchanged. The score frequently borrows familiar (and still-powerful) themes from past entries in the series. Even the basic structure of the film follows an "If It Ain't Broke, Don't Fix It" structure – the story begins with a giant creature coming ashore from Tokyo Bay and proceeding to stomp everything in its path. The shell of Shin Godzilla is as traditional as you can get.

The Reinvention

But the second movie here is the Reinvented Godzilla Movie, because there are bells and whistles on display here that simply could not have been used to full effect in past movies. The big guy is no longer a man in a suit and any practical work is now supported by extensive digital effects and some are better than others. There's an ambition on display in Shin Godzilla that the film cannot quite reach – it wants to have the scope and scale of a Hollywood blockbuster but it can't quite reach the glossy level of Gareth Edwards' reboot. Many viewers will have to meet this film halfway, accept its rough-around-the-edged CGI and move on. The ambition is outstanding, even if the execution is occasionally lacking.

After all, the visuals that do work are often astonishing, like the shots of Godzilla seen from high in the sky, standing in a blacked-out Tokyo, his nuclear blood emitting an eerie red glow. The king of the monsters has also been given a makeover. Gone is the adorable T. rex of the past 60 years – in his place is a monstrosity that actually looks like it crawled out from the bottom of the ocean. The Godzilla in Shin Godzilla looks like a nightmare, more grotesque sea monster than giant lizard. For the first time in decades, a Japanese Godzilla movie has allowed the title monster to actually be a figure of genuine fear and menace.

The Political Satire

And that brings us to the third and perhaps most-controversial-among-fans movie within Shin Godzilla. While the new monster is effective and his path of destruction is as well-staged as you could possibly want, Godzilla himself rarely takes the center stage during the course of the film. He's limited to a handful of set pieces and the space between each sequence of destruction is filled with...political satire about the inefficient Japanese government being unable to react quickly in the face of crisis. Think of this as Godzilla by way of The West Wing – Godzilla stomps around and then various members of the government do their best walk-and-talk as they try to figure out what to do next.

This is often fascinating, particularly in the opening act. When Godzilla first emerges, the film explores the government response from every angle. Meetings are held. Committees are formed. Everyone talks and talks and talks, with countless named characters being introduced via onscreen text that tells us their position within the Japanese government. As a portrait of bureaucratic red tape, it is funny and surprisingly effective – we meet dozens of men and women with fancy titles who simply do not know how to respond to the giant sea lizard tramping their city. The onscreen text continues as running gag throughout the film, introducing new characters, new locations, new anti-Godzilla think-tanks, and every single piece of military hardware. Shin Godzilla is frustrated by government gridlock, focusing on the minutiae of committees being formed to approve subcommittees in the face of a creature that threatens the entire human race. That onscreen text is constant and deliberately overwhelming, wrapping the movie in red tape.

A typical human government, Shin Godzilla says, simply isn't prepared to face an extinction-level threat like this. This is is the chief focus of the film and it is frustrating and fascinating in equal measure. The lack of Godzilla is this Godzilla movie is entirely the point, but this satire will misfire for anyone hoping for a traditional kaiju story.

***

Note: The next page of this review discusses certain elements of the film's ending. Nothing significant is spoiled, but those who prefer to know as little as possible about the third act may want to steer clear.

The Patriotic Tribute

The fourth and final film within Shin Godzilla is perhaps the most important. Beyond the political satire and the creature effects, the film is a patriotic rallying cry and a tribute to the men and women of Japan. As frustrated as Anno and Higuchi are by the ineffective government, they believe in their nation and in their people. The Japanese people can and will overcome the odds and they will do so without the help of anyone else, damn it!

This manifests in two ways. First, there's how the film views the United States, which tries to bully its way into the whole Godzilla situation early on and continues to stay involved as things go from horrible to apocalyptic. There's a tinge of anti-American sentiment on display, especially as the Japan Self-Defense Forces go out of their way to save civilians and spare as much of Tokyo as possible while American forces simply send over a map estimating a zone of collateral damage for their bombing runs. However, the United States aren't the only nation to be treated in this way, as China and Russia and the United Nations in general are all portrayed as caring more about destroying Godzilla than preserving the people and livelihood of Japan.

Ultimately, Shin Godzilla is less about being anti-American and more about being pro-Japan. As the rest of the world intervenes and attempts to solve their giant monster problem for them, the Japanese characters rise to the occasion and work to save their nation on their own. This isn't a movie about a giant monster wrecking cities, but a movie about a country proving itself in the eyes of a world that doesn't think they can take care of themselves. Just in case this isn't obvious, the movie frequently pauses to state this out loud, ensuring that every single person in the audience knows that this is the intended message. At its worst, Shin Godzilla is hopelessly earnest.

But that earnestness feels honest. When the shattered Japanese government does rally against Godzilla, the imagery and language deliberately echo what was seen during the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster. Men and women clad in radiation suits that will do little to save their lives bravely march toward a radioactive threat, knowing that they are very likely heading to their doom. It's intense and personal imagery, recalling how the original 1954 Godzilla was a howling and bitter response to the open wound that was the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Shin Godzilla is ultimately more optimistic in how it ties to actual world events, but the intention is no less powerful.

Shin Godzilla is political, funny, odd, and so specific in its intentions that it could have only been made in Japan by Japanese filmmakers. It is also a Godzilla movie without much Godzilla, an unsubtle satire with no room subtlety and no memorable human characters. It is less interested in mass destruction and more interested in government process and Japan's place on the international stage. It has a really good joke about the difference between "Godzilla" and "Gojira." I have no idea if it's a good movie, but I can't wait to see it again.

/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10