Godzilla, as both a film franchise and a prehistoric fire-breathing sea monster, has always been defined by its ability to evolve. Originally conceived for the 1954 Ishirō Honda classic that bore his name and first introduced him to the world, Godzilla is the king of the kaiju and the most durable of all movie monsters because — by feeding on nuclear energy — it essentially feeds on human folly, itself. If there’s a more renewable resource, scientists have yet to discover it.
It would be 300-foot-tall understatement to say that some of the Godzilla movies have failed to capitalize on their star’s unique allegorical power (or was Mechagodzilla a poignant metaphor for the perils of worshipping false idols?), but the roaring reptile has never lost its power as a symbol of divine retribution, ready to be reborn for whatever new crisis we’ve managed to engineer for ourselves. It’s been 12 years since the last Japanese-produced Godzilla movie (though Gareth Edwards used the creature as the foundation for an elegant 2014 blockbuster about mankind’s outsized sense of planetary stewardship), a span that, in hindsight, feels like a most ominous lull. When the Great East Japan Earthquake struck off the coast of Tōhoku on March 11th, 2011, triggering a meltdown in three different reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, it was only a matter of time before Godzilla awoke from his (its?) slumber and waddled towards the shore.
Needless to say, Godzilla is pissed. Given the devastation that Japan suffered from the quake and the litany of disasters that it triggered, that doesn’t come as much of a surprise. And yet, “Shin Godzilla” is a critical and compelling addition to the kaiju canon because of how directly it confronts and sublimates that anger, raging at the Japanese government for its lackluster response to the 3/11 crisis and the Japanese people for failing to learn the lessons from the original film (which was directly inspired by a small-scale nuclear incident of its own, and obviously the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki before that). Much of the po-faced satire might be too specific for foreign audiences, but only the most explicit details are lost in translation — at heart, this is a story about the logistics of dealing with an unimaginable disaster, and how the infrastructure of our society is the last line of defense we have in the face of a real crisis.
Welcome to the first Godzilla movie that takes place almost entirely inside of government boardrooms. Kind of drab and often more than a little dull, “Shin Godzilla” is nevertheless a monster movie unlike any other — and you have to imagine that’s exactly what Toho was hoping for when they hired “Neon Genesis Evangelion” creator Hideaki Anno to write and direct it (does this count as burying the lede?).
Hiring the notoriously tortured and uncompromising anime visionary was one hell of a choice. For context, Toho asking Hideaki Anno to make a Godzilla movie would be like if Sony hired Don Hertzfeldt to make the next James Bond. Anno’s fingerprints are all over the place, evident in everything from the film’s narrow focus on byzantine political gamesmanship to the matter-of-fact grandeur with which Godzilla stomps toward the heart of Tokyo.
Indeed, the opening 30 minutes — in which a fleshy, rodent-like version of Godzilla makes its first steps on dry land and promptly begins leaking geysers of blood — feels like the closest thing we may ever get to a live-action “Evangelion.” Nobody shows defense forces scrambling to make sense of an unidentified monster quite like Anno. The pace and perspective with which he unpacks the governmental response to such a threat is so eminently watchable that it doesn’t really matter how chintzy and cartoonish the graphics can be (“Godzilla” has never really been on the VFX vanguard, but bad CG is a lot more garish than the sight of a man in a rubber suit stomping on a city of miniatures). Crucially, the imagery that’s meant to evoke the news coverage from 9/11 is all too credible. Boats pour down torrents of black water as people are swallowed by the detritus of industrialized society.
Likewise, there’s so much going on that it barely even registers how the film only has a small handful of recognizable characters. People and their personal lives were central to the 1954 version, the eyes of the storm, but here such things would only distract from Anno’s focus on systems and structures. “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” star Hiroki Hasegawa plays a low-ranking cabinet secretary, and “Attack on Titan” actress Satomi Ishihara pops up as the American envoy who’s forced to prop up the film’s half-assed inquiries into the international community’s responsibility for dealing with a localized catastrophe, but “Shin Godzilla” has as little interest in specific humans as the 2014 “Godzilla” did.
But where Edwards’ film put the monster in the middle of the story, Anno takes the opposite tack and puts Godzilla at a greater remove than ever, at once helping him to become both a literal threat and a conceptual one. The result is a characteristically philosophical disaster movie in which ego and economics are knotted together. It’s strange and exciting to watch such an iconic entertainment through such a stubborn macro lens — strange and exciting enough that it’s worth sitting through the long, circular breaks in the action when Anno plants a flag in a beige meeting room and endlessly reiterates how, as one politician puts it, “protecting a country isn’t easy.”
So if this fun but frequently exasperating new chapter in Godzilla’s never-ending story feels like a major anomaly, its eccentricities are what best allow it to channel the forward-thinking urgency of Honda’s original. Civilization might always invite its own destruction, but every disaster is a chance to rebuild things the right way.
“Shin Godzilla” is playing in theaters for a limited run that ends on October 18th.