Shin Godzilla Review: A God Incarnate, a Franchise Saved

In this age of cinema where it seems every movie that comes out is a reboot, a sequel, an adaptation, or knockoff, it’s unlikely that you’ll see a film with genuine originality and creativity behind it, especially when that film is a reboot of one of the longest-running and most influential franchises in the history of the medium like Shin Godzilla. Directed by Hideaki Anno (of Neon Genesis Evangelion and its sequels), this film reinvigorates the Japanese sci-fi franchise that began in 1954 with the original Gojira, which has since spawned 29 more entries not counting the ones where Godzilla doesn’t show up, like Rebirth of Mothra or Godzilla (1998) across various continuities and levels of quality. Following in the colossal footsteps of 2014’s Godzilla, Toho, the studio behind the original Japanese films, has created a reboot of their own. This isn’t the first time they’ve rebooted the franchise; they did it in ‘84 and ‘99, and that’s not mentioning that each film from 1999-2004 was kind of a reboot as well. Unlike all of those movies, however, this one isn’t a sequel to the original 1954 film. The premise is the same: giant monster shows up in Tokyo, now we’ve gotta deal with it. While the original Gojira is hailed as a masterpiece as long as you don’t watch the American cut could Shin Godzilla possibly stand up to the original? Short answer: Yes. Yes it can.

I’ll start with what you psychopaths came here to see: the destruction. Godzilla puts an end to more than his fair share of human existence, and all of it is spectacular. The special effects, while not quite as impressive as Hollywood’s budget can allow, blow the previous 28 Japanese films out of the water. Without wishing to mention specifics, Godzilla’s rampage is more awe-inspiring than ever before, as this film makes you feel just how powerful the King of the Monsters can be. While it may start off looking like it’s just another cheesy kaiju flick, some of the scenes toward the end are legitimately terrifying. This isn’t a dude in a rubber suit stumbling over cardboard buildings, this is the might of the gods themselves put to film.

Shin Godzilla’s titular monster may be the most inventive design of the iconic creature in its six-decade lifespan. Godzilla has been interpreted many ways, from the disgusting, mutated, cancerous mass of the original to the almost catlike, combat-oriented design of the ‘90s to that one time where he was the resurrected vengeful spirits of the victims of Pearl Harbor. ShinGoji takes his inspirations mainly from ShodaiGoji (aka the original ‘54 suit), being a horrific walking tumor like its predecessor. ShinGoji, however, takes that notion to the next level… and then a few levels further just to be safe. The CGI used on his body really helps bring out the feeling that this is a creature that shouldn’t exist, shouldn’t be allowed to exist, but is forcing itself to anyway. Its behavior is unique among Godzillas as well. Not acting as a hero (like Terror of Mechagodzilla), villain (Mothra vs Godzilla) or morally ambivalent force of nature (Gojira), ShinGoji seems to be the first Godzilla to be acting out of a desire for supremacy over humanity. To achieve that end, ShinGoji evolves itself to overcome obstacles. ShinGoji almost seems more like a Godzilla-inspired adaptation of the angel Iruel from Evangelion than it does Godzilla, yet it remains faithful enough to the spirit of Godzilla to not come across as something new and worse, spitting in the face of a time-honored classic, like what that 1998 movie did.

Outside of the action, the filmmaking is all top-notch. The cinematography never ceases to impress, even when Godzilla isn’t doing anything onscreen. Obviously, the most astounding shots are the ones that make Goji feel like the massive beast he is:for instance, a perspective shot from the point of view of a car driving by his feet. Much of this film doesn’t even feature Godzilla, just conversations between people trying to figure out how to stop him, but it can jump from 0-100 within a few frames. It all feels very Anno, effectively building tension even when Godzilla is nowhere to be found. The score is composed by Evangelion’s Shiro Sagisu, and much like Eva, the music is masterfully written and I will be buying the soundtrack. In fact, the score takes several songs directly from Eva. Specifically, the song Decisive Battle is performed in several different compositions. Several songs from previous Toho movies also make wonderful returns, such as themes from Godzilla vs King Kong, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster and Battle in Outer Space. The best song on the OST, however, has to be Persecution of the Masses. A haunting choir sings over an ominous melody, an omen of the tragedy to come. Seriously, go find it on YouTube or something. ‘S good.

Perhaps this movie’s greatest strength is to be found in its writing. The entire film is focused on one thing: Godzilla. He shows up within a minute of the film’s opening credits and his influence is felt in every frame that follows. Its sharp focus pairs nicely with its fast pace, which starts quick and never lets up, not unlike last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road. The characters, of which there are many, all manage to be engaging, and even have a fair share of moments of humor in spite of the situation. If I have one complaint about the characters, it’s that the American ambassador to Japan was clearly not American, though she was still likeable and gave a good English performance. The subtitle work is excellent, and even manages to capture the comedic timing of the dialogue. Anno clearly derived some inspiration from some of the better early episodes of Neon Genesis Evangelion, namely episodes 6, 7, and 9. From 6 he carried the mounting action, planning, and that thing he does where every new piece of military hardware gets a subtitle introducing it to us; from 7, poking fun at Japan’s military system failing in times of crisis; and from 9, the pace and feeling of impending doom looming over those trying to prepare. The film is more about people trying to figure out the best solution to Godzilla while working around red tape than it is about a monster breaking things we’d rather be left unbroken thank you very much, but it never lets you forget what you came here to see. Working not only as a giant monster movie but also as a satire of postwar Japanese politics, the film builds its political undertones while never being so heavy-handed that it can’t throw some exploding trains at a giant laser lizard.

Shin Godzilla is an astounding opus from one of Japan’s greatest directors. A brilliant reinvention of one of the greatest movie monsters of all time, Shin Godzilla is the reboot everybody should learn from. In stark contrast to films like The Killing Joke or Godzilla ‘98, Shin Godzilla understands and builds upon the original source material, creating a separate entity that’s breathtaking in its own right. Now if only Funimation would hurry up and drop that Blu-Ray so you could watch it while you’re still in school.