Has any monster been more versatile than Godzilla? Sometimes a menace and sometimes a savior, sometimes a vindictive beast and sometimes an avenger of a despoiled planet, the Japanese thunder lizard has battled everyone from King Kong to Bambi in a 62-year cinematic history.
His most entertaining outings have always come from Japan, and the new “Shin Gojira” is no exception. (It’s known as “Godzilla Resurgence” in its English title; I found 13 translations for “Shin,” but the Japanese version seems to mean “New Gojira” or “True Gojira.” And “Gojira” is a combination of “gorira” and “kujira,” the words for gorilla and whale.)
Many things stand out about this version, not least its bizarre release date: It opens and closes in midweek, running Oct. 11-18. First, it’s in Japanese with English subtitles, as it should be: They own Gojira. Second, it’s as much about Japanese government and society as about the monster. Third, Big G behaves in a different way.
We see him first as an immense flailing tail, wrecking boats at sea. When he stumbles onto land, he resembles a long-bodied moray eel, with his gaping mouth and unblinking eyes. (He also looks incredibly phony by modern CGI standards; that may be a tribute to the days when movie monsters were puppets or guys in rubber suits.)
But this Gojira can evolve at amazing speed. “He is a perfect organism, surpassing man!” marvels a scientist. Eventually, Big G morphs into a dinosaur-like creature, then into a massive reptile who can breathe fire and shoot laser-like “proton rays” from its spine and tail.
We don’t get a lot of back story, except for cryptic warnings from a scientist who has since disappeared and a scene in which we find out little Gojira ate toxic nuclear waste that turned him into what he is today. (It was dumped illegally into the ocean, so we brought this on ourselves.)
What we do get – and it’s consistently interesting – is a look at modern Japanese bureaucracy, which is paralyzed by meetings, inconclusive consultations with experts and a belief that even killing one civilian does not justify stopping Godzilla when he’s still manageable. “So much red tape. Every action requires a meeting!” laments one scientist. “That’s the foundation of democracy,” replies a bureaucrat, perhaps ironically.
Japanese-U.S. relations come under the microscope when a senator’s daughter heads a joint task force. The American solution – drop a thermonuclear bomb on G – may be efficient but evokes horror from the Japanese, who watched two of those fall seven decades ago. Instead, Japanese scientists pin their hopes on a chemical that could slow Gojira’s internal processes enough to freeze him in place.
Writer Hideaki Anno, who co-directed with Shinji Higuchi, blasts the movie forward at a pace comparable to wild Howard Hawks comedies and action movies of the 1930s: People talk non-stop at lightning speed, often while walking. The action sequences, underpinned by a loud and soppy symphonic score, actually provide a sense of respite, as Gojira methodically levels buildings and patiently releases streams of fire from his crimson throat.
‘Shin Gojira’ (‘Godzilla Resurgence’)
☆ ☆ ☆
Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Ren Ohsugi, Satomi Ishihara.
Writer-director: Hideaki Anno (with co-director Shinji Higuchi).
Length: 121 minutes.
Rating: Unrated (science fiction violence).