Godzilla and I go way back. He/she/it was on the cover of my 1980 book The World of Fantasy Films. I also wrote about him/her/it extensively in my 1984 book S-F 2: The Great Science Fiction Films, and either moderated or served on panels about him/her/it at the San Diego Comic Con and The World Science Fiction Convention.
So I know me some Godzilla, and I also know that, while he may be catnip to filmmakers, it’s fairly obvious now that nobody except Takeo Murata and especially Ishiro Honda — the original 1954 version’s co-writers and director – really knew what to do with him/her/it. All too often, although he/she/it is the title character, he/she/it is reduced to either a deus ex machina or McGuffin (a Hitchcock term for an object in a movie that merely serves as a trigger for the plot). In other words, a supporting player, or as in the case with the 2014 American version, a virtual cameo.
Now, after more than thirty movies, Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi – best known for their landmark anime Neon Genesis Evangelion — get their shot at the big guy/gal/thing, and run face first into the same problem. For the first half of the clever, beautifully-made, movie, they masterfully evokes memories of 1945’s Hiroshima bombing, the 2011 Fukushima earthquake/tsunami disaster, and even Bong Joon-ho’s exceptional 2006 Korean giant monster movie The Host.
They even kept me off balance with an extremely unusual introduction of the title character – suggesting that this might not be a reboot, but a full-fledged Destroy All Monsters/Final Wars battle royale. But it soon became apparent that this was not only a remake – existing in a near future world where Godzilla has never appeared before – but also a reimagining, where an angry, grieving, unseen scientist creates the monster, which mutates rapidly before our eyes.
Anno and Higuchi then dive head-first into an all too believable docudrama of what an overstuffed bureaucracy tries to do about the thing and the big mess it’s making. There’s some very promising things floated in this section, which nearly becomes a Kubrickian black comedy about modern political paralysis, but then the newly-dubbed Godzilla (for Westerners)/Gojira (for Easterners) enters Tokyo, shows what he can do with his belching mouth, laser-porcupine scales, and versatile tail.
Then he/she/it stops. Literally stops. They have an explanation why that not quite neatly dove-tails into past theories on how the monster works, but it doesn’t really matter. Once he/she/it stops, the movie stops and the director/writers have a decision on what to do while he/she/it stops. They could concentrate on their hero (a Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary played by Hiroki Hasegawa) and how his renegade team of scientists rush to create an elaborate five-phase attack before the U.S. drops a nuclear bomb on the thing. Or they could pad the running time with a staggeringly unnecessary and stultifying subplot about a sexy, young, special Presidential envoy (Satomi Ishihara) who speaks painful, stilted English about her political ambitions. Guess which one they picked?
They chose unwisely. This inexplicable, momentum-killing, digression makes what should have been a thrilling implementation of the five phase attack into a nearly Monty-Python-esque satire of itself. But even if that had not happened, Shin Godzilla’s fatal flaw is the same as the last few Godzillas. Word to the wise to all future Godzilla filmmakers: more Godzilla, less nonsense with characters you didn’t help us care about.