Thursday, October 13, 2016

In Theaters: SHIN GODZILLA (2016)

(Japan - 2016)

Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi. Written by Hideaki Anno. Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, Ren Osugi, Akira Emoto, Kengo Kora, Mikako Ichikawa, Jun Kunimura, Pierre Taki, Mansai Nomura. (Unrated, 120 mins)

Toho reboots the legendary GODZILLA franchise after a 12-year hiatus with SHIN GODZILLA, the 29th entry in the official Japanese series and the first since 2004's much-maligned all-star monster mash GODZILLA: FINAL WARS. Already in development when Gareth Edwards' American GODZILLA bowed in 2014, SHIN GODZILLA ("Shin" meaning "true" or "new") is a total do-over--a shin reboot, if you will--that pretends none of its predecessors happened, including Ishiro Honda's 1954 landmark GOJIRA. Like GOJIRA--famously retooled for the US as 1956's GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS, with Raymond Burr in added scenes--SHIN GODZILLA has a statement to make. Where the creature in GOJIRA was a symbol of Japanese anger over the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (those elements were left out of the Burr-ified version), the new Godzilla is a symbol of the triple catastrophes that hit Japan on March 11, 2011: the Tohoku earthquake, the tsunami, and the resulting meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Written by Hideaki Anno, best known for the hugely popular NEON GENESIS EVANGELION anime TV series, and co-directed by Anno and effects mastermind Shinji Higuchi, SHIN GODZILLA is an often scathing rebuke of ineffective Japanese politicians and the pass-the-buck bureaucrats, frequently exhibiting absurdist humor along the lines of DR. STRANGELOVE, so much so that you'd swear that THE THICK OF IT and VEEP creator Armando Iannucci helped out with the script. It's an interesting approach to take for a GODZILLA film, and one that's very much in tune with the world today, but it eventually belabors its points to a tedious degree, growing increasingly repetitive and overstaying its welcome.

It doesn't take long for Godzilla to make its first appearance, though it's not immediately apparent that this is Godzilla. After an explosion in Tokyo Bay causes the Aqua-Line tunnel to flood with a combination of water and blood, the Japanese government, headed by Prime Minister Okachi (Ren Osugi), is quick to blame it on an underwater volcano. Mid-level pencil-pusher Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) thinks it could be some kind of undersea creature, and his suggestions are laughed off until viral video surfaces of a giant tail rising from the bay. As the Prime Minister and his myriad of underlings look for ways to shuffle responsibility around to countless other departments (one even suggests "Can't we just let it swim away?") by having constant meetings that don't ever seem to accomplish much, the creature works its way onto land. It's an awkward, shambling thing with poor coordination and googly eyes that crawls through the streets, destroying everything in its path. The Prime Minister has the military mobilize its forces to attack while citizens are quickly evacuated. But there's still people in the area and he refuses to authorize an assault on the creature, giving it ample time to crawl back into the bay unharmed. Life immediately goes back to normal for those not residing in the devastated areas, but the creature--dubbed "Godzilla" after Japanese-American envoy Kayoko Patterson (Satomi Ishihara), the daughter of a prominent US senator, reveals that the US government has known of the possibility of the creature's existence--returns a few weeks later, doubled in size and evolving to the point where it stands upright and has altered its appearance. It resembles the classic Godzilla look (motion-captured by Mansai Nomura), only significantly taller, uglier, and with an internal biology that's tantamount to a nuclear reactor. No longer the awkward, crawling infant Godzilla, the creature can now defend itself by breathing radioactive fire and emitting atomic rays from its fins and body.

The first hour of SHIN GODZILLA is really terrific. Despite the fact that some of the more Japan-centric elements like the political structure and a cast filled with celebrities who are obviously better-known in their native country might not translate, any knowledgeable moviegoer can relate to the tiresome, incompetent bureaucracy that prevents anything from getting done. The satirical jabs at useless government officials most concerned with saving their own asses and how they will all look to the rest of the world while making one wrong decision after another translates to any audience. Plus, nothing can beat that iconic roar and Akira Ifukube's "Godzilla March." But the razor-sharp wit stalls right around the time Godzilla depletes its energy and remains motionless in the heart of Tokyo for most of the second half of the film while everyone figures out how to get rid of it. The pushy US government works in conjunction with the United Nations on a plan to nuke Godzilla, which requires evacuating all of Tokyo, but Yaguchi and Patterson want to avoid the nuclear option in favor of a coagulating agent that will essentially freeze it to death. There's some understandably mixed feelings on the part of what's left of the government (the Prime Minister and most of his top officials are killed during an earlier evacuation), whose younger members know and understand what their elders went through at the end of WWII.

The dark humor comes to halt as scientific jargon takes command, with Godzilla a looming yet immobile presence. The scenes of a rampaging Godzilla are a bit too sporadic but they're among the most spectacular and disturbingly grim of any kaiju, especially once the evolved version emerges and discovers the extent of its radioactive retaliatory power as ammo and missiles do nothing to stop it (this is the scariest, meanest incarnation of Godzilla since 2001's GODZILLA, MOTHRA AND KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK). But after an electrifying and smart first hour, Anno and Higuchi just spend too much time in boardrooms and offices as the film becomes relentlessly talky the longer it lumbers on, running a good 20 minutes longer than is necessary. There's at least a hundred speaking parts and every character gets a caption intro, leading to subtitles on top of subtitles, which is amusing for a while but, like everything in SHIN GODZILLA, grows exhausting by the end. Anno and Higuchi have crafted an offbeat, ambitious, and intelligent kaiju for grown-up audiences (this is not one of those classic Godzilla smackdowns for kids), and much of it is quite good, but it just loses its momentum and grinds its gears when it really matters most.

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