When Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla came out in 2014, many complained that Godzilla was hardly in it. I recommend anyone who shares that opinion stay far, far away from Shin Godzilla or Godzilla Resurgence or God Godzilla or whatever it’s actually called.
There’s a real precedent for keeping Godzilla offscreen more often than not in these movies. A great many of them use this tactic not to raise tension but simply to save money. And also because it gets boring just watching the guy walk around for two hours.
I can’t tell you the reasoning behind Godzilla’s limited screen time in Shin Godzilla. Given that this return to the series comes with its own sense of celebration and anticipation, you would think a focus on Godzilla would be something of a priority. Instead, we get a lot of board room meetings. No one ever went to a Godzilla moving hoping for lots of talky office scenes, but they always have some. This one likely has the most.
The plot is simple. A googly-eyed quadruped monster starts bugging Japan. He mutates into our main man Godzilla later. Godzilla steps on buildings, so the army shoots back at him. That doesn’t work so they try to figure out a different approach.
Thankfully, there aren’t a lot of examples to prove this, but Godzilla movies where he doesn’t fight another monster tend to be awful. The original should be an obvious exception. Godzilla: 1984 is super boring, and no one likes the first American remake. The fighting stuff is cool, but the better argument for their necessity involves plot. An opponent gives the movie something to be about. The humans are there to discuss Godzilla and help us figure out the other monster. And then, yes, the monsters fight and it’s cool.
When the focus is on Godzilla there is less room for dynamics. He can only stomp so many buildings before we get bored. After that, filmmakers only have two moves: show us some atomic breath and then take Godzilla out. It’s very difficult to add any more than that to the formula when he’s alone.
What Shin Godzilla wants to add is bureaucracy machinations spliced with a little anti-US satire. None of it satisfies, however. The satire alone should make this automatically one of the best Godzilla movies ever, but it never lands quite like it should to be effective on that level, which is frustrating.
Also frustrating, this has one of the greatest looking Godzilla’s ever. Not just his look but the care and detail of his destruction. Perhaps the film suffers by offering a Godzilla we want to see too much. His big atomic breath moment may anger some purists (it starts out as fire, but basically turns into a lightsaber beam that shoots out of his mouth - and his back and tail as an aimed defense mechanism), but I loved it. The film teases all these wonderful new approaches to filming Godzilla, but it’s hard to accept how little of this we get.
In the end, it is a unique experience to see a non-American Godzilla film on the big screen, and I still recommend you go for it if given the opportunity. But the decision to celebrate Toho’s triumphant return to the Godzilla game with a movie like this baffles me. If nothing else, I have hope that the film’s success in Japan leads to a series of great Godzilla fight movies because I want to see this iteration of the character in a movie that deserves him.