There was only one showing of Godzilla Resurgence (or Shin Godzilla) in my area, and it was on a Thursday night. Knowing that this would be a limited theatrical release of a subtitled Japanese film, I was expecting to either be alone in the theater or that there’d only be a handful of other people coming out to see it. To my surprise (and elation), the showing was quite full! It wasn’t a packed theater, though I certainly wasn’t alone in wanting to see the newest big screen showing of one my favorite characters of all time. Better yet, the movie itself turned out to be quite the exciting, back-to-basics Godzilla movie, for better and worse.
Godzilla Resurgence serves as one of the few “hard reset” entries in the 50(!) year-old kaiju franchise, in that this movie takes place in a world where this is the very first appearance of the giant, atomic fire-breathing lizard monster. Specifically, Resurgence serves as a post-millineum remake of the original 1954 Godzilla, and attempts to recreate the sense of terror a giant monster should instill, and return the titular Godzilla to his original position as a metaphor for some kind of nuclear-related danger. In 1954, Godzilla was a metaphor for the dangers of atomic weaponry; and in 2016, Godzilla is more of a metaphor for the dangerous of mishandling a widespread, nuclear-related disaster (i.e. the 2011 Fukushima disaster). It’s a stark contrast to the Godzilla that most people, including myself, are familiar with. Back when I rented a Godzilla VHS from my local video store, Godzilla was a more child-friendly giant monster, fighting to defend Japan from drill-armed beetles and gargantuan moths. Even at his worst, Godzilla was usually portrayed as a misunderstood anti-hero that Japan actually needed to fend off greater evils. In Resurgence, however, Godzilla is depicted as an unknowable, nigh-unstoppable force of destruction. Godzilla is not a hero, and the people of Japan will do practically anything it takes to stop his rampage through their dense urban centres. It’s a drastic change in tone that I found myself liking a lot, as it helped portray a more grounded world that also happened to be terrorised by a giant monster.
There were times when Godzilla felt like he had more in common with movie serial killers, or the shark from Jaws than his past robot-fighting incarnations. First of all, Godzilla’s new design won me over despite initial reservations. His new look is emaciated, burned and disfigured. Godzilla now looks as much like a victim of nuclear radiation as he is a product of it. His tiny, sunken eyes and exposed flesh make him a monster of eldritch design, which makes the reveal of his atomic breath far more terrifying and grotesque when its shown how he actually accomplishes it.
There’s also almost no characterization given to Godzilla this time around. Like the sprawling civilians on the ground, trying to find a way to stop him, we have no idea why Godzilla is stomping through a city with abandon and seemingly no purpose. Again, this feeds into the notion that Godzilla is a destructive beast; mankind’s nuclear hubris incarnate. But it’s difficult to tell if this was a purposeful theme in the movie, or if they simply forgot to give Godzilla even the slightest reason to have surfaced. There’s a moment in the movie, when the anti-Godzilla task-force (a ragtag team of government officials seeking an alternative solution to the big guy) straight-up admits that they can’t detect any pattern in Godzilla’s routes through the city. I thought they might hint that Godzilla was seeking energy or something, but that never happened. Godzilla just comes ashore to stomp around for no obvious reason.
The human response to Godzilla is also what cements Resurgence as a 2016 remake of the original. Where both movies followed the same structure (Godzilla attacks, government tries to find out why and from where, government tries to stop Godzilla, etc.), it’s the methods that differ. In the original, it was the equally-terrifying weapon, the “Oxygen Destroyer,” that ended up being the answer to Godzilla. In that time, it was more symbolic of the nuclear arms race in a post-World War II world. Today, the methods used to counter Godzilla are more akin to the ways we would handle a natural disaster. Significant amounts of the movie are dedicated to the government procedures and meetings that take place in order to get any kind of response out, and Godzilla is even referred to with jargon used for tsunamis or hurricanes. Also, there’s far more attention paid to the radiation Godzilla emits and leaves behind, further emphasizing its metaphor for Fukishima. Ironically, the actual way the humans counter Godzilla in the end is possibly the most “1950’s B-movie” plan I’ve seen in recent years.
Speaking of humans – yes, the great majority of the movie is spent with humans and not Godzilla. If we’re being honest, this is no new problem. No Godzilla movie has ever dedicated significant screen time to Godzilla. Even the original 1954 Godzilla had slightly less screen time than the 2014 Legendary Godzilla. The test of each Godzilla movie, then, is to make the non-Godzilla time worth watching. In this way, Resurgence is a mixed bag. While I thought the human screen time managed to go by quicker because of a very active camera style involving lots of cuts, weird camera angles and lots of close-ups; I can’t ignore the fact that most of the human screen time is spent in variations of a board or meeting room. Hell, the first part of the movie cuts between teasing shots of Godzilla first appearing and a literal government board meeting as they discuss the bureaucratic moves necessary to respond to Godzilla. There is even a scene in a boardroom that cuts to a black screen and text reading “CUT FOR TIME” in the middle of the scene because the scene would otherwise just be someone reading off some announcement off a piece of paper. So yes, I can understand if people would get bored of hanging out with these government proceedings.
But on the other hand, there are moments where time spent with the humans was interesting, and even fun. In addition to some hilariously awkward and off-kilter Western characters (particularly a strangely translated female US correspondent), the anti-Godzilla task force is a motley crew of almost anime-grade archetypes, complete with weird tics and exclamations. Whenever the government actually figures out a plan and tries to enact it, the movie goes into sports-training-montage mode (except showing people making phone calls and passing papers) which has its own weird charm.
All things considered, Godzilla Resurgence is a true “return to form” for the King of All Monsters. Godzilla is a terrifying beast wrought by man’s mistreatment of nuclear power, and the humans take up most of the screen time. While some might find this structure boring compared to the time when Godzilla fought Ghidora or Gigan or one of several Mecha-Godzillas, Resurgence manages to keep the pace up between Godzilla scenes and makes those scenes worth watching. I want to say that I would want more, but I don’t know if the ending of the movie actually allows for more of this particular Godzilla. It would be pretty neat though, seeing a radiation burn-version of Megalon…
FINAL SCORE - Godzilla Resurgence
Godzilla Resurgence brings Godzilla back to his original monster roots by grounding him in the modern world of politics and natural disasters, but that doesn’t mean he left behind the traditions of uninteresting human characters and strange translations.