Godzilla Resurgence is a different breed of monster movie

Toho's new reboot of cinema's longest-running franchise is bold, smart, and above all, different.

There are so many possible subtitles I might append to the new Godzilla movie. Godzilla vs Bureaucracy, for example. Godzilla vs Industrial Dentistry. Godzilla vs American Imperialism.

Our own Robert Rath has already gone to some length to analyze the political undercurrents of Shin Gojira (Godzilla Resurgence, or Shin Godzilla if you just don't care), the disaster movie tour-de-force co-directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi -- both men best known for their work on Neon Genesis Evangelion. A damning satire of Japanese parlimentary gridlock in the wake of the March 2011 Tohoku earthquake and ensuing nuclear disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, Godzilla Resurgence splits its time between political thriller and apocalyptic light show, and it really doesn't care if it's not the action movie you think you signed up for.

Make no mistake, when Godzilla gets around to the rampaging-through-Tokyo bits, it's exactly the glorious buffet of disaster porn and military hardware you would expect. But the real excitement comes from the board room scenes -- first played for comedy, as it becomes clear no one in the prime minister's senior cabinet is equipped to deal with the crisis, and then played for drama, as junior secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) and Japanese-American special envoy Kayoko Ann Patterson (Satomi Ishihara) break off into a special task force composed of "misfits, nerds, and otaku" intent on stopping the creature in their own way. A great deal of time is spent discussing Godzilla's physiology and coming up with possible biological counter-measures, and the film isn't afraid to shove as much scientific jargon at you as possible. Think less Independence Day, more Andromeda Strain: it's a creature feature, sure, but it's primarily about containment.

The film makes no secret of this, as characters observe early on that Godzilla is functionally a walking nuclear reactor, leaving a path of radioactive fallout in its wake. The unvoiced anxiety here is not simply the damage Godzilla can do to buildings and infrastructure, but how it can permanently devastate the land, poisoning the earth as well as the Japanese people. These fears only intensify as -- predictably -- the U.S. military begins agitating for a 'nuclear option' to dispose of the creature: a common enough trope in action movies, but uniquely terrifying in a Japanese context.

Co-director Hideaki Anno has said Neon Genesis Evangelion (top) was an attempt to introduce more mature storytelling to serialized anime. Co-director Hideaki Anno has said Neon Genesis Evangelion (top) was an attempt to introduce more mature storytelling to TV anime.

Ishihara, as Patterson, delivers the real emotional gravitas here. We see despair growing behind her eyes as she and Yaguchi contemplate a third nuclear strike on Japanese soil. As the two youngest characters in the main cast, Patterson and Yaguchi also act as stand-ins for a generation asked to shoulder the long-term consequences of decisions made by men (and it is mostly men) many years their senior. This, far more than the action sequences, is Hideaki Anno at his most Hideaki Anno: strip away most of the references to Jung and Christian mythology and Evangelion was always chiefly about children thrust unprepared into a world their parents had helped devastate. And as per the rest of its themes, Godzilla Resurgence is anything but subtle about this, with Patterson and Yaguchi jointly taking command of the situation while they nonchalantly discuss their future roles in government.

(A quick aside about our leads, since you may be worrying (as I was) that this would devolve into your typical action movie romantic subplot: while there are a couple moments alluding to something more-than-platonic between Yaguchi and his American counterpart, the film is far more concerned with presenting the two as equals who respect one another. Patterson is at no point relegated to some "hero's girlfriend" role.)

At the film's peak, these themes go from blatant to just a smidge heavy-handed, asking the audience to consider Japan's position in the global political landscape. As the Godzilla crisis spirals out of hand, Japan leans more heavily on its peace treaty with the U.S. for military support, until the Japanese government is practically relegated to a junior partner in manners concerning its own country. You could read it as a call for nationalism, with all the accompanying right-leaning implications, but I don't think it's that simple. The same characters who lament that Japan is locked in as "a post-war tributary state" where the "post-war" has no end-point had earlier warned the prime minister's cabinet of avoiding the same "optimism" which led to Japan's downfall in World War II. Rather than a return to its imperial past, Godzilla Resurgence seems to be saying, Japan has to work toward a fresh start, with a new generation at the helm.

Kayako Ann Patterson (Ishahara; left) and Rando Yaguchi (Hagesawa) only gradually emerge as the true heroes of the film. Kayako Ann Patterson (Ishihara; left) and Rando Yaguchi (Hasegawa) only gradually emerge as the true protagonists of the film.

"In 40 years," Patterson says toward the end of the film, "when I'm president and you're prime minister..." 

Yaguchi cuts her off. "You mean, when I'm your puppet?"

If Pacific Rim offered us a saturated fantasy inspired by decades of kaiju cinema and mecha anime, then Godzilla Resurgence pares all that down to its foundations, delivering us something fresh, austere, modern. It's a Japanese creature feature, but it's been taken apart and put back together to run more cleanly than it ever has -- an optimized engine for delivering much the same biting political themes Godzilla has always had at its core. If it's playing in your city, I highly suggest you don't allow this one to pass you by.

Verdict: Yes