There’s a moment early in Godzilla Resurgence when the camera zooms in on the monster’s eye. Like most of the Godzilla scenes in this film, it’s quite brief. The eye stares back at the camera, utterly still as water and debris swirl around it. This is before we’ve seen the monster’s entire body, but that eye is enough–we know what’s attached to it, even if the details might be slightly different from film to film, and we know bad things are about to happen.
This time Godzilla is brought to life by veteran director Hideaki Anno, who also wrote the screenplay and is most famous for directing the wildly popular anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. Co-director Shinji Higuchi, who is known for his adaptation of the 1973 disaster novel Japan Sinks, took care of the visual effects. Their Godzilla resembles a volcano about to erupt, its black body pulsing with lava-like red gashes, mouth full of a lot more sharp, Skeksis-like teeth than usual.
Godzilla emerges from the ocean into a world that has never heard of it. As usual, it’s not malicious, but it can’t help causing destruction just by moving, this time kicking up huge waves and piles of fishing boats in scenes that are starkly reminiscent of the March 11, 2011 quake and tsunami. As usual, the prime minister and a collection of other government officials and scientists desperately try to figure out what Godzilla is and how to deal with it. There’s a subplot involving how much they should collaborate with the U.S. military, leading to some slightly painful English dialogue uttered by actors who are clearly not comfortable with the language.
Godzilla Resurgence feels a bit like two films. One is around 30 minutes of well-constructed, frequently frightening scenes of the monster terrorizing Tokyo. The other is an hour and twenty minutes of meetings.
This isn’t unprecedented, of course–plenty of previous Godzilla movies (and monster / disaster movies in general) have featured tense scenes of important people debating how best to deal with an unprecedented catastrophe. Here, though, these meeting scenes go on for a very, very long time, feeling curiously detached from the destruction that’s happening just up the road. Everyone waits their turn to speak in the same slightly robotic tone, there eyes gazing intently into the camera. Decisions are made, we get a few seconds of Godzilla footage, and then it’s back to the next round of meetings.
The film is also stuffed with text–almost every speaking character, and there are a lot of them, gets a lengthy textual bio at the bottom of the screen. We learn the exact location of every meeting room down to the building floor, and the name of every Tokyo ward and neighborhood that Godzilla is stomping on. At one point we even learn the exact exit number of a train station where some of the protagonists are sheltering, at which point I couldn’t help giggling.
With so little time devoted to Godzilla stomping on things and so much time devoted to dialogue between characters that we don’t really get to know, does the movie work? Surprisingly, a lot of the time, yes. Even those endless meetings aren’t exactly dull. Everything is edited slickly enough to keep things interesting, and the A-list cast, with a few exceptions, all put in convincing performances.
It helps that there is almost nothing in the way of snark or meta-commentary, save for a brief scene in which the U.S. and Japanese government representatives argue about whether the monster should be called “Gojira” or “Godzilla.” Given the tendency for a lot of recent sequels and reboots to overdo the wink-wink, it was strangely refreshing to see Godzilla treated as serious business.
Godzilla has always been open to interpretation–the first film conjured up memories of wartime devastation, while Gareth Edwards’ 2014 remake seemed to be about a world that can’t help destroying itself even when it’s trying to do good. This time there are clear references to Fukushima, the March 11 tsunami, and Japan’s “ganbaru” spirit and ability to rebuild after a disaster. The blue jumpsuits worn by so many government officials recall the image of a can-do Naoto Kan in the days after March 11. There are also not-so-subtle pro-military messages (the film was apparently made with the full cooperation of the Japan Self Defense Forces, who are portrayed as selfless heroes).
And the two set pieces in which shiny military flying things and industrial machines do battle with Godzilla are stellar. The film’s budget may have been paltry compared to a typical Hollywood blockbuster, but it never looks cheap, Godzilla’s destruction never feels inauthentic, and the tension in those scenes is palpable.
Judging by the positive reactions in the packed theater where I saw the film, as well as the fact that Godzilla Resurgence has been number one at the Japanese box office for two weekends in a row, the movie is a hit. And fans only have to wait another two years for Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla sequel. Which shows that old monsters die hard, even when they’re weighed down by a few too many meetings.