It’s been two years since the world got a new Godzilla film. That was a Hollywood movie. This is not. Godzilla Resurgence is the first Japanese ‘Zilla film since 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars. I saw that here in Japan at the theater, so it’s only fitting I do the same for Resurgence.
Going into the cinema, I was excited. I respect Hideaki Anno, the film’s director and Evangelion’s creator, I enjoyed his live-action movie Love & Pop, and I enjoy Godzilla films. Sure, I figured, this was going to be great.
While actually watching Resurgence, though, I could feel myself making an effort to get into it, yet I never did. There were parts I enjoyed, but I left the theater feeling somewhat let down.
What I did like about this reboot and what I like about Godzilla films in general is that they often reflect the country’s mood at the time that they’re made. Many parts of this movie certainly do that and, no doubt, could be responsible for the positive buzz that the film is getting here in Japan.
The original 1954 Godzilla, for example, sums up the anxiety and lingering effects of nuclear weapons in Post War Japan. The Showa films (1954-1975) started to pander more and more to children as the country’s population exploded (or, even reflect the counter culture to an extent), while the Heisei era movies (1984-1995) are wonderful time capsules of Bubble Era Japan.
Likewise, Godzilla Resurgence is a reflection of the country today. The movie depicts some of the feelings around the Japanese Self Defense Force and the limitations it has traditionally under the country’s constitution. What if Japan gets attacked? What kind of limitations are there, politically? What can the Prime Minister do?
These are important questions for any contemporary Japanese movie, let alone a kaiju one. So while the 1954 film seemed to move quicker through the politician scenes to focus more on the characters, Godzilla Resurgence spends the majority of its time with the politicians, mulling through these issues.
In front of me, parents had brought their young son to see Godzilla Resurgence. He must’ve been eight or nine years old. During decades past, parents would bring their kids to see Godzilla films. Before I watched Resurgence, I thought about bringing my grade schooler. But as the movie slogged on, I kept seeing the kid shift in his seat, get up to go to the bathroom, and try talking to his parents. He was bored. Watching it was, at times, a chore.
At first, the constitutional questions seem compelling. The tension is real. The Prime Minister doesn’t appear to be strong-willed, and even he comments on how he’s taking orders from the Americans. But these scenes soon start to drag, and I started wondering, is this the whole movie? Not quite, but damn, it started to feel that way.
Quick edits and montages that move the film through its first fifteen minutes or so run out of steam, and we’re left what feels like Anno going through a directing exercise to see from how many different angles he can shoot a room or how many text overlays he could get on the screen for people’s names and jobs as well as room or location names.
As in the original film, when Godzilla does finally show up, the monster is great. If you like kaiju movies, you will probably enjoy these scenes the most. Co-director Shinji Higuchi, overcoming the stumbles of the live-action Attack on Titan movies, did a brilliant job with the kaiju and the special effects. Toho nailed a way to combine CG and a more practical Godzilla in a way that makes sense for the series. I just wanted to see more of the monster action (if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ll feel like you’ve seen most of the scenes) and felt like it was a waste to go back to the politicians.
I also wanted to get more of a boots-on-the-ground view of the action. Most of the time we just saw people running and then went back to a room full of politicians or researchers. The sense of dread is tangible, but then muted by a seemingly endless of stream of talking heads, with each character’s name and job flashing on stream. It’s obsessive and very Anno, but creates what feels like a revolving door. Here’s a character and his/her job, here’s another character and his/her job, and so on. But what about the characters we’ve been following? Are their families okay? They all seem to be these isolated stock characters who are taking the reality of a giant monster destroying Tokyo rather well.
There’s also an obsessive quality to putting up on-screen text to label all the military hardware. Chunks of the movie did feel militaristic, Rising Sun camo badges and all. However, other Godzilla movies in the past have also put the military—or special forces—front and center, so that didn’t feel totally out of character for the series.
Other parts seem militaristic, yes, but they’re deceptively so. After the Japanese Self Defense Force is unable to blow up Godzilla, it returns to helping people get out of metropolis. The Americans fail, too, showing a clear limitation of U.S. protection, so perhaps this movie is somewhere in the middle: a military is needed for protection, but needs more flexibility to protect the country.
I’m inclined to believe that Anno isn’t making a pro-military film at all, but one that does explore the necessity to protect one’s country, which could prove controversial when this movie plays elsewhere in Asia. If anything, this is another critical look at nuclear weapons and the armed forces (stills of Hiroshima flash on screen at one point), even if it’s totally wrapped in military hardware fetishism.
There are also plenty of visual references to the devastating 2011 earthquakes and tsunami.
Resurgence takes a stab at political intrigue with a subplot involving the Americans and several scenes in English, which bring back memories of the cringe-worthy English language scenes in 1984's Godzilla. This time, they’re slightly better, but they’re still poorly written and poorly acted to the point of distraction. Considering how the Godzilla films draw a clear, historical link to American nuclear aggression, I completely understand the less than flattering way Americans are sometimes portrayed in Godzilla movies (in this one in particular), but the subplots with Satomi Ishihara’s character just felt odd and clumsy. Instead of introducing her character, who felt like a stereotype and out of place, I wish the movie explored the relationships between the politicians and the researchers more instead of glossing over it.
Ultimately, much of the movie never pays off. The climax felt flat, and plateaus before it ever builds up tension. (However, there is one great payoff in the middle of the film, and I actually couldn’t believe the movie went there. But after going there, it never really fully explored what that meant.) There was never a release or a satisfying catharsis. Just lurking anxiety.
This isn’t one of the best Godzilla films ever made, but it’s certainly not one of the worst by any stretch, either. For every exciting or compelling moment, there are more that drag on and are in desperate need of edits. I kept checking my watch, waiting for the movie to build, but it never did beyond a feeling of uneasiness. Godzilla Resurgence is a series of compelling ideas in a so-so Godzilla movie.
The CG effects, however, provide a terrific blueprint for what future instalments can—and, no doubt—will look like. I eagerly await what’s next.
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