Shin Godzilla is the most recent film, Japanese or not, that springs to mind when I think of the auteur theory. (For those who have not done their homework: this is the often-debated idea that the director is the true creative force behind the making of a film, and that everyone else involved—the screenwriters, the cinematographers, the actors, etc.—are, essentially, tools used to manifest his vision for the screen.) I am not a huge enthusiast of this theory, but I willingly consent there is some merit to it: some directors leave such a strong idiosyncratic mark on their films that their names practically become commodities and they stand out from most of their peers. Hideaki Anno, the maker of Shin Godzilla, falls under said category. Though not an authority on Anno’s career (I’m also more familiar with his anime than his live-action work), I imagine I could have walked into this film completely uninformed and still figured out within the first few minutes that he directed it. The first clue would have been the style: slashing jump cuts, artsy long takes, taut close-ups, intertitles. The second clue concerns what happens in the course of the story; it doesn’t take long for things to spiral into the realm of the bizarre. This is especially true of the third act, which, in parts, reminded me of Anno’s celebrated anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. With this new film, Anno has proven himself, for better or worse, one of the more distinctive directors to contribute to the Godzilla franchise. And there is something to be said for that.

However—and this is where my qualms with the auteur theory come into play—a personal touch is never a guarantee of good results. A name in the credits does not ipso facto equate quality. A distinguished style can be wasted on a poor screenplay. It can be executed with less cogency than it has in the past. It can be amalgamated with substandard work contributed by others involved in production. These were my primary thoughts after seeing Shin Godzilla. To simmer some of the flames, let me state Anno’s Godzilla movie is not a complete failure in my eyes. Within its 119-minute run time, there are some clever elements and one sequence in particular which viscerally reminded me why I fell in love with monster movies to begin with. But the film as a whole is turgid and dull, weighed down by a monotonous script, a heavy-handed message, and wildly uneven special effects.

Shin Godzilla begins promisingly with the discovery of an abandoned yacht drifting in the middle of Tokyo Bay. The coastguard boards the vessel, documenting their investigation, when the floor beneath them violently trembles; in a beautifully composed wide shot, we see a massive explosion rising from the water, well within view of Japan’s capital. As further incidents occur in the bay, the government commences a series of by-the-book meetings. One of the politicians, a young deputy chief cabinet secretary named Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) believes a giant animal is responsible for the disasters. And sure enough, he’s proven correct. Citizens flee in horror as a humongous eel-like monster slithers from the bay, up the Tama River, and eventually makes landfall in the Kamata district, pushing itself along on its belly via a pair of bulbous hind legs. Still no countermeasures have been taken when the mysterious organism suddenly collapses in the street and undergoes a physical transformation. Its legs increase in strength, clawed hands sprout from its body, and with a blood-chilling roar, the sea monster gains the ability to stand upright. It briefly resumes its attack before returning to the ocean.

Movie Review: Shin Godzilla

Following the incident, Yaguchi is promoted and assembles his own task group. Their objective: study the monster, which has been christened Godzilla, and come up with a plan to defeat it. By the time the creature reappears, rising from the waters of Sagami Bay, Godzilla has evolved into an even more gigantic and destructive form. The government authorizes military action as Japan’s latest threat wades ashore and begins marching in the direction of Tokyo.

Past Godzilla films have touched on timely subjects in Japanese society such as nuclear paranoia, rampant commercialism, concern over future international economic relations, exposure of corruption in major industries, and so on. In Shin Godzilla, the topic shifts to the Japanese bureaucracy—specifically, the bureaucracy’s apparent inability to respond to major situations. (Now is a ripe time for commentary, considering the heavily criticized disaster response to the 3/11 Tohoku earthquake/tsunami as well as the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear tragedy.) Anno is not unsuccessful in making the government look ineffective. As described earlier, the entire first act presents the Japanese bureaucrats meticulously holding conferences while a destructive creature rampages through their capital. They talk, they try to delineate responsibility, and they accomplish nothing. As I watched these early scenes, I was reminded, in a small sense, of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru. That film also opened with a depiction of do-nothing bureaucrats failing to address the issues of their city. But while the civil servants in the Kurosawa film were presented as ineffective due to lack of courage and personal motivation, their counterparts in Shin Godzilla are presented as borderline-incompetents struggling to break from tradition. The screenplay, written by Anno, goes to great lengths to demonstrate this, and some of the satirical jabs, especially in the first thirty minutes, are genuinely amusing. A bureaucrat sharing information with a colleague only to be chastised for not sharing sooner; the prime minister storming out of a meeting with local biologists, none of whom could answer his questions; one of said biologists refusing to give an opinion for fear of damaging his reputation; Rando Yaguchi suggesting information be gathered on their unknown invader, only to be met with confused stares for addressing the entire Cabinet instead of a specific person or department. What we see is a collection of suits eschewing action in favor of following the book…minus one voice of sanity.

Unfortunately, it is with this mock-the-government angle that Anno begins to lose his head. These early scenes, simply put, become far too redundant for their own good. As the politicians wade through superfluous meeting after superfluous meeting, each staged in garishly photographed conference rooms, each revealing little to nothing about the characters, stamina quickly starts draining out of the picture. (A few funny bits don’t amount to much when enveloped in soggy repetition.) The point has been made quite clear—the current bureaucracy is too rigorous, too slow to respond, too quick to jump to conclusions—but the film refuses to shut up on the matter. A well-written story could easily encompass the major points of this first half-hour within a much shorter time span while incorporating engrossing characters and a genuine atmosphere of tension. But Anno apparently felt obligated to poke fun at every single foolish thing a politician could do in real life; and in doing so, he allows the satire to overstate itself to the level of sheer tedium. Since these extensive dialogue-driven sequences rarely tell us anything we haven’t already figured out—about the situation or about the people who must deal with it—after a while, it’s not so interesting anymore.

As with the opening act, a few witty moments pop up now and then in the remainder of the narrative, but the laughs and the insight are never enough. When Rando Yaguchi first assembles his task force, there is a good moment in which seniority is discarded; they have a leader in terms of paperwork, but everyone can speak freely and immediately when they have something to say. A nice bit of dialogue declaring how the inevitable saviors of Japan differ from those who fumbled around in the face of disaster. But instead of stating this point and then enhancing it with a strong story and compelling characters, Anno’s screenplay opts for more of the same: indistinguishable people gathered around tables, or around computers, or in hallways, jabbering impersonally.

Movie Review: Shin Godzilla

And that is perhaps the most damaging flaw in the entire picture: in spite of the prodigious cast—328, according to publicity material—no one is blessed with what can rightfully be called a character. A select few of these suit-clad individuals demonstrate a flourish of personality now and then, but a relatable person never comes to fruition. The prime example of this quandary is the lead. On rare occasion, Rando Yaguchi supplies glimpses of a human side (offering a silent prayer while surveying the damage of Godzilla’s first attack; flying off the handle in a moment of frustration), and sometimes he enunciates an interesting point (reminding superiors that wishful thinking led to Japan’s World War II defeat). However, these details amount to a mere handful of seconds; for the majority of his time in front of the camera, all Yaguchi does is robotically champion defense of the country. A well-functioning automaton in a room of outdated automatons, eventually advancing to a room populated with similarly programmed automatons. Hasegawa plays the part competently, but it would take an exceptional performance to transcend the limitations of the script. (He’s good, but not good enough.) And so, when Yaguchi addresses the Japanese Self Defense Forces, his patriotic speech rings hollow. He has about as much disposition as a recruitment poster.

The only other character worth drawing attention to is a United States envoy named Kayako Ann Patterson, played by a hopelessly miscast Satomi Ishihara. In small fairness to the actress, she wasn’t given much to work with: the part is poorly written, with one-dimensional quirks, limited screen time, and precious few opportunities to do anything besides stand around and pose. The screenplay offers a vague semblance of a character arc, in which the American envoy changes from an insolent smart-aleck more interested in shopping at Zara to suddenly jeopardizing her political dreams in favor of helping the Japanese; but like virtually everything else in the film, her ‘personal drama’ feels more obligatory than gripping. Apart from the administrative bubble that encapsulates most of the film, Patterson isn’t even shown interacting with Japan and the Japanese lifestyle whatsoever. So the question I asked at the end was: What really spurred her to change her outlook? Did she meet off-screen with some Tokyo civilians who opened her eyes to why Japan is worth saving? Did she visit relatives? Did she stop by to see the hospitalized victims of Godzilla’s first attack? Did she go on a trip and venture to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial? These are just possibilities springing from the top of my head, as the movie never provides a truly conclusive answer. (A bare-minimum clip of her watching Godzilla move through Tokyo—from a great distance, mind you, where she cannot possibly see any human suffering—seems to be the only excuse.) The real reason for her switch, I postulate, is she has Japanese blood in her veins, and her inner-patriot needed to be aroused.

This brings me to another aspect I found somewhat vexatious about the film. Shin Godzilla may begin as a critique of the current bureaucracy; but it gradually becomes apparent the mockery is contributing to and supporting a more dominant theme of nationalism. For the record, as someone who is not particularly into politics, the mere idea of a nationalistic Godzilla movie does not bother me. In fact, it’s been done before. But the theme has been applied to Shin Godzilla in such a preachy, heavy-handed manner that it makes some of the propaganda films Toho cranked out in the 1940s look subtle by comparison. At least a few of those went to the effort of including characters with detailed personal lives. A few even illustrated the consequences of extreme patriotism. For instance: the heroine of Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful (1944) repeatedly turns down opportunities to visit home—in favor of her job in a war factory—only to break down in tears at the end when she realizes her patriotism cost her the chance to say goodbye to her terminally ill mother. The Most Beautiful is a self-proclaimed propaganda film preaching nationalism, but it has an emotional side. Such material is not present in Shin Godzilla.

Movie Review: Shin Godzilla

As with the satire, the screenplay never realizes when to shut up on the nationalistic theme. The narrative device of replacing the current bureaucracy (men and women in their middle to upper years—the old ways) with a new generation of patriotic politicians (much younger—the new ways) was obvious enough. It didn’t need regular lines of dialogue suggesting the brash, eager Yaguchi will one day take over the Japanese government. It didn’t need the overwritten ending of Yaguchi and Patterson, the determined flag-wavers from both sides of the Pacific, babbling about Japan’s future, smirking at the idea of future Japan taking orders from the United States—especially with the all-too-clear implication that Patterson will be sitting in the Oval Office one day. And just in case somebody in the audience has not caught on after nearly two hours, we’ve also been informed the current prime minister and his Cabinet will soon resign en masse. I.e., they are making room, and taking their methods with them. For that seems to be the key underlying message of the film. The satire and the 3/11 parallels merely support an admonition of: Weed out the current bureaucrats and usher in a new generation of patriots to take their place.

Once again, my objection is not so much the message but the excessively ham-fisted way the message has been delivered…and the lack of interesting characters makes it seem only more superficial. Had the nationalism been toned down and the characters crafted into likable human beings with engrossing personalities, the theme would have been infinitely easier to swallow—because the film would function as a film, as an experience.

Shin Godzilla is a paean to nationalism first, a callback to contemporary disasters second, and a monster movie third. Let us turn now to Anno’s sui generis take on the eponymous character. To start on a positive note, I very much liked the changes made to Godzilla’s origins. The idea of a marine creature changing shape and form to equip itself for survival in a new environment makes for a fascinating new take on this particular character. It also recalls past tokusatsu films such as Yoshimitsu Banno’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) and, to a lesser extent, Ishiro Honda’s Mothra (1961). I also liked the touch of Godzilla needing to evolve a couple times before reaching a stage well-suited for terrestrial survival.

The scene where the monster evolves in response to threats is even better. A starless night sky has cloaked Tokyo, and Godzilla is plowing through the city when a fleet of American stealth bombers strike the creature and—gasp!—succeed in maiming him. Godzilla reels noiselessly as blood spurts from his back, and one of his dorsal spines crashes to the ground. After letting out a defiant roar, the monster crouches low to the ground—and the audience realizes he is evolving again. (He assumed a similar posture when evolving to stand erect.) Only instead of changing his physical structure, the nuclear titan develops a new means of attack. Godzilla’s spines glisten with purple light, his lower jaw separates into a pair of mandibles, and a gush of fumes erupt from his maw, pouring through the city streets, causing no apparent harm to the infrastructure. (A protective filter meanwhile encloses Godzilla’s eyes.) Then the gas changes into huge gouts of flame, turning street-level Tokyo into an inferno. And finally, the expulsion focuses into a precise beam, which Godzilla uses to destroy one of the bombers. The planes, realizing they cannot safely attack head-on, evade, circling behind for another strike. Another round of bombs is dropped. Godzilla slams his mouth shut, cutting off the ray, before crouching low to the ground a second time. In a surprise move, the behemoth unleashes an array of beams from his back, ensnaring the projectiles mid-descent before slicing up their dispatchers. The aggravated monster unleashes another concentrated ray from his mouth, turning it loose on the metropolis. A chain of explosion-packed shots ensues as entire districts go up in flames. These few minutes, without any question in my mind, claim the award for the absolute best scene in the entire picture.

Movie Review: Shin Godzilla

And then there is the extremely creepy final shot of the film, in which the camera pans up to a cluster of xenomorph-like humanoids frozen in the process of sprouting from Godzilla’s tail. This ending suggested to me Godzilla was in the process of evolving into the ultimate form for combating humankind. In the moments leading up to his defeat, the behemoth realized its gigantic size and volleys of death-rays were not enough, and the only way to defeat a race of sentient beings was to become a race of sentient beings. (This is the part of the movie that reminded me the most of Neon Genesis Evangelion.)

Anno has indeed given us a radically new take on the Godzilla character, unfortunately the special effects, credited to the acclaimed Shinji Higuchi, leave much to be desired. As has been widely reported, the man responsible for the jaw-dropping practical effects of the 1990s Gamera trilogy has churned out his latest work not with the technique he’s mastered, but with computer generated imagery. (It should be noted, though: the CGI was not created in-house at Toho, but farmed out to various animation companies in Japan.) Matching expectations, the end results are little more than a slight improvement over the CG Toho presented in the early 2000s. Occasionally, the effects team (one of them, at least) pulls off a polished visual, such as the image beneath this paragraph, but most of the digital shots are laugh-inducing—the worst fit for a straight-to-video feature. Making matters worse, Anno and Higuchi boldly but unwisely stage most of the monster scenes in broad daylight, every single pixelated blemish on grand display for ridicule. (A shot of Godzilla’s eel-like form shuffling past the camera before blood pours from his gills comes to mind.) Not even the nighttime Tokyo scene emerges untarnished, as it resolves with one of the most risible images in the history of the franchise. Godzilla finishes dousing the city with his ray and takes a couple of lunging, seemingly weightless steps forward—before immediately freezing mid-stride. To paraphrase another reviewer: It’s as though someone hit the pause button.

Not surprisingly, one of the few visual effects shots to use handcrafted techniques turns out to be the absolute best in the entire picture. I am, of course, addressing the shot where a family is preparing to evacuate Tokyo when Godzilla suddenly crashes into their apartment building. The room (a highly detailed miniature set) collapses, the family (blue-screened actors) screaming in fear as they pummel to their deaths. I would love to see Higuchi return to the Godzilla franchise and stick with this time-tested technique, of which he is a virtuoso.

The musical score by Shiro Sagisu is utterly gorgeous. In naming my favorite tracks, I immediately salute two renditions of the song Who Will Know, which are blended and used for poetic effect in the film. Other standout cues include Persecution of the Masses, utilized for Godzilla’s initial attack, and Taba Strategy, employed for a mid-movie battle with the Self Defense Forces. As a fan of Evangelion, I also couldn’t help but smile at the inclusion of Sagisu’s march theme from the aforementioned anime. My only ill feelings with the soundtrack concern the use of stock 1950s-1970s Akira Ifukube tracks, which do not mesh with the quality of the new tracks and do not match the film’s modern look. (Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate the inclusion of these classic tracks, but the score would have been more balanced had Toho opted to re-record them.) I recommend readers check out Kaoru Wada’s live cinema re-recording CD of the original Godzilla (1954) score for an idea of how majestic the old themes would sound recorded with modern-day technology. Still, Sagisu’s original compositions are absolutely marvelous, and they more than make up for the out-of-place recycled cues.

In the end, it is my sad duty to describe Shin Godzilla as the third Toho-produced Godzilla film in a row to leave me cold. Is it one of the fiascos of the franchise? Not quite. But the film suffers from a pretentious, stagnant demeanor, with not nearly enough highlights and sparks of interest to redeem its long stretches of tedium.

2 and a Half Stars