The Original Gangsta Lizard gets a largely satisfying reboot in “Shin Godzilla,” a surprisingly clever monster mash best described as the “Batman Begins” of Zilla Thrillers. Co-directors Hideaki Anno (the cult-fave “Evangelion” franchise) and Shinji Higuchi (“Attack on Titan”), working from Anno’s genre-respectful yet realpolitik-savvy screenplay, draw basic elements from Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 “Gojira” and its many follow-ups — to the point of including a wink-wink, nudge-nudge reference to Goro Naki, a character who loomed large in two sequels — but update the familiar kaiju mythos to a 21st-century world where the sudden appearance of an immense, fire-breathing reptile in Japan can generate all sorts of inter-agency political wrangling, revive terribly unpleasant memories of the country’s militaristic past, and really, really wreak havoc on the value of the yen in global monetary markets.
In short, Anno and Ishihara operate according to a classic sci-fi game plan: This couldn’t happen. But if it did happen, this probably is what would happen.
Their resolve to ground their fantastical scenario in something resembling reality perhaps is best illustrated in a scene that plays like something out of Gavin Hood’s recent “Eye in the Sky,” when second-guessers debate whether military pilots should risk endangering innocent bystanders in order to launch a missile assault on Big G. All that’s missing is a shot of Helen Mirren shouting: “We have the target in sight!”
In “Shin Godzilla” — which, by the way, bluntly acknowledges that the creature known as Gojria in Japan is referenced as Godzilla elsewhere — the titular monster is identified not as the unfortunate result of hydrogen-bomb testing, but rather as “an ancient species of marine life” that dined on nuclear waste dumped by the United States. (“That country,” a disgruntled Japanese official complains during one of the movie’s many subversively satirical moments, “foists some crazy things on us.”) When it first appears in Yokohama, the new Godzilla is — well, to be brutally frank, less than intimidating. Indeed, it resembles nothing so much as a dragon in a Chinese New Year parade, with eyes that look like buttons sewn onto a sock puppet. As the creature continues to mutate en route to Tokyo, however, the special effects — a mix of CGI, motion-capture wizardry and old-school miniatures — are progressively more persuasive, and the monster itself bears an increasingly stronger likeness to the fire-breathing icon widely recognized by international audiences.
During the extended stretches between Godzilla’s sporadic assaults on all urban areas in his path, the film takes an almost documentary-style approach to depicting the bureaucratic dithering and political infighting that, in the alternative universe imagined by Anno and Ishihara, would be rampant among Japanese government officials faced with a literally monstrous threat to homeland security. Titles appear on screen to identify significant places and personages as the story jumps from the prime minister’s headquarters to an improvised scientific think tank to, no kidding, inside Air Force One, where an unseen U.S. president warns his special envoy (Satomi Ishihara), the American-born descendant of Japanese grandparents, that she might irreparably harm her own presidential prospects if she hinders a plan to exterminate Godzilla with a limited nuclear strike on Tokyo.
Not surprisingly, this option is viewed skeptically, if not angrily, by Japanese officials who remember Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ultimately, it’s up to a lowly deputy chief cabinet secretary (Hiroki Hasegawa) to devise a less destructive Plan B with a handpicked team of “lone wolves, nerds, troublemakers, outcasts, academic heretics, and general pains-in-the-bureaucracy.” The team is nothing if not dedicated, sometimes to the point of neglecting meals, sleep, and personal hygiene.
The complicated relationship between Japan and the United States is exploited more cannily here than in most previous Godzilla films. On the other hand, “Shin Godzilla” is appreciably less unsettling than “Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah” (1991), the movie that spilled the beans about the monstrous lizard’s war record by showing a pre-irradiated Godzilla helping Japanese soldiers battle American troops during World War II. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Which may explain why, while the ’91 “King Ghidorah” pic premiered as a home-video product in the U.S., “Shin Godzilla” will kick off a limited theatrical run (thanks to Funimation Films) in several U.S. cities Oct. 11, less than three months after its gigantic box-office success in Japan.