Thanks, 2016: Shin Godzilla

Happy awards season, everybody! It’s a great time to reflect on the year in film and catch up on all of the rereleased nominations.

One movie that probably won’t get a Best Foreign Film nod is Shin Godzilla, aka Godzilla Resurgence. If you didn’t make it to Toho’s 29th Godzilla movie, you’re not alone: it was out for about 2 weeks stateside, playing once or twice a day in only 440 theaters. There are no announced plans for an American home release, so unless you speak Japanese it might be awhile before you can legally see it. Despite that, I humbly submit it as my favorite movie of 2016 and urge you to check it out as soon as you can.

Maybe I’m a little biased: I grew up renting all of the Godzilla VHSes from my local video store and watching them on repeat. I went to G-Fest 2000 when I was eight and saw the original Japanese Gojira four years before it was finally released on American home video. But while I maintain that Gojira is a great film, as an adult I’m not under any illusions about the sequels. They’re cheesy kid’s movies, perfect MST3K fodder. So please take me seriously when I say that Shin Godzilla is nothing like Destroy All Monsters! or Godzilla Vs. Spacegodzilla. It’s the real deal, a genuine Work Of Art about what it means to be a civil servant.

On paper, Shin Godzilla might not stand out from the other 28 Japanese Godzilla movies. Godzilla emerges from the sea and marches on Tokyo. The military tries and fails to stop him. He wreaks havoc. Some maverick scientists discover a better weapon and manage to defeat him. This is the plot of the original Gojira and all the sequels made from 1984-95. What makes it special?

The best comparison I can think of is Casino Royale, another “gritty reboot” of a franchise with 20+ entries. The difference is Shin Godzilla’s extreme commitment to the “realism” part of “gritty realism.” Casino Royale asks, “What would James Bond be like…in the real world?” but Daniel Craig still parkours up a crane and does things no real spy ever would.  Nothing wrong with that, but at this point it goes without saying that “gritty, realistic” Hollywood blockbusters still have heightened worlds that need you to suspend your disbelief.

Shin Godzilla is way closer to the information-dense naturalism of Spotlight and The Wire than Casino Royale. The opening scenes make this clear. There are some fast-moving, found-footage scenes of Godzilla’s first attack that look like something out of Cloverfield or District 9, not far from American norms of “realistic” science fiction. Then everything stops. We enter a government boardroom and the political jargon begins. Characters’ names and titles flash across the screen as they parse conflicting reports, arrange press conferences, and assemble scientific advisory committees. There are no swooping camera movements into a close-up of someone saying “My God.” The information comes at a brisk pace, and the plain style shows you what you need to see without making a fuss. So sure of the kind of movie you were watching a couple of minutes ago, you now have to catch up.

You keep waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the movie to become something more conventional, but it never does. Other than the monster (and some silly “American” accents), nothing feels like a stretch or simplification. The Godzilla response team doesn’t get a fancy control room, they get folding tables and chairs. Negotiations with the UN are as central to the plot as the monster. Every step in the chain of command is represented. You are basically watching a slow-moving, semi-competent government bureaucracy’s reaction to a natural disaster.

Not that the commitment to naturalism alone makes the movie amazing. The best thing about Shin Godzilla is how the style supports its sober, moving portrayal of political work in the face of unimaginable catastrophe. Main character Rando Yaguchi is obsessed with stopping Godzilla, but he’s also a hothead who cares about advancing his own career. Like many of the movie’s characters, he’s a hardworking, patriotic civil servant and a petty, self-serving tryhard. The movie’s refusal to resolve this tension even as it convinces you of his heroism gives it a wry moral clarity. When the “good guys” win at the end, it looks like a real victory: messy, could have gone better, work still to be done. Don’t pat yourself on the back for too long.

My favorite part comes after the centerpiece scene of Godzilla blowing up Tokyo. Yaguchi exits his underground shelter distraught; there’s a slow-motion closeup of him breaking down that’s all the more affecting for how reserved the rest of the movie is. Right after that, he moves to his new base of operations and does what we all do when we’re upset. He throws a hissy fit and makes an ass of himself in front of his colleagues. The scene undercuts its own melodrama without diminishing its characters’ suffering in a way that’s incredibly emotionally astute. And to think that the last scene was a giant fish-lizard shooting lasers out of its back, cutting holes in buildings.

Shin Godzilla is everything that modern Hollywood franchises aren’t: bold, uncompromising, unsentimental. With no kid gloves, it shows you that there are perfect villains but never perfect heroes, and sometimes that’s okay. And it’s a great reminder that genre cinema doesn’t have to be an escape from the world’s traumatic absurdity—it can put us in touch with it better than anything else.

absolutely no relation to r. kelly.Kells is an Oakland native with a sad compulsion to put his opinions online. He hopes that you like them, but what’s really important is that you like yourself. Twitter