Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Shin Godzilla (2016) - Movie Review

Back in high school, I went through something of a Japanese cinematic phase. And no, this was before I found the Critic; this was less classy A-movies and more splatsticky B-movies. Specifically, those connected with goremeister Yoshihiro Nishimura: Mutant Girls Squad, Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl, Tokyo Gore Police, right up to the film that started it all for me Robogeisha. It was around this time that I developed a liking for that style of filmmaking, getting into Grindhouse shortly after. This is probably where I also got my appreciation for the more insane films out there so, for those who find reason to object to my defending of films like Yoga Hosers and Zoolander 2, you can thank the land of the rising acidic breast milk for that. So, when news hit of a new Godzilla film coming out with Nishimura himself working on the effects, a particularly abnormal wave of nostalgia washed me into my local cinema to check it out. I’m a bit rusty on recent language-other-than-English cinema, so I don’t know how this will turn out.

The plot: After a mysterious occurrence causes a flood and subsequent collapse of the Tokyo Bay Aqua-Line, Japan’s parliament convene to figure out who or what caused the event, something that becomes only marginally easier when news reports come in of a massive living creature off the coast of Tokyo. Cabinet Secretary Yaguchi (Kiroki Hasegawa), with the help of U.S. envoy Kayoko (Satomi Ishihara), discovers the writings of a disgraced college professor that predicted this very event and the creature responsible for it: The gargantuan monster Gojira, or Godzilla as it is known in the West.

I make no pretences when it comes to my lack of expertise when it comes to cinema, especially cinema pertaining to an entirely different culture to the one I grew up in. As such, I will approaching this film as your standard Western filmgoer, and in that regard, this film isn’t exactly the most Western-friendly iteration of the king of the monsters. I say that because this film makes it a point of introducing all of its human characters through subtitles, as well as certain signs and bits of writing that are important to the plot. Add to this the subtitles for the dialogue, and you’ll have several scenes that are literally blocked by a wall of on-screen text. I’ve always been a dub guy, mainly for anime because I’d rather be watching the show than reading it, and this kind of presentation feels like it was made solely for people like me to point at as a reason why we mainly stick with the dubs. I mean, Godzilla is almost legendary for its dubbing (for less than legitimate reasons, admittedly) so that juxtaposition makes this choice look even weirder. There’s also how the film handles character, in that it focuses more on the bureaucratic whole rather than its individual parts, which makes isolating performances a tad difficult beyond barely being able to tell where said dialogue is coming from half the time.

That feeling of disconnect with English-speaking audiences extends to its thematic elements as well, particularly when it comes to Japan’s on-screen relationship with the U.S. In this regard, it can feel like a bladed answer to Legendary’s Godzilla film from a couple years ago. There’s a very nationalistic vibe to how the events are depicted, with Japan trying to handle Godzilla on their own without bringing the trigger-happy Yanks into the picture. Not literally, though, as this film does have a few smatterings of English here and there, largely thanks to Kayoko and the U.S. officials that are reluctantly brought in later on. Now, using Godzilla as a connection point between the two countries is hardly unique to this film; after all, one of the more famous instalments of the franchise was dedicated to having the OG Godzilla kill the Godzilla from the Roland Emmerich version.

Actually, speaking of Emmerich, this film has a similar approach to how the world (or in this case, Japan and bits of the U.S.) react to the literal walking natural disaster: Great tragedy as a means of banding everyone together. Sure, we get the occasional scene showing the comedy of bureaucracy, but otherwise this holds the allegorical nature of the titular monster very close to its chest. Then again, we’re dealing with directors whom have made their mark on how humanity deals with giant monsters with series like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Attack On Titan.

I’ve seen this film called "low-fi" by certain critics. I’d personally replace that with “laughably cheap-looking” because, good God, these are easily some of the worst special effects I’ve seen all year. Yes, even considering the film I looked at yesterday, this is still worse: When you reach the point of over ten million dollars in your budget, this is more than a little ridiculous. Now, it’s a bit of a cliché in critical circles to instantly praise practical effects over CGI, and having a throwback to the rubber suit days of the monster isn’t that bad an idea in and of itself, but let’s face facts on this one. Godzilla, from the eternally bugged-out eyes to the children’s toy texturing, is pretty much impossible to take seriously despite how much havoc it causes. It seriously looks like a lost sketch from Robot Chicken, a notion that isn’t helped by the constant derp look on its face. Nishimura was in charge of the mold work here, and even within his realm, this is pretty below his abilities. And then there’s the CGI used during the fight scenes, namely to animate the fighter jets taking on the creature, and it’s here where we venture into legit Asylum territory. Like, one or the other would have been fine but trying to reconcile both just ends up with a visually wonky experience.

But, I’d be willing to look past that. After all, those cheesy Japanese movies that I listed at the start were hardly the pinnacles of technical wizardry. However, as I’ve said before about aesthetics in film, the PS2-era graphical fidelity of those films was matched by especially insane on-screen narrative and action. I mean, cyborg geisha assassin tank fighting a family castle turned giant robot is going to be a bizarre image regardless of how it is animated. However, those same B-movie design sensibilities don’t work nearly as well when you have a script that so endlessly takes itself seriously.

We’re supposed to be thinking about the horror that Godzilla is inflicting on the people of Japan and be on tenterhooks about how they plan to deal with said horror. And yet, in the few scenes that don’t involve people in office buildings talking back and forth (sometimes outright repeating previous dialogue), we see Barney The Dinosaur’s angry cousin stomping and charging through the city. It’s like watching a TV where the channels keep switching between The West Wing and The Giant Claw: It’s jarring and, because of the genuinely distracting tonal issues that the disconnect creates, kind of boring as well. Like, to the point where even the laughter value of the effects work gets washed away by it.

All in all, I’m not expecting this to connect with me as it would those in the film’s native audience; surely, there’s some cultural subtext that others could gleam from it that might make the experience worth it for them and good on them. Me personally, between the serious tonal issues, subpar effects work and just overall lack of engagement, there’s not a whole lot I can recommend here.

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