By Brad SunA thought occurred to me about thirty minutes into my viewing of Shin Godzilla. What if Neon Genesis Evangelion, writer and co-director Hideaki Anno’s iconic and omnipresent anime franchise, was not his definitive masterpiece? What if it was all just research and preparation for this, the ultimate realization of his glorious kaiju vision? While that’s probably not quite the case, it doesn’t make Shin Godzilla any less of an audacious, confounding, and absolutely electrifying cinematic achievement.

A fresh new start for the franchise, Shin Godzilla begins with government officials responding to a relatively minor tunnel collapse that quickly escalates into the full scale citywide destruction we all know is inevitable. During these fast paced moments of behind the scenes government bureaucracy and fly-on-the-wall realism, I was reminded of Paul Greengrass’ United 93, which chronicled the events of 9/11 from the perspective of the air traffic controllers breathlessly trying to make sense of the alarming events unfolding around them. As in that film, the audience knows more than the players on the screen, and anticipation and dramatic tension is built by bracing for what we know is moments away… that is, until we’re proven wrong.

The first real onscreen shot of Godzilla drew audible gasps of surprise and confusion from the audience at my screening. It’s a gloriously bizarre and unexpected moment that let us know we were in store for a brazenly expectation-defying movie. Indeed, despite its many homages and borrowed musical cues from both the original 1954 film and Evangelion, Shin Godzilla is (excuse the pun) very much its own beast.

Anno and Shinji Higuchi direct the hell out of this flick, throwing every trick in the book at the screen to make the most riveting depictions of old men hemming and hawing about press conferences imaginable. We cut from news footage to YouTube clips to soaring panoramic shots. Rapid fire words and text assault the senses. Dialogue carries from one scene to the next in scattered fragments and rhythmic repetition.

Sometimes played as a straight political thriller, but more often as satire, the seemingly never ending boardroom meetings and egghead theorizing continuously build up tension, then release it in well placed splashes of humor. Even as Shin Godzilla, like its flawed but admirable 2014 American counterpart, aims to bring a sense of modern realism to the franchise, it’s not afraid to have fun along the way, especially when Godzilla finally begins his slow, unstoppable march towards the fist-pumping military showdown we’ve all been craving. Set to Sagisu Shirou’s majestic score, all of this mayhem culminates in arguably the awesomest (as in awe-inspiring) moment in Godzilla history. (Trust me, you’ll know it when you see it.)

Image: Toho

Image: Toho

If this is where the movie ended, I would have dubbed it “thrilling popcorn perfection” and left the theater thoroughly satisfied. But Shin Godzilla has loftier ambitions. The second half forgoes the snappy editing for a slower, reflective pace that at times threatens to become tedious. But then again, this film wasn’t made for me. It’s really for the Japanese audience still living in the shadow of Fukushima and the Tōhoku tsunami, not to mention the enduring scars of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This tension is made literal as American-led foreign powers push for swift, decisive action while the Japanese beg for more time, if only to mourn and make peace with what’s to come.

Portrayed with alternating feelings of disdain and admiration for its diplomatic power and military might, it is the United States that plays the part of the second (and potentially more destructive) monster in this film. In Shin Godzilla, nature’s monstrous revenge has never seemed more unstoppable, nor mankind so impotent. That Anno was able to bring a new urgency to this half-century old franchise — to take the deep horror and perverse thrill of watching your homeland destroyed again and again and make it utterly modern and relevant — is perhaps his most impressive achievement.

Fittingly, the movie concludes with one last subversive curveball. It’s a hopeful yet ominous note that, yes, serves as a setup for sequels, but also works as a perfectly fitting ending in itself. Pettiness, despair, and fear can never truly be conquered, says Anno. And there will always be awesome forces beyond our control, or even comprehension. But these terrors can at least, for a time, be held at bay. They can be suspended, momentarily overcome. Ideally, this is accomplished when we’re united together, but if need be, those forces can be overcome courageously on our own.

In Godzilla we trust. Forever and ever. Amen.

Directed by Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi

Produced by Toho Pictures and Cine Bazar.

Distributed by Toho.

Screenplay by Hideaki Anno.

Starring Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, and Satomi Ishihara.

Not Rated, but you likely know exactly what’s up.

10 out of 10