My 2016 in Film, Part One: Top Ten

20160804_152841.jpg

Earlier this month, critic David Ehrlich released his annual video list of his top 25 films of the year. To my chagrin, not only had I only seen one film on his list (Kubo and the Two Strings), I hadn’t even seen 25 films released in 2016 total. Of course, I’m not a professional critic, and I don’t have the opportunity to see films unless they’re in wide release or hit streaming/home video by the end of the year (with a few exceptions), but as someone who enjoys film and tries to come up with his own year-end wrap-ups, I try to see as many films as I can in a timely manner. I’ve managed to do some catching up (and I did end up seeing more than 25 movies from this year), but as usual the following observations are based on my rather selective and scattershot viewing. (One thing I did this year for the first time was keep a list of every film I saw, new or old, which has made it easier to remember what I saw way back in January; tomorrow I’ll review some of my favorite non-2016 discoveries.)

Since a large portion of the new films I saw this year were wide release blockbusters and family movies, it’s worth noting just how many of this year’s films were part of series or franchises: the Marvel films Captain America: Civil War and Doctor Strange; the Harry Potter spinoff/prequel Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; and additions to the Star Wars, Godzilla, and Phantasm canons, among others. That’s not unusual: sequels and franchises have been common for years, although it seemed even more pronounced this year. Many of the sequels that came out this year (not all of which I saw) bombed, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with series. I enjoy catching up with familiar characters and settings as much as the next audience member, and new installments of ongoing series were among my favorites this year. (As always, I’m basing my list on US release dates.)

lovefriendship

10. Love & Friendship (Whit Stillman)
Based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Kate Beckinsale plays the scheming widow with a mixture of calculation and blasé wit for which Stillman’s brand of dry humor is perfect. Tom Bennett (as the empty-headed Sir James) is very funny in this and well deserves the accolades that have greeted his performance.

hailcaesar

9. Hail, Caesar! (Ethan Coen and Joel Coen)
On the surface, the Coens’ homage to Golden Age Hollywood is a trifle, a light-hearted spoof and celebration of the studio system that had previously crushed Barton Fink’s spirit. The plot (in the loosest sense of the word) consists of several vignettes tied together by their connection to studio head Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) as he attempts to put out one fire after another in a typical day. The most worrisome is the kidnapping of leading man Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of the Biblical epic that gives the film its name. While I found Hail, Caesar! entertaining enough while I was watching it (and the film is lots of fun, packing an all-star cast into witty recreations of musicals, Westerns, Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming, and “women’s pictures”), it also felt a little slight. But Mannix’s defense of show business (against the materialism of both Communist rhetoric and a Lockheed executive attempting to lure Mannix to a position in the “real world”) has stuck with me, and is typical of the Coens’ habit of packaging serious messages in comedies that go down easily.

thevvitch

8. The Witch (Robert Eggers)
Subtitled “A New-England Folktale,” The Witch is a spooky distillation of Puritan fears of devilry and witchcraft, with a single family isolated in the woods illustrating the growth of a panic in microcosm. Are the glimpses of Satanic forces, exemplified by the unmanageable goat Black Phillip, signs of genuine witchery, or are they merely the fervid imaginings of eldest daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy in a haunting performance)? Like the best horror, the answer is less important than what it reveals about the character of the family members as they retreat into religious faith, run off into the woods, or turn against each other.

pee-wee

7. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (John Lee)
As I wrote in my review back in March, “Like many modern reboots and revivals of old properties, this ‘comeback’ is packed with nostalgic callbacks and Easter eggs, remixing an older story by sprinkling in familiar themes, character types, and imagery to summon up the old magic. . . . I’m probably too close to tell you whether this is a fans-only proposition, but as a fan, I liked it.” While the callbacks to the original were the weakest part of this year’s Ghostbusters reboot, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday proved that it is possible for the formula to work, at least as long as you’ve got super-cool Joe Manganiello providing a foil for Paul Reubens’ antic, childlike character. (Come to think of it, Chris Hemsworth was the funniest part of Ghostbusters: maybe 2016 was secretly the year of hunky, bromantic scene-stealers?) One statement I made in my review, that “Unlike Paul Reubens, Pee-wee himself hasn’t aged a day,” deserves to be explored: I didn’t realize when I wrote that just how much technological assistance was involved in rewinding a couple of decades of aging, but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, given the ubiquity of CGI these days. In any case, Pee-wee’s digital facelift was less distracting and disturbing than the CGI resurrection of long-dead Peter Cushing in Rogue One (a movie I liked, but yeesh).

neondemon

6. The Neon Demon (Nicolas Winding Refn)
An aspiring model (Elle Fanning) arrives in L.A. and discovers just how cutthroat the business can be in this stylish thriller. I just saw this one, so I’m still digesting it, but on a first pass I loved the visuals and Cliff Martinez’s electronic score; I wish I’d had the opportunity to see The Neon Demon on the big screen, but even at home it was electrifying. However, it took a while to win me over, as it was hard to shake the impression that I was seeing ideas and stylistic flourishes that had been done before by David Lynch, Ridley Scott, and Dario Argento. A grisly turn in the last twenty minutes took me by surprise and elevated the whole affair by recontextualizing much of what came before, so I have a feeling this is a film that will play very differently for me on a rewatch.

zootopia

5. Zootopia (Byron Howard, Rich Moore, and Jared Bush)
Immersive, three-dimensional computer animation has its drawbacks: not every setting can stand up to the scrutiny invited by nearly photorealistic animation, nor live up to the standards of internal logic set by Pixar. This year’s Zootopia is a positive example, however, of the tendency to build worlds in a comprehensive way, a dazzling and thought-provoking allegory of modern race-relations and identity politics laid over a clever extrapolation of the “funny animals” that are one of the most venerable pieces of Disney’s heritage. After idealistic rabbit Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) joins the police force, having fought against (cuddly, nonthreatening) stereotypes her whole life, she is forced into a begrudging partnership with the hustling Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a (sly, predatory) fox, and learns to confront some of her own internal prejudices. The parallels to real-world issues are unmistakable, but Zootopia’s heavier moments are supported by a well-oiled action comedy with riffs on Chinatown, 48 Hrs., and The Godfather (and even a nod to Breaking Bad). Most fun of all is the multilayered title city, with its ethnic enclaves for different types (and sizes) of animals, somehow finding ways to live in harmony.

lovewitch

4. The Love Witch (Anna Biller)
The first time I saw the trailer for The Love Witch, I was unsure if it was a new movie or the latest rerelease of an obscure exploitation film. Even after seeing it, I’m impressed at the attention to detail writer-director-designer Anna Biller brought to her feminist-themed parody/homage of early 1970s softcore. Elaine (Samantha Robinson) uses spells and charms to win the hearts of a series of men, but they can’t fill the hole in her heart, even as she drives them to their deaths. (Robinson’s matter-of-fact voice-overs, revealing the gap between Elaine’s perceptions and external reality, brought to mind Election, another bone-dry comedy about feminine striving.) Wryly ironic and reveling in its artificiality (channeling Joe Sarno and Russ Meyer as well as the Gothic chic and hip Satanism of Hammer horror), The Love Witch could have perhaps better emulated the brevity of its inspirations, but like The Neon Demon it’s eye-poppingly colorful and turns its genre’s assumptions upside-down (and this one I did get to see in the theater thanks to a limited release in Wichita).

wilderpeople

3. Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Taika Waititi)
Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows was my favorite film of last year, and while Hunt for the Wilderpeople is more down to earth, it is no less warm and funny. Wannabe gangster Ricky (Julian Dennison) and his reluctant foster father Hec (Sam Neill) find themselves on the run together in the “majestical” New Zealand bush after a series of misunderstandings. That these two lost souls will come to understand and support each other through their adventure is a given, but the movie never feels formulaic, a credit to both Waititi’s knack for making unusual choices in staging and music, as well as the humanity Dennison and Neill bring to their characters. (Props also to Rachel House, who is hilarious in a potentially one-note role as an overeager Child Welfare officer.)

shingodzilla2

2. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi)
In October, I wrote that Shin Godzilla, the first new Japanese Godzilla movie since 2004, “is a worthy successor to the legacy of the King of the Monsters, balancing its weighty political themes with incredible spectacle and an exciting scientific race against time.” I stand by my original review, but reading other viewers’ responses to the movie, it became clear to me that I underestimated how much humor is in the movie (as the heroic bureaucrat Yaguchi ascends ranks, the onscreen captions listing his titles become longer and longer, until the bulk of the screen is filled with text, for one example), caught up as I was in that spectacle. I have so far only seen Shin Godzilla once, but like most of the films I’m highlighting this year, it’s one I hope to return to in order to pick up more of its nuances.

cloverfieldlane

1. 10 Cloverfield Lane (Dan Trachtenberg)
As I wrote in October, I only caught up with 2008’s Cloverfield this year, but it was one of the best movies I saw that month. This year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane isn’t exactly a sequel, but is rather a free-standing story with a completely different set of characters, only loosely connected (if at all) to the first film. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) loses consciousness in a late-night car wreck, only to awaken in the underground shelter of Howard (John Goodman), who informs her that an attack on the United States has left the surface uninhabitable. Whether she likes it or not, she’s stuck in the bunker with the paranoid Howard and his good-ol’-boy handyman, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.). Michelle is understandably skeptical of Howard and his motives, but this tightly-plotted thriller kept me guessing with twists and turns (and powerful lead performances by Goodman and Winstead) up until the very end.

bvsuperman

Worst movie: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Zack Snyder)
Complaining about this one almost feels like piling on at this point, but I can’t help it: leaving aside the humorless, sociopathic interpretation of its “heroes,” Dawn of Justice is a cluttered, kludged-together mess of a movie that would make even less sense to anyone who had never heard of Batman or Superman. I won’t deny that Snyder attempted to make some serious points about hero-worship and the burden of power, but every time I’m tempted to give credit for its ambition, or for good points like its introduction of Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, the best part of the movie), I remember the nonsensical nightmare sequence (Sucker Punch starring Batman, i.e. the movie I suspect Snyder really wanted to make) or the plot-stopping interlude that serves only to introduce the members of the future Justice League. The result is a sprawling contraption designed primarily as a launchpad for future DC comic book movies. And I like comic book movies!
(P.S. I didn’t see Suicide Squad.)

yogahosers2

Dumbest movie that I will almost assuredly watch again: Yoga Hosers (Kevin Smith)
I actually had some hope for this one, against all reason to be optimistic: I liked Tusk, imperfect as it was, and this follow-up put the two Colleens (Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp, seen briefly in the first movie) front and center, facing off against living Nazi bratwursts in a convenience store. Perhaps it’s my affection for movies that take goofy premises and play them out to their logical ends, or perhaps I was hoping for something like The Gate or Freaked!: kid-friendly horror comedies that knew just how ludicrous they were and leaned into it. Or maybe it had just been a while since I’d treated myself to something so shameless. (A rip-off of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gremlins? With Nazis? Sign me up!) I’d have a hard time recommending the result, a comedy of cod-Canadianness so dopey it makes Bob and Doug McKenzie look subtle, but I would have loved it when I was 13, and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t watch it again. The two Colleens have a fun, snarky chemistry that reminds me of why Smith’s Clerks was so refreshing way back when; Justin Long as a seedy storefront guru makes me laugh; and I can even put up with the return of Johnny Depp’s Clouseau-like Guy LaPointe, who has a few choice lines about his attempts to cash in after solving the case of the “Winnipeg Walrus” in Tusk. You know what this means, right? I’m obligated to see the final installment of the trilogy, Moose Jaws (like Jaws, but with a moose), when it comes out.

Movies I didn’t get to but which probably would have been in the running: Green Room, Swiss Army Man, Arrival, Moana, La La Land, The Handmaiden, too many to name, really

Monstober 2016

mural at 1st and Hillside in Wichita, artists unknown

Mural at 1st and Hillside in Wichita, artists unknown


Since for the last couple of years I’ve kept track of my October viewing and written about it, I’ve gotten in the habit of setting aside movies to watch during the Halloween season. I don’t set a strict schedule, since the odds are against me being able to keep it anyway, and I like to make choices as my mood strikes me, but I did have a stack of movies I had planned on getting to in October. However, once things came together to make October “kaiju month,” even those loose plans went out the window and I ended up spending the first half of the month watching monster movies, many of which are only nominally horror.

That’s OK: as I’ve said before, I’m not a “Shocktober” purist, and I cast a pretty wide net to include science fiction, fantasy and genre pictures during this month. But it did make my list pretty monster-heavy, and as you’ll see I ended up waiting until later in the month to get a very consistent “Halloween” vibe going. In any case, I got my fill of movies this month: at 37 films, including only three I’d seen before, I exceeded last year’s total of 31 movies. (It didn’t hurt that the movies I watched were shorter on average than in previous years, many under 90 minutes). This included several classics I was watching for the first time, as well as a few new releases.

1. Spirits of the Dead (Roger Vadim, Louis Malle, and Federico Fellini, 1968)
2. All Monsters Attack aka Godzilla’s Revenge (Ishiro Honda, 1969)
minilla
3. Son of Godzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1967)
4. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) *
5. Halloween III: Season of the Witch (Tommy Lee Wallace, 1982) *
6. Rodan (Ishiro Honda, 1956)
7. Destroy All Monsters (Ishiro Honda, 1968)
8. Phantasm (Don Coscarelli, 1979) *, r
9. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Yoshimitsu Banno, 1971)
10. Godzilla vs. Gigan (Jun Fukuda, 1972)
11. Godzilla vs. Megalon (Jun Fukuda, 1973)
12. Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (Jun Fukuda, 1974)
13. Terror of Mechagodzilla (Ishiro Honda, 1975)
14. Phantasm II (Don Coscarelli, 1988)
15. Phantasm: Ravager (David Hartman, 2016) *
16. Shin Godzilla (Hideaki Anno and Shinji Higuchi, 2016) *
17. It’s Alive! (Larry Cohen, 1974)
18. Cloverfield (Matt Reeves, 2008)
19. The Witch’s Mirror (El espejo de la bruja) (Chano Urueta, 1962)
20. The Curse of the Crying Woman (La Maldicion de la Llorona) (Rafael Baledón, 1963)
lallorona1
21. Ghostbusters (Paul Feig, 2016) *
22. Dragon Wars: D-War (Hyung-rae Shim, 2007)
23. Night of the Lepus (William F. Claxton, 1972)
24. Mystics in Bali (H. Tjut Djalil, 1981)
25. The Giant Claw (Fred F. Sears, 1957) r
26. Daigoro vs. Goliath (Toshihiro Iijima, 1972)
27. Hocus Pocus (Kenny Ortega, 1993)
28. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (Takao Okawara, 1995)
29. The ‘Burbs (Joe Dante, 1989)
30. Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (Ted V. Mikels, 1973)
31. How to Make a Monster (Herbert L. Strock, 1958)
32. The Baby (Ted Post, 1973)
33. Hotel Transylvania (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2012) *
34. Hotel Transylvania 2 (Genndy Tartakovsky, 2015) *
35. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
36. Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962) r
37. Night Train to Terror (John Carr, Phillip Marshak, Tom McGowan, Jay Schlossberg-Cohen, and Greg Tallas, 1985)
night-train

* theatrical screening
r repeat viewing

(Sorry, no elaborate key to themes and images this year–maybe next time.)

david-pumpkins1

I also watched a few short films that don’t really fit on the list: a pair of shorts on superstitions, Who’s Superstitious? from 1943 and Black Cats and Broomsticks from 1955 (both aired earlier this month on TCM); It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (an annual viewing with the family, of course); Tom Hanks as David S. Pumpkins on Saturday Night Live; and assorted bumpers and trailers, not to mention this creepy Japanese Kleenex commercial.

Best movie: I saw several good films this month, but picking one that stands above the rest is more difficult than in previous years. Two of the films that gave me the most pleasure are rewatches: Phantasm and Carnival of Souls. (As an aside, the similarities between the two films are obvious when watched in close proximity: both obey the non sequitur logic of dreams or nightmares, and both feature protagonists menaced by suit-wearing older men who are apt to pop up at the most frightening moments. Upon seeing Phantasm for the first time last year, I had connected it to the dream-like disconnected narrative of Italian horror, but it seems possible that Carnival of Souls–itself an Americanization of Bergman and other European influences–also informed it. It’s also probably not a coincidence that both films had two of the best scores I heard this month: I’m jamming out to the Phantasm soundtrack right now, in fact.)

I liked most of the Godzilla movies I watched this month, as well, not only the “serious” ones but also the goofier entries with Megalon and the like (heck, I even enjoyed the very silly Daigoro vs. Goliath). I think my favorites were the two Mechagodzilla films, which balanced the campier elements of the Godzilla mythos (robots, space aliens) with the heavier themes of the more serious films: sacrifice, tradition, and kaiju as guardian spirits.

mechagodzilla

Ultimately, my pick for best first-time viewing is Shin Godzilla. Perhaps I was simply primed by all that Godzilla-watching leading up to it, but the experience of seeing Shin Godzilla in a theater packed with fans (the first Godzilla movie I’d seen in a theater since Godzilla 1985–no, I didn’t even get to see Roland Emmerich’s or Gareth Edwards’ films in theaters) was a high point of the month.

Worst movie: I watched a few clunkers this month, partly as a result of my search for the silliest giant movie monsters, but you also just never really know what will work for you until you pull the trigger. Dragon Wars: D-War, which didn’t make the silly monster list (the movie is ridiculous, but the monsters for the most part aren’t), was a famously terrible flop when it was released, but as janky as it was it also held my attention (its worst sins are convoluted, front-loaded exposition and an over-reliance on CGI, as if the filmmakers had learned the wrong lessons from the Star Wars prequels). Night Train to Terror, an anthology, almost lost me completely in its first segment, but recovered in the second and third parts with some charmingly primitive stop-motion monster effects (this short review of the Blu-ray release goes into more detail and explains why it took five directors to make this mess!).

Of the Godzilla movies I watched in the first part of the month, Son of Godzilla was my least favorite, with its emphasis on the uncomfortably squishy “baby Godzilla,” Minilla (yes, I even enjoyed the oft-maligned Attack All Monsters more than Son of Godzilla; at least Attack All Monsters has a definite point of view and some creative staging).

blood-orgy

However, I have to give the edge to Blood Orgy of the She-Devils. It’s a coincidence that I watched my first film from director Ted V. Mikels the same month that he passed away (I had bought the disc last month). As much as I hate to speak ill of the dead, the movie failed to deliver on its awesome title and was not only disappointingly tame, it was, even worse, boring. I’m told that this is typical of Mikels’ work, which is too bad.

Scariest movie: Well, did you see that Japanese Kleenex commercial?

kleenex

But seriously: I’ve written before about how easily scared I was as a kid, and how that’s left me playing catch-up with a lot of classic horror that I probably should have seen sooner. That’s how I ended up seeing The Exorcist for the first time this year, and you know what? After expecting the “scariest film of all time,” I just didn’t find it that scary. How can any film live up to a reputation like that? It probably didn’t help that The Exorcist has been so frequently referenced and parodied that I felt like I had already seen many of its most famous set pieces. Having said that, it was an excellent film, deserving of its reputation. It’s a great drama about faith and loss, with a lot of spooky atmosphere, but I couldn’t help but feel that it wasn’t really even trying to be the film I had been led to expect. Probably if I had seen it at a younger age it would have had more of an effect on me.

cloverfield_theatrical_poster

So what did scare me this month? “Toby Dammit,” Federico Fellini’s segment of Spirits of the Dead, had some eerie visual shocks, as did The Curse of the Crying Woman (the title character’s eyeless appearance is pretty creepy) and Phantasm II, but I think the most consistently tense and viscerally scary movie I watched this month is director Matt Reeves’ and writer Drew Goddard’s found-footage monster movie update Cloverfield. The immediacy of the found-footage device (a gimmick I’m not usually fond of) gives the audience the sense of being on the ground during a giant monster attack on New York City, the kind of scene that is usually visualized from afar (the story contrives to get the characters briefly onto a helicopter so we can get the kind of wide shot of the monster we’re used to seeing in films like this, but for the most part the handheld camera footage feels very naturalistic). In addition to the scenes of citywide destruction, there are sequences in subway tunnels underground that are extremely creepy, as the characters are stalked and attacked by the spider-like parasites that have dropped from the main beast. Finally, the circumstances by which the camera is recovered imply a government-conspiracy backstory to the events that is anything but reassuring. In fact, you know what? Maybe this is the best movie I saw this month (non-Godzilla category, anyway).

Funniest movie: The original Ghostbusters is one of my all-time favorites, but I was never a fan of its sequel or the spin-off cartoon series. It was pretty much just the first film, a unique blend of irreverent humor and special effects-driven action, and even then it wasn’t scary to me. So I wasn’t offended by the release of the controversial female-led remake this year, but I also didn’t have high hopes that it would recapture what I loved about the original. The new film was, when I finally saw it, quite enjoyable, even if not everything landed. If anything, I found the callbacks and reminders of the first film more annoying than affectionate: the pleasure of seeing the proton packs back in action, wielded by a new generation of characters, should have been enough. However, I won’t deny that it made me laugh; I’m comfortable saying that it is easily my second-favorite Ghostbusters film. (It was also interesting to see the movie, a summer blockbuster like the original, during the fall, and place it in the context of other supernatural “scary” movies: it works decently on that count, especially early on, but like many horror movies it becomes less rather than more frightening as the threat becomes known and it barrels towards the big climax.)

hotel-transylvania

Even funnier, however, was a film that took me by surprise: Hotel Transylvania, an animated film about Adam Sandler as Dracula, faced with the prospect of his daughter growing up and yearning to explore the world of humans, from which Dracula and his monster pals have been hiding for over a century. Nothing about that description, or the ads that were ubiquitous when the movie was released, made me want to see it, but I ended up enjoying it a great deal, laughing at Genndy Tartakovsky’s expressively cartoony animation style and the many sight gags and running jokes, and the story was actually rather touching.

Weirdest movie: As mentioned, Phantasm and Carnival of Souls are “classically” weird, and I would also put Halloween III in that category, combining as it does elements of horror and science fiction in a story that touches on many qualities of both fairy tale and nightmare. But there are movies that have weird stories, and there are movies whose entire existence seems unlikely: the weirdness is in their conception, leading not to questions like “what does this mean?” or “wait, was Ellie a robot the whole time, or what?” but to questions like “how did this get made in the first place?” and “how can I make sure I don’t meet any of these people in real life?”

the-baby

Such was my response to The Baby, the 1973 cult oddity about a social worker confronting a family whose twenty-something son has remained in an infantile state, pre-verbal, crawling, and wearing a diaper. Is he genuinely developmentally disabled, or is he being kept from growing by his domineering mother and stepsisters? Does the effect he has on women stem from something missing in their own lives, or is he capable of adult urges? Frequently disturbing, the movie subverted my expectations at every turn, right down to an ending that was head-smackingly obvious but which I still didn’t see coming. If I had to explain this movie, I would say “only in the ’70s.”

Goriest movie: Night Train to Terror (another candidate for “weirdest movie”) was by far the most graphic and bloody film I watched this month, and despite its deficiencies in other areas, I can’t deny that it delivers the kind of macabre violence–slashings, beheadings, and dismemberments, along with more exotic causes of death such as electrocution and exploding head (sorry, “catastrophic head injury”)–one associates with Halloween thrills. I don’t have much stomach for gore, but fortunately Night Train is a pretty cheap movie, and so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take seriously.

That’s it for this year: maybe I’ll keep watching horror movies through November and work through the stockpile of movies I didn’t watch this month, or maybe I’ll end up saving some for next year. But now I have some important candy to eat business to attend to. Happy Halloween!

david-pumpkins2

Any questions?

Review: Shin Godzilla

shin-godzilla

By now it is commonplace to observe that apocalypse figures so largely in Japanese science fiction because Japan is literally a post-apocalyptic society: the many scenes of civilians evacuating their homes or running from disasters in Japanese cinema are drawn from cultural memory, and frequently add pathos and potency to premises that might seem silly if the focus wasn’t kept so clearly on the people they affect. Shin Godzilla (aka Godzilla Resurgence), the first of a new series starring the venerable monster, keeps the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki front and center, along with echoes of 9/11 and the Fukushima meltdown. Written and directed by Hideaki Anno, it’s not quite as somber as Gareth Edwards’ American Godzilla of 2014, but it’s a serious film: there is none of the kid-friendly pro-wrestling action of the Showa series or the overstuffed craziness of the last Japanese Godzilla, 2004’s Final Wars. The only friendly-yet-sinister aliens in Shin Godzilla are the Americans who promise military aid when Godzilla lays waste to Tokyo, but with strings attached; and will their proposed solution be worse than Godzilla himself?

Shin Godzilla‘s tone is dry, sometimes documentary-like, complete with captions identifying speaking characters (almost entirely professionals: politicians, scientists, military, and first responders) and found footage. The approach is fitting for the story, which centers on an aspiring pol named Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) who fights against both the sclerotic bureaucracy of Japanese government (so concerned with adhering to protocol and passing the buck that little gets done, especially early on) and the machinations of the American and other international forces (whose interest in Godzilla includes the scientific knowledge to be discovered in his unique biology, as well as the economic and military leverage they can exert over Japan).

Yaguchi, young and headstrong, assembles a team of “lone wolves” from all disciplines to stop Godzilla, and their work as a team of equals is an obvious contrast to the hidebound cabinet surrounding the Prime Minister (Ren Ohsugi). Numerous montages of Yaguchi’s team in action borrow the language of low-angle shots, quick cuts, and wicked guitar riffs seen in commercials for businesses that sell “solutions.” The film is thus essentially a procedural, following a combination of political, military, and scientific campaigns, part The War Room and part Apollo 13. The older generation of politicians is represented as well-meaning but too set in their ways to effect much change, and change is what is needed: to stop Godzilla, and to solve the larger problem of Japan’s cultural and economic stagnation. The Americans (including a Japanese-American aide played by Satomi Ishihara) are not portrayed as harshly as, say, the Americans in Joon Ho Bong’s brilliant Korean monster movie The Host, but the Japanese view of America as perpetually occupying or dominating Japan is made quite clear (“The post-war goes on forever,” Yaguchi observes at one point).

Even the naming rights to the monster take on international dimensions: one of the few moments of comic relief involves the difference between the Japanese name “Gojira” and the Americanized “Godzilla,” a sometimes-contentious subject among fans. And speaking of unintentional comedy, Shin Godzilla‘s occasional forays into English dialogue are . . . idiosyncratic, to say the least (one American scientist casually drops “Our nuclear wisdom will be mankind’s savior” into a conversation, which got a few chuckles, from me at least).

That dry tone makes the scenes of destruction all the more shocking when they do occur. Godzilla’s arrival begins with a mysterious eruption in Tokyo Bay that closes down an underwater tunnel and sends geysers of steam skyward. After a series of inconclusive committee meetings, a huge (and supremely weird) amphibious animal appears and waddles on to land, plowing through a river full of boats and streets full of cars, pushing them out of the way as if they were toys. The reassuring evaluation by scientific consultants (as well as the extended treatment of Godzilla’s radioactive metabolism) show the influence of Darren Naish and other “speculative biologists,” if only to tweak their assumptions: the amphibious creature could never support its weight on land . . . until it does. A creature of its size would be unable to metabolize enough oxygen to live . . . unless it were a living nuclear reactor! It’s not even clear at first that the creature is Godzilla: this version of the famous kaiju takes on multiple forms, “evolving” like a Pokémon as it gathers energy.

In his final form, Godzilla has the familiar thick-legged outline (but with tiny, tyrannosaur-like arms and a long tail), but his hide is creased with red lines where he glows from within, giving him a demonic, flayed appearance. Finish the design off with beady, inexpressive eyes (“like a doll’s eyes”) and you have a terrifying (and fantastically huge) take on the character, a perfect update of the original Godzilla‘s vision of the monster as enigmatic, unknowable being and force of nature. Extrapolating on the creature’s radioactive origin and fiery breath, Anno comes up with some truly devastating applications, including focused beams (from Godzilla’s mouth and dorsal spines) that are more like lasers than flame-throwers. The result of Godzilla unleashing this force in the middle of Tokyo at night makes for a tense and unnervingly one-sided battle against military helicopters. The resulting irradiation of parts of the city, and the serious issues of when and how to evacuate civilians, raise echoes of the long displacement that followed the tidal wave and meltdown in Fukushima (like the scenes of evacuating crowds, clips of civilians in long-term shelters strike a deeper chord than they might if they only sprang from the screenwriter’s imagination).

As far as the production goes, Shin Godzilla has the most seamless mixture of CGI and practical effects I have yet seen, comparable only to Edwards’ film (and for the record, Anno isn’t nearly as stingy with footage of the monster as Edwards was); the sound design puts viewers right in the middle of the action (particularly in the theater), and it’s gratifying to hear passages from Akira Ifukube’s original Godzilla music on the soundtrack. Shin Godzilla is a worthy successor to the legacy of the King of the Monsters, balancing its weighty political themes with incredible spectacle and an exciting scientific race against time.