One of the greatest frustrations of mainstream cinema is when you watch a movie that could have been great, but it’s clear that the effort was entirely phoned in for box office. This happens a lot with franchise fare, where you can see the passion and creative drive wither away over multiple installments, and no continuing property is immune. Whether it’s Marvel, Star Wars, James Bond, or any number of others, after a while the phrase “diminishing returns” becomes the default state.
One of the worst offenders has been the Godzilla series, particularly American adaptations thereof. The Toho mainstay had a steady appeal for decades, even if the overall production quality of the series was low. Hell, in some cases the chintzy nature is part of the appeal. But ever since U.S. studios decided that they could profit off of it, the result has been one disappointment after another. The 1998 film produced by TriStar and directed by Roland Emmerich was so bad that it’s become a textbook example of mishandling IP, and Toho ended up branding all other associated projects under TriStar’s license as simply Zilla so as not to tarnish the giant nuclear dinosaur’s good name. After it expired, the domestic series was rebooted by Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros., who have also denigrated everything that made Godzilla (and King Kong by extension) enjoyable, with three films (and a fourth coming next year) filled to the brim with shoddy CGI, inane plotting, and annoying human characters. Even the one good entry, 2014’s Godzilla, still screwed the pooch a little bit by killing off Bryan Cranston halfway through and obscuring the monsters with mostly nighttime fights with bad lighting or cutting away at every exciting moment pre-climax.
The consternation stems from the fact that it’s really a simple prospect to make a fun and compelling film starring the titular lizard. Toho itself has had a critical and commercial resurgence with the character in recent years, with 2016’s Shin Godzilla setting a new standard of quality for the property. Seven years after that rousing success, director Takashi Yamazaki takes the torch from his predecessors and raises the bar yet again with Godzilla Minus One, quite possibly the best kaiju film ever made (and that is saying something), proving that all you need are a few basic elements in order for this to be an absolute feast for the senses.
Step 1: Make Godzilla Look Cool
Yamazaki’s first major success is in not hiding our monster from the eager viewer. The action begins quite early, on the fictional Odo Island, a naval outpost during World War II. In the final days of the conflict, when surrender is imminent for the Japanese forces, a solitary plane lands on the small remote isle, piloted by Kōichi Shikishima (an excellent performance from Suzume‘s Ryunosuke Kamiki). Sent on a kamikaze mission, it appears that Shikishima has diverted for repairs. The lead mechanic, Sōsaku Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki) is dubious of his reasoning, but sympathetic, so he’s invited to stay.
That night, Godzilla attacks, and his design is glorious. Even in a darkened scene, he’s lit perfectly, showing off the scars and scales of the massive beast, instilling deathly fear in all around him. Shikishima is tasked with running to his plane and firing the guns on him, but once in the cockpit, the pilot freezes in terror, watching helplessly as Godzilla smashes, slashes, and straight up eats everyone else on the island, save for Tachibana.
These brief opening minutes let the towering menace have more personality and do more damage than all the WB/Legendary pictures combined, and a lot of that is down to just how realistic he looks. The danger continues as he approaches Tokyo years later, returned to his classical role as a threat to the mainland, awakened by nuclear armaments testing. He of course still has his trademark atomic breath, but the moment builds up spectacularly, as his back spikes — which in an inspired touch look like decayed and scorched coral — rise up out of his spine and turn blue in a sequence running from his tail to the nape of his neck. Every person sitting in the theatre is properly poised for the moment that he erupts, and it never once feels like a letdown.
Step 2: Create Believable Stories
The plot surrounding the gargantuan reptile’s attack is basic but completely relatable. Once Shikishima returns to Tokyo after the war, he is shunned for not carrying out his duty. The old Peter Schickele bit about “Chicken Teriyaki” comes to mind in the abstract, but it’s clear that Shikishima carries a massive amount of survivor’s guilt for refusing to die for a lost cause. He comes home to find his house destroyed, his parents dead, and his closest neighbor, Sumiko (Sakura Ando) shaming him for his cowardice. By random chance, he meets a young woman named Noriko (Minami Hamabe) running through the streets carrying a baby named Akiko (eventually played by Sae Nagatani). Unrelated but both orphaned by the air raids that destroyed a good portion of the city, the pair make themselves at home with Shikishima, forming a makeshift family, though Kōichi does at least attempt to dissuade Akiko from referring to him as “daddy.”
Eventually, Kōichi gets a job on a small boat finding and exploding abandoned sea mines, which also helps to draw Godzilla’s attention. He makes fast friends with the ship’s captain Akitsu (Kuranosuke Sasaki), engineer Noda (Hidetaka Yoshioka), and first mate Saitō (Yuya Endo), referred to as “kid” because he’s young enough to have not been conscripted for the war. He begins to make a good life for himself, indirectly saving lives to make up for the ones he couldn’t on the island.
But still he can find no peace. He dreams nightly of his failure to act at the moment of truth. He’s haunted by the thoughts of the families torn apart by his indecision. Tachibana, in his post-rescue anger, forced Shikishima to take the photos of the mechanics who died on Odo, and he keeps them with him at all times, refusing to forgive himself for their loss. And all the while, the horrifying visage of Godzilla himself looms as an ever-present specter of death.
Despite the fantastical sci-fi elements, this is an eminently relatable story. We’ve seen tons of films and TV shows about PTSD and the struggle to move on from the Hell that is war. Godzilla is little more than a metaphor so huge you can’t ignore about the pain we carry with us from our deepest traumas. Shikishima’s story is about giving himself permission to live, to let go of his past and enjoy the second chance he’s gotten at life. All must die someday, but he is not obligated to sacrifice himself for nothing. Everyone around him, especially Noriko, understands this, and does their level best to get Kōichi to see it for himself. This is a story about healing, about learning from the mistakes of history, and about forging a better future. What’s more universal than that?
Step 3: Let Godzilla Fuck Shit Up!
My God the action set pieces in this are spectacular. From the opening attack on Odo, to Godzilla’s first landfall in Tokyo (which includes a fantastically silly but still awesome sequence with Noriko in danger inside a train car), to the climactic battle at sea where Shikishima must again face his demons by, well, facing a demon, every moment that Godzilla is on the screen is awash in dazzling displays of devastating destruction. The biggest change you’ll notice from the classic model is that his roar is much deeper than the usual high-pitched death rattle, but it’s still intimidating as hell, and if you’re in a large format theatre, it’ll probably rumble your chest.
While some of the effects look a bit too shiny at times to be completely realistic, they’re still executed masterfully, and where it counts, Yamazaki (who in addition to directing wrote the script and supervised the VFX) makes sure we feel the impact as viscerally as possible. The leveling of a building, the sinking of a ship, the cataclysmic wake of Godzilla’s breath attack, it’s all presented in incredible detail. Seeing his massive jaws instantly regenerate after suffering damage is about the most perfect example of his awesome power that I’ve ever seen. I genuinely got chills during the final fight where Kōichi uses a retrofitted bomber to lure Godzilla out to sea where a trap is waiting for him, watching as the monster swipes at him with its enormous claws or tries to bite him out of the sky.
And you know what’s really impressive about this? The entire budget for the movie was less than $15 million. Yeah. In addition to cast salaries, set construction, costuming, cameras, and all the other expenses of a huge film production, Yamazaki was able to create visuals this good for a fraction of what blockbusters cost over here. By contrast, Quantumania had a budget of $200 million and we still had to suffer through the abomination that was M.O.D.O.K. Think about that. I know effects artists are often overworked and underpaid, but even within that context, it’s the commitment to quality and good design that win the day. Marvel could have spent 1,000 times this movie’s budget on The Marvels, and it would still look like lazy cartoony shit by comparison. This is shortlisted for the Oscar for Visual Effects, and while I haven’t seen all 10 hopefuls ( Rebel Moon being the only one left), I feel pretty safe in saying that this should be the winner hands down.
That’s all there is to it. It really is that easy. All you need to make a great Godzilla flick is to make him look good, let him do his damage, and surround him with believable humans living a story we can buy as something other than total horseshit. That’s it! How is this so difficult for studios to understand? You ever watch a movie so good that it makes you angry? This is one of those times. To see Godzilla Minus One is to realize that it is not the least bit complicated to do justice to one of the most iconic characters in cinema history. The fact that the powers that be simply don’t care about that when dumping hot garbage on us is what makes its success so righteously infuriating. It can be done if someone just gives a damn about doing it right, and so many don’t. Thankfully, Yamazaki and company show that they very much do.
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