Godzilla will not die. Bullets plink off of it like raindrops. Plant a mine in its mouth, detonate it with a machine gun, and sure, you’ll blow half of its face off, but it will simply regenerate a new one a few moments later. Our desire to destroy it only seems to make it stronger.
GODZILLA MINUS ONE ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
So too Godzilla. The series of films featuring the scaly mountain-sized monster born from the atomic devastation of World War II has reached its 70th anniversary. It has survived technological advances that have gone well beyond a guy in a giant lizard suit, irony-armed jokesters who have spent decades lobbing cracks at Godzilla and its Kaiju cousins, and even the CGI-larded American iterations that have all but drained the joy out of the concept with blunt, un-nuanced spectacle.
Hell, during its opening weekend, the latest and most buzzed-about iteration of the franchise in a generation, Godzilla Minus One, went toe to toe with the Queen Bey herself, coming in an impressive third in the box office behind Beyoncé’s Renaissance and the latest Hunger Games movie; Godzilla Minus One‘s three-day gross of $11 million even set a U.S. record for a foreign language film.
One of the simplest ways to explain its unbreakable resilience over the decade is that the creature has maintained its status as cinema’s largest and greatest metaphor—rivaled only by the Great and Powerful Oz and “pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” That is certainly the case in the monster’s latest iteration, written and directed by Takashi Yamazaki, a seasoned special effects supervisor helming his 20th feature film.
Godzilla Minus One returns the metaphor to its original immediate post-war roots by telling the story of Shikishima (former child actor Ryunosuke Kamiki), a Kamikaze who did not complete his mission and who froze up when he had a chance to really put a hurt on Godzilla; the monster ends up slaughtering a battalion of mechanics on the small island of Odo. This time, Godzilla is a powerful symbol of the addictive pull of destruction, and how once unleashed, weapons of mass destruction can never again be contained.
The movie also serves as a powerful fable about the nature of regret and the manner in which survivor’s guilt metastasizes over time. Shikishima, who lost his parents in the Bombing of Tokyo and carries the family photos of the men killed at Odo like a crown of thorns, doesn’t marry and start a family in the manner of his post-war compatriots. Instead, he runs into Noriko (Japanese superstar Minami Hamabe) while she is caring for a baby she herself found abandoned. Like the clothes they wear and the ramshackle lean-to in which they initially live in a decimated city, their lives are patched together with shards and detritus of loss.
Yamazaki’s approach to bringing the giant to life—while done with CGI like the other Godzilla movies of the current generation—feels similarly piecemeal and handmade. It may not be a guy in a suit, but this lumpy Godzilla looks pleasingly terrestrial, like a toy played with too hard and left out in the rain. Even the strange spikes that protrude from its back (it must use these to navigate, as they seem useless as a weapon) have an organic quality, resembling the ice jutting out from an old freezer in need of a defrost.
As a result of the quaintness of Godzilla’s old wrestler’s gait and the finger-smudged quality of his presentation, when Yamazaki unleashes his monster’s heat-ray breath on the newly rebuilt Tokyo, the impact feels all that much more impactful—it’s like a Van Halen guitar solo in the middle of a recorder recital.
Coming some five months after this summer’s double-barreled glee of Barbie and Oppenheimer, Godzilla Minus One also serves as another post-pandemic reminder of not just how much fun it can be to see big movies in big theaters, but how essential these experiences can be in helping us making sense of our own world, itself constantly in the churn of unimaginable destruction. The film provides an all too necessary escape from, for example, the horrors of the ongoing tragedy in Gaza. But as you ruminate on it later, it provides another way to consider why we feel the overwhelming need to inflict so much misery on one another.
Movies and the moviegoing experience are like Shikishima, who over the course of time has come to see Noriko not as a charity case but the central love and focus of his life. When he meets her randomly on a Tokyo thoroughfare that is about to meet the full force of Godzilla’s wrath, he pulls her aside.
“Come with me if you want to live,” he says.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.