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Japan is plunged into chaos upon the appearance of a giant monster.

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Shin Godzilla movie full length review - It's Not About Godzilla

In 2004, after 28 films spanning 50 years, Toho Studios put the juggernaut Godzilla franchise on mothballs indefinitely, leaving lifelong fans such as myself in limbo as to whether we'd ever see our favorite lizard king rise again.

So when word about "Shin Godzilla" began to circulate, I was well stoked. Twelve years is a long time to wait for a resurfacing of my favorite monster, and the good news is that "Shin Godzilla" delivers the goods.

I was fortunate to take in a screening of Toho's rebooted Godzilla last night. The film held more than a few surprises and is something of a fresh take on the execution of a Godzilla film, yet it honors its ancestors, to the point that much of the original "Gojira" music and sound effects are present and unmolested. On the surface, "Shin Godzilla" is a fairly standard entry into the franchise: Godzilla rises from the depths; Godzilla stomps Tokyo and smashes army ordnance like toys; Godzilla is ultimately defeated by unconventional means, owning to the ingenuity of our protagonist (not always the outcome - in some films, Godzilla wins). But Godzilla himself is only incidental to the proceedings. "Shin Godzilla" is really about the decline of Japan. It's the filmmaker's polemic on what's wrong with the Land of the Rising Sun, and what needs to change so that it may have a future. Politics have often played a part in Godzilla movies, but this newest entry may be one of the most political of the bunch since the original "Gojira".

This is in evidence from the opening moments of the film. Godzilla's first appearances are met with bureaucratic near-gridlock: legions of decrepit ministers and cabinet members shuffle from one meeting to the next, engaged in endless discussions over the problem while accomplishing nothing; outside the monster lays waste to large swaths of the city. The movie freely mocks these elected leaders and their obsession with minutiae and decorum. The official titles of the countless bureaucrats we meet are scrolled across the screen constantly, as if it mattered to anyone. Every meeting (and there are so, so many) is given an official title, also displayed on screen, as are the names given to projects, initiatives, reports and other documents, generated furiously by these mostly old men and women who sit in government offices and ponder how to respond in accordance with policy while Japan burns. In one scene, we watch the Prime Minister sit stone faced, waiting for news which he can clearly hear to be relayed down the table bucket-brigade style, until it reaches the correct person in the room, who may then communicate it to him.

Struggling through all this dysfunction is our protagonist, a younger, junior-level staff member whose impatience and frustration with the inaction among his higher-ups propels the story forward. At one point, he vents aloud about the destruction sustained while his so-called superiors debated policy, and is quickly warned to check his cockiness. He is eventually able to assemble a team of mostly young nonconformists from various scientific disciplines, who work tirelessly towards an ingenious solution to neutralize the threat of Godzilla. In every way this group is the exact opposite of the rigid and stagnating body that governs them, and the filmmaker takes great pains to make this clear.

When the UN passes a resolution authorizing the US to drop a nuclear warhead on Tokyo to destroy Godzilla, the elder guard seems grudgingly resigned to their fate. Our young hero and his allies conspire to prevent the blast in a desperate effort to buy just a bit more time so they may deploy their non-destructive solution. The layers of subtext are deep in this act: the impotence of once-proud Japan, the humiliation of its failure, the still-painful scars of its past (particular as it relates to atomic weaponry and civilian casualties), the resentment directed at other nations that presume to seal its fate - everything is in play. Godzilla is merely a plot device here. The real drama lies elsewhere.

In the end, there's a message of hope: Japan's 20th century ascension was the product of "scrap and build"; if it worked before, it can work again, with the bright and optimistic youth of our protagonist at the helm. The filmmaker clearly believes that the children of Japan are its future - ironic in a nation that is suffering from some of the lowest birthrates in the world, but understandable nonetheless. "Shin Godzilla" is not a monster movie, but rather it's a rallying cry for a changing of the guard.

OK, so now the fanboy stuff: the new Godzilla is the biggest and baddest Godzilla yet! Literally, he is most massive Godzilla portrayed to date. While retaining the characteristics that make him Godzilla, he sports upgraded fire-breathing and auxiliary "photon beams" from his spine and his tail. Overall his look is meaner, less personable, and more radioactive than in previous incarnations. He also mutates four times during the course of the film.

The movie incorporates contemporary memes such as social media and cellphone video, but does not overdo it (thankfully). The look is crisp, and the visual effects appear to be done in the hybrid style that Japan favors. One minor complaint: "Shin Godzilla" could have used more gratuitous building-smash action. The movie is too quick to cut away from the mayhem, and some action sequences are lackluster.

The film introduces many, many dozens of characters, and despite the fact that the vast majority of screen time focuses on the aforementioned meetings and conferences, things move very quickly. Keeping with the multiple layers of subtitles is challenging at times. The good news is that this provides more than enough justification to acquire the DVD or Blu-Ray when it's released, because you'll want to watch "Shin Godzilla" more than once!