‘Godzilla Minus One’ Review
Oh no, they say he’s got to go.
GODZILLA MINUS ONE, THE HIGHEST-GROSSING live-action Japanese film of all time in America, understands one very key fact about Godzilla that so many Godzilla movies forget: Godzilla is terrifying. While the various urges of commercial filmmaking command, time and again, that Godzilla becomes a hero, fighting off even nastier monsters and defending mankind from destruction while generating respectful awe rather than overt terror, the simple fact of the matter is that Godzilla is a pure nightmare blown up to gigantic proportions.
Just think of the beast in your mind’s eye: he’s a skyscraper-sized lizard who shoots atomic blue fire from his throat that results in catastrophic atomic-style detonations. Having him show up in your neighborhood would ruin your whole week, maybe even your month. Even if he wasn’t trying to hurt people the simple mechanics of his body movements would lay waste to whole city blocks. A twitch of the tail would obliterate a tenement; every step would crush a school bus full of nuns and/or cheerleaders.
All of which is to say that Godzilla Minus One’s opening moments feature some of the most impressively visceral Godzilla action in recent years. Following the return to Odo Island of Koichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a kamikaze pilot whose cowardice prevented him from carrying out his suicide mission, Godzilla leaps from the ocean and annihilates the small crew of airmen and mechanics stationed on the island. Given a second opportunity to prove his bravery—by leaping into the airplane and turning its machine guns on the monster—Koichi again quails, running for cover instead.
Good thing: Godzilla isn’t messing around. He’s here to kill the intruders in his territory, and bullets aren’t likely to have much of an effect. Fast-forward a couple of years—following reconstruction efforts in Japan, as Koichi builds a life with the homeless Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and the young orphan girl Akiko (Sae Nagatani), and Godzilla soaks up some radiation courtesy of the Americans at Bikini Atoll—and the monster is back, bigger and meaner than ever, laying claim to much of the Japanese sea and demolishing gargantuan battleships with little more than a swipe of his claws.
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The Godzilla seen in later sequences is a little slower but much larger and even more indestructible: at one point, the titanic lizard is swimming through the water after Koichi and his minesweeper crew’s boat, half-submerged, half-visible, entirely terrifying. Neither machine guns nor mines can stop the brute, and death seems certain. Though their tiny wood boat is saved at the last minute, the near-encounter drives home the sheer scale of Godzilla. When he sets foot in Ginza, viewers and residents alike can’t help but gawp at the size of the beast. We see most of the action from ground level, his tail speeding through streets and buildings like a blunted scythe slashing through wheat, the dull blade harvesting ragged chunks of city street.
Unlike The Boy and the Heron, the other Japanese film sharing space on American box office charts (and discussed on this week’s Across the Movie Aisle), the symbolism in Godzilla Minus One is relatively straightforward. Rather than being a symbol of America’s nuclear might, Godzilla himself antedates the war and represents the Japanese government’s inability to be honest with its citizens about their place in the world, a monstrous iteration of the government’s—and the citizenry’s—belief that the Japanese should fight to the last man, regardless of the untenability of their situation. The government is not just useless to stop the giant lizard; it actively misinforms the people, leaving them vulnerable to Godzilla’s wrath. Men like Koichi are made to feel as though they are cowards for failing to die in the doomed effort to stop the onslaught. But the people are stronger than their feckless leaders, pulling together in their time of darkness to win the day, stop the beast, save their cities, and yadda yadda yadda.
Godzilla Minus One is a big, terrifying piece of melodrama, the blockbuster flourishes spaced out enough to give the heartfelt (some might sneer “overly wrought”) emotion at the picture’s core space to breathe. One thing I wasn’t entirely expecting: how much Godzilla Minus One’s final act owes to recent Christopher Nolan pictures. Yes, yes, the whole thing about the irradiated monster wreaking havoc is a secret sequel to Oppenheimer, har har. But there are indisputable flashes of Dunkirk and The Dark Knight Rises in the climactic sequence, and the whole thing is done with a similar combination of heartfelt and heart-pounding cross-cutting, weaving points of view and action spectaculars and stirring parental emotional beats together with aplomb.