Whilst we've been graced with plenty of Kaiju action over the last few years thanks to Warner Bros. and Legendary's Monsterverse, they're very clearly different takes on King Kong and Godzilla. With the atomic lizard in particular, he's less a frightening, walking nuclear weapon and more a reluctant anti-hero. That all changes with Godzilla: Minus One.
Celebrated as the official 70th anniversary film for the long-running franchise, Toho Studios and writer/director Takashi Yamazaki remind the world what Godzilla is really like. As the titular titan, he's back to being scary and unnerving, with Minus One full of despair and shocking imagery. That title is also used to reflect the state of Japan, as Godzilla wreaks havoc across a nation still dealing with the aftermath of the Second World War.
Kōichi (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a kamikaze pilot who returns to an island repair base having not fulfilled his duty. Some engineers disapprove of his cowardice, but others understand his plight to keep on living. Before they can delve into the issue further, a certain sea creature attacks the base. Kōichi is given an opportunity to redeem himself in the eyes of the soldiers but his fear prevents that, leading to the deaths of all but one extremely bitter engineer. It's great to see Godzilla introduced very early on but it is a while before we see him again, with the focus on Kōichi's return to a devastated Japan.
Western Godzilla features repeatedly fall into the trap of keeping the big lizard off screen in favour of uninspiring characters, but Minus One's character drama is riveting. Like other Toho films, this is a bleak, pessimistic story. Kōichi doesn't receive a hero's welcome, and is instead berated for even returning home. With his home in ruins and his parents having perished in the bombings, Kōichi is left dealing with survivor's guilt and PTSD. Attempting to rebuild his life with partner Noriko (Minami Hamabe) and a baby she was given to raise, this outstanding section could well have been its own film, as we watch Kōichi and Noriko become a family unit and work with neighbours and co-workers to rebuild their community. You could be forgiven for hoping Godzilla never arrives in Japan. But of course, you can't have a Godzilla film without the star Kaiju. And what a larger-than-life presence he has here.
Quite simply, this is the most terrifying interpretation of Godzilla yet thanks to incredible character design, direction and visual effects. At first appearing notably smaller, faster and more animalistic in the attack on the island, when he reappears, Godzilla returns to his building-size stature. Slower yet more unnverving, Godzilla is an unstoppable creature raining down apocalyptic death. What particularly stands out are the eyes filled with primal fury, and a unique take on the atomic breath that is absolutely jaw-dropping in the most horribly devastating way.
The first two acts of Minus One are near perfect. Time is taken to empathise with the characters, the thematic narratives are clear and engaging, and the set pieces are thrilling. Things do take a slight tumble in the last act however. After such a fine balance between despair and hope that feels natural and finely-tuned, the build up to the climax and the aftermath feels far too predictable and veers into melodramatic territory. There is also an egregious flashback explaining a pivotal plot point that is entirely unnecessary, and even the final battle pales in comparison to the show-stopping set piece of the film's second act.
Yet Godzilla: Minus One succeeds as both a powerful post-WWII drama about bringing people together to overcome adversity in the face of impossible odds, and as a suspenseful, thoughtful Kaiju creature feature. It doesn't quite bring things home after a fantastic opening and build-up, and the women deserved more screen time, but this is still one of the best Godzilla films in the long-running franchise.
Godzilla: Minus One releases in UK cinemas on December 15