The last time I was in a real movie theater, it was Christmas 2019 and the film was Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker. So I had a bit of culture shock when I walked in Wednesday evening: Every seat was a leather, power recliner, there was plenty of room for people to walk in front of me even with the legs extended, and each row was elevated above the other so high that everyone had an unobstructed view of the screen.
The occasion was a “Early Access Fan Event” screening of Godzilla Minus One, the new Japanese-language film from Toho, the movie company that started it all with Gojira back in 1954. It turns out that “Early Access Fan Event” was just a fancy way of saying you could see the film two nights before its official U.S. release on Friday. There were no special treats or features for Godzilla fans; it was just a regular showing of a new movie, just two days early.
Which is fine by me. I just wanted to see a Godzilla movie on the big screen with a state-of-the-art sound system, where a monster the size of a skyscraper looks as big as a skyscraper and its footsteps and roar shake the building. Mission accomplished.
And, oh my. I took to social media as the closing credits rolled. I wrote:
“Fellow geeks, the rumors are true. Godzilla Minus One is magnificent.”
The monster effects are as good as you’d expect in 2023, and on the Superscreen DLX with Dolby Atmos sound, it’s like you’re going to be squashed or at least hit by flying debris any second. But the human story takes it to another level.
It begins in 1945 in the closing days of World War II, and we meet Koichi Shikishima, a kamikaze pilot who lands at an airstrip on Odo Island and tells mechanics his plane is malfunctioning. There’s nothing wrong with the plane and it quickly becomes clear he just didn’t want to go through with his mission.
Shikishima is deeply ashamed of himself, even when a mechanic tells him it would have been a meaningless sacrifice given that Japan was days away from losing the war. The film follows him as he tries to atone for surviving a war where his assignment was to kill himself and as many enemy soldiers as possible at the same time.
Of course, Godzilla fans guessed what happens at the airstrip as soon as I mentioned Odo Island. That’s where the big lizard was first sighted in 1954, and the island has made numerous appearances in the 37 Godzilla movies that span almost 70 years now.
People who come for the monster rather than the story might grow impatient with this one, but people like me who appreciate a good story with their monsters will go home happy. And even the people who want wall-to-wall monster action should be content with Godzilla’s moments on center stage.
A couple of moments would have made me stand up and cheer if I wasn’t so comfortable in the recliner. First, the final confrontation with Godzilla is undertaken by a stalwart group of civilians after a pointed remark that the job is too important to leave to the Japanese or U.S. governments. Can I get an amen?
My other “OMG this film is magnificent” is a musical cue. The theme that accompanies the opening credits of the original movie is called back in almost every film, and the makers of Godzilla Minus One dropped the theme at the absolute perfect moment near the climax.
The last 10 years have been wonderful for Godzilla fans. The 2014 U.S. version completely erased the sour taste left by the goofy 1998 Hollywood debacle, and the American sequels haven’t been too shabby, either.
But the last two Toho films have been, in my humble opinion, absolutely brilliant. Shin Godzilla in 2016 and now Godzilla Minus One have taken the story back to square one: Both treat Godzilla as a brand-new menace that had never been seen before. They fall more in the category of reboot than sequel. I love that approach, and I considered Shin Godzilla the second-best Godzilla movie ever until Wednesday night. Godzilla Minus One is simply breathtaking.
(The first Godzilla movie is in a league of its own, as I wrote not long ago.)