‘Godzilla Minus One’ Review: Horrors of the Deep and the Past

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Godzilla Minus One, a focused, thrilling, and crowd-pleasing entry into Toho's iconic Kaiju series, pitting Godzilla against post-WWII Japanese civillians.
User Rating: 8

I can’t help but admire Toho’s commitment to backing their iconic Kaiju character in exciting ways. Godzilla Minus One is a triumph in numerous ways, be it the commitment to a more somber tone, the actual scariness of this rampaging monster, or the crowd-pleasing elements that will allow for plenty of cheering in the aisles. Between 1954 and now, it hasn’t always been this way. Even as a massive Godzilla fan, it’s easy to see the range of films and different ideas at play for what was felt to be the most appealing to certain audiences for the time. However, with the character approaching its 70th anniversary and stomping around with legendary status, let alone having to follow up 2016’s 7-time Japan Academy Film Prize winner, Shin Godzilla, Godzilla Minus One is now in the position of having to keep the good faith from the original studio’s investment with this giant movie monster going. Fortunately, this film is a blast and then some.

Picking up initially in 1945, we follow Kōichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a reluctant kamikaze pilot who manages to survive a Godzilla attack. A few years later, plagued by survivor’s guilt, Shikishima has built a new life with a woman who has moved in with him (Minami Hamabe), along with an orphaned child whose parents were lost in the bombing of Tokyo during WWII. Working aboard a minesweeper, Shikishima and the crew soon encounter Godzilla, who has grown due to the U.S.’s nuclear tests. Now, with the giant monster set on destroying nearby portions of Tokyo, Shikishima becomes a vital part of the efforts to somehow stop this deadly beast.

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If it seems strange that some random crew member of a minesweeper would be involved in the plans to stop a rampaging Kaiju, that’s due to the approach to this story from director/writer/visual effects lead Takashi Yamazaki. While Shin Godzilla balanced its kaiju action with amusing bureaucratic satire akin to The Thick of It or Veep, Godzilla Minus One plays out as the Dunkirk of Godzilla movies. This movie focuses on the civilians and underdogs involved in this dire situation and how they come together in the face of immense odds when those at higher levels of the estate choose to look the other way.

It all adds to the central conceit of placing this Japanese story immediately in the aftermath of WWII. Much like the original Ishirō Honda classic, this is a film grappling with the lingering trauma of actions taken during the war, let alone the nuclear strikes. Shikishima serves as a terrific central lead in a film that wants to ground the actions taken by humans in some form of reality, even as a massive monster begins destroying everything around it. It becomes all the more serious when Godzilla unleashes its atomic breath and leaves behind an evocative depiction of that level of destruction.

Speaking of the power of this Kaiju, Godzilla Minus One also does something I’ve rarely seen in this franchise – it makes Godzilla scary. Sure, the existential threat of this monster plays well in the bleak original film. Even 2001’s GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack supplies a more villainous take on the character, complete with spooky white eyes. For this 2023 depiction, however, it’s an immense monster who can genuinely frighten. Thanks to some skilled editing, the arrival of Godzilla comes as a surprise (there’s at least one Jaws reference in place here) in some instances. The way it causes damage on a small and broad scale equally shows what a threat this creature is. I’d even argue that making Godzilla a bit smaller than we’re used to seeing as of late makes the monster feel even more intense this time around. Add to that various levels of tension surrounding whether its impact will affect certain characters, and you have a film that understands how to make this monster a true terror.

There’s actually a good amount of Godzilla featured in this film, with key action set pieces utilized to show off the work done to balance the pretty solid CG visual effects with whatever other practical means were utilized, all while still harkening back to the original look of Suitmation. Arriving with Godzilla are plenty of great uses of production design, sound design, and music to really make his onscreen appearances memorable. Without getting too far into it, any fan of this series will have reason to cheer when they hear some of the choices made to emphasize what’s taking place from both sides of the battle. Plus, for those looking closely enough at what Yamazaki is doing with Godzilla’s various actions, there are references galore to fans throughout.

Between the use of Godzilla in this film and the focus on specific characters, it all speaks to what a crowd-pleasing adventure thriller this plays out as. Yes, as a monster movie, it does the things we hope to satisfy. Still, it means even more to see the amount of respect being given to both the monster in question as well as the post-war Japanese population and the inherent struggles that come from how things played out. It’s pushed to a point where the severity of the situation can lead to some awkward cheers, as we surely want to see Godzilla in action but must also realize that massive death tolls being read out on screen are striking and even discouraging to what we initially may have felt we needed to watch. Absent another monster for Godzilla to fight, this is a massive creature causing real harm, making it all the wiser on Yamazaki’s part in how much he limited Godzilla’s time spent on land.

With that in mind, as solemn as the subject matter may be at times, the thrills of this film accompany the fun to be had throughout. There’s good camaraderie between the Minesweeper crew, allowing for a good build on the character side of things before everything gets twisted. Given the nature of these movies, I’d argue this film easily does some of the best work in handling the small character beats of all 37 Godzilla films. That comes from having Kamiki involved, who is a Japanese superstar, all things considered. Along with the rest of the cast, more movie star charisma is going around than average, which goes a long way in a film like this.

If one is coming for the chaos, Godzilla Minus One has that in spades. For those hoping to get something more out of a Godzilla film, even if this film is coming up a bit short compared to the very ambitious Shin Godzilla, this is still a top-tier entry combining the strengths of the more thematically rich entries with the sheer fun of it all when it comes to scale and wonder. Given the all-in approach Toho appears to be taking with their delivery of modern Godzilla films, it’s exciting to see one that feels so complete in what it has set out to do, which speaks even more to why this signature Japanese icon continues to be the king of the monsters.

Godzilla Minus One opens in U.S. theaters and IMAX on December 1, 2023.

8
Great
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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