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‘Godzilla Minus One’ smashes records on opening weekend

Godzilla+Minus+One%2C+the+latest+entry+in+the+69-year-old+franchise%2C+premiered+in+North+American+theaters+Dec.+1.+
Courtesy of Toho Co.
“Godzilla Minus One,” the latest entry in the 69-year-old franchise, premiered in North American theaters Dec. 1.

4.0 out of 5.0 stars

The 33rd Japanese “Godzilla” film stomped through North American theaters Dec. 1, delivering a record-setting opening weekend. Grossing $11 million during its first three days in the United States, the latest entry in the gargantuan franchise delivered a classic theater experience packed with thrills, action and characters that commanded as much screen presence as the giant lizard. The title, “Godzilla Minus One,” describes Japan as a leveled nation, sitting at ground zero after World War II, which is brought even lower by Godzilla’s havoc.

“Godzilla Minus One” opens on Koichi Shikishima (Ryunosuke Kamiki), a kamikaze pilot who evades a mission by claiming to have a faulty plane. The opening minutes of the film ensnare the audience with precise snippets of information: plane, bomb, stress, life each building the tense atmosphere. Shikishima first appears on screen from within his cockpit, breathing heavily after his escape from certain death.

Minutes later, Shikishima is caught in the middle of Godzilla’s rampage across Odo Island. Director Takashi Yamazaki and cinematographer Kôzô Shibasaki craft a gripping first action scene, often placing the camera beneath the monster to limit the viewer’s perspective and display the sheer scale of this behemoth. Shikishima is one of two survivors, alongside engineer Sosaku Tachibana (Munetaka Aoki), of Godzilla’s first on-screen attack.

Each of the major action setpieces is crafted with chilling tension. Naoki Satô’s score creeps underneath the action as droning, ice-cold ambience, but it also knows when to take center stage, blaring the classic Godzilla theme as the monster unleashes its strength. The CGI is fantastic, bringing the grisly creature to life with rugged skin and grotesque spines on its back. The action scenes each have a riveting nature and jaw-dropping moments to punctuate the characters’ fear. 

Outside of the action, the cast of characters have a charm and personality that is equally as enthralling as the action-packed fight scenes. Every character has their moment, and they each impact the plot and soul of the story while making choices that add to their depth and realism. The film is grounded by Ryunosuke Kamiki’s performance as Koichi Shikishima, plagued by survivor’s guilt and the cold reality of being a kamikaze pilot. Minami Hamabe also shines as Noriko Oishi, Shikishima’s caring partner, who adds much-needed heart to the film. Her softer emotional scenes with the rest of the cast help ground the film and bring humanity into an otherwise grim story. 

Her life with Koichi is set against the bleak backdrop of post-World War II Japan. The country is aching, crippled from the fiery end of the second World War. Their military is weak, morale is low and many of the characters are still recovering psychologically from air raids or combat during the war. 

One of the movie’s greatest strengths is tying Godzilla’s raw power and terror to the horrors of war. Godzilla’s atomic breath produces visceral nuclear imagery that — while much more tame than that other 2023 film featuring a nuclear explosion — still evokes utter horror from the characters. Godzilla’s attacks evoke a potent feeling of helplessness, and each of the actors convincingly sell their terror.

In “Godzilla Minus One,” Post-World War II Japan lacks munitions and the nation’s citizens lack trust in their government. In the end, it falls on the bravery of Japanese citizens to defeat the beast. Before the climactic final battle at sea, Hidetaka Yoshioka’s charming Dr. Kenji Noda tells a team of volunteer fighters that “[Japan] has treated life too cheaply.” His speech is a rallying cry for the Japanese citizens risking their lives to fight a monster, and a strong declaration of the movie’s central theme: life has great value and war squanders it. The message has layers of complexity and history that are written by and for a Japanese audience, but the voice and power behind these messages can be felt regardless of nationality. 

If anything holds the film back, it would be a bit of repetition. The story is rarely surprising or original, so it’s easy to lose an audience if they aren’t immediately thrilled at the idea of another monster movie. However, it revisits old classics in a ferocious way that doesn’t leave the audience wanting. It’s a reliable movie: nothing new, nothing crazy, but it’s well-crafted and delivers on all its promises.

Despite the bleak meaning and the film’s often-somber story, the latest entry to a 69-year-old franchise is a stirring and inspiring action film that has much more happening under the surface than the average popcorn flick.

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