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'Godzilla Minus One' is a period piece about the decades-old story


Godzilla is back.


MARTÍNEZ: The latest Godzilla movie comes to U.S. and Canadian theaters today. It's called "Godzilla Minus One," and unlike other Godzilla movies, this one is a period piece. It's set in Japan after World War II, and it's been getting rave reviews from movie critics. Our next guest is one of those critics. Matt Schimkowitz writes for the A.V. club. Matt, so let's start with the name of the movie. Why is it called "Godzilla Minus One"?

MATT SCHIMKOWITZ: The concept is that Japan, which had already been devastated by war, faces a new threat with Godzilla, bringing the country into the minus. So the idea is that Godzilla is attacking at a time when the country is very much on its heels.

MARTÍNEZ: So there have been lots of Godzilla films, 37 so far, a 38th coming out next year. What's different about this one?

SCHIMKOWITZ: Well, this one is very much more of an adventure film. You know, it actually starts during World War II with a kamikaze pilot deciding not to go through with his mission and landing on an island, and it just so happens that that's Godzilla Island. And then the movie tracks from about 1944 through about 1948, not just dealing with Godzilla, but also dealing with the fallout of the bombings at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. So it is returning Godzilla to that metaphor for the threat of nuclear war and cities being destroyed by a power that humanity has never seen before. And this movie very much grabs onto that idea and puts a human face on it.

MARTÍNEZ: OK, so speaking of humans, most of the time in these movies, the people are just there to be terrorized - right? - and run in fear, fear for their lives. How does this Godzilla movie handle any human drama?

SCHIMKOWITZ: "Godzilla Minus One's" human drama is probably the best part of the movie. I mean, the Godzilla attacks are really exciting and ferocious, but two-thirds of it is a post-war melodrama about a shame-ridden soldier trying to make his life in a country that is economically depressed. You know, many people have died, many people are angry about the war. So it's really about how the Japanese people kind of continue to rebuild their lives after it. And there are parts of this movie that you're so engrossed in what's going on with these characters that you almost forget that there's a Godzilla rampaging around. It handles its human drama in a way that I haven't seen Godzilla films do before.

MARTÍNEZ: The character Godzilla, I mean, it's almost - what? - 70 years of Godzilla in the movies. What is it about Godzilla that has given it so much staying power, you think?

SCHIMKOWITZ: I mean, at least if you look at the last decade of Godzilla movies, I think that there has been a real effort to show different ways of approaching the character. And you can trace that back throughout Godzilla. Just like there's different styles of James Bond, there's different flavors of Godzilla. And the first Godzilla, the 1954 Godzilla, still terrifies with that threat of nuclear annihilation. It's still really palpable in the imagery in the film, especially in "Godzilla Minus One." So I think that people recognize that as a real and scary part of life on Earth. And I think Godzilla is just kind of linked into that.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Matt Schimkowitz, staff writer for the A.V. Club. Matt, thanks.

SCHIMKOWITZ: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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