To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, Ultraman’s kinda a big deal – and yet despite being consistently popular in his native Japan thanks to his TV show that debuted way back in 1966, the part time SSSP officer and full time monster puncher has never really made a massive splash overseas outside of being a cult hero. While his fellow gargantuan, world saver, Godzilla, has enjoyed global success and an American shared universe (he’s even guest spotted on Ultraman’s show – sort of), the most exposure Ultraman has had recently is an animated Netflix series.
However, this could be set to change as Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno have given the silvery, bug eyed hero the same acclaimed, modern facelift he gave Godzilla back in 2016 and given us Shin Ultraman, a similarly politics heavy Kaiju movie that tries to merge the pulpy camp of the original series while trying to root the weirdness in the real world.
However, while a gritty peek at Japanese politics during a giant monster attack fits right into Godzilla’s remit, can the same be said of the far more playful Ultraman.
Much like a far less flashy Pacific Rim, Japan has been rocked by semi-frequent invasions by giant monsters that they’ve managed to successfully fight off and defeat, but only at great cost with sizeable damage left in their wake. In an effort to figure out the quickest and cleanest way to take each of these rampaging bastards down, the Japanese government forms the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol (SSSP) which is made up of a brain trust of eccentric analysts who have to think fast the second a Kaiju appears and starts doing their stuff.
However, during one such attack, something different occurs; a giant, gleaming figure arrives and with his abilities to shoot somthing called a Spacium Beam, fly and even repel alien death rays like he’s shrugging off a squirt from a water pistol, he vanquished his Kaiju foe easily. Dubbed “Ultraman”, the Japanese authorities treat him with distrust, but SSSP analyst Hiroko Asami senses that he means us no harm not knowing how right the really is. You see, Ultraman has taken the form of Shinji Kaminaga, a fellow analyst who was accidently killed by debris when Ultraman pulled a giant-sized superhero landing when he first touched down.
What ensues is a string of events, each more bizarre than the last as more Kaiju and sneaky alien agents line up to either destroy, capture or discredit Ultraman in order to further their extraterrestrial endeavors. But can this heroic being manage to protect the Earth from Doomsday machines and conspiracies even when his own kind decides to interfere?
Right from the first moment a collossal Kaiju makes it’s presence felt, its painfully obvious that director Shinji Higuchi and screenwriter Hideaki Anno are massive Ultraman fans as they do everything in their power to invoke the classic series at every conceivable turn. While Ultraman himself and his menagerie of various sized foes being rendered digitally, the movie take great pains to still have them resemble the kind of bulky costumes tenacious suit performers sweated their ass off back in the sixties. Also, any of the variety of rays that are zapped from the various creatures are noticably retro that even comes complete with sound effects swiped straight from the original source much in the same way Shin Godzilla did. However, this devoted attempt to lovingly adhere to Ultraman lore ends up being something of a double edged blade because while long time fans of the character will no doubt eat up all the references and the kitsch visuals, newbie may very well simply just sit there, utterly flummoxed by everything that’s going on.
While the willful decision to make the special effects deliberately ropey is an interesting one (even Ultraman’s rigid flying style is faithfully recreated), it’ll no doubt be met with snorts of derision from anyone weaned on the visuals of Pacific Rim or Godzila Vs Kong who might understandably miss the point.
Elsewhere, the story, obviously hoping to emulate the episodic nature of a weekly television show, ends up having less of a plot than having around five of them, having a new villain and a new adventure to work through nearly every twenty minutes. Once Ultraman has dealt the early, Kaiju based threats (the most unabashedly fun parts of the movie), we have to deal with multiple plots carried out by either the corrugated form of Zarab (a two dimensional alien who looks like a ruffled black crisp in a hat and trenchcoat) or the inhumanity reasonable Mefila. The problem is that by the time you’ve got a handle on one storyline, the next is already well underway meaning that nothing carries any weight and nothing particularly sticks in the memory as the next story is loaded into the chamber and aimed at your face. If the movie had focused on any one of its myriad storylines whizzing about the place then maybe everything may have meant more and the threats may have been more… well, threatening, but the filmmakers good intentioned excitement about making an Ultraman movie leaves us as mercilessly battered by the plot as one of the unmatched Kaiju our lead detonates like a leaky oil refinery. As a result, the story arcs that actually last the entire movie – such as “Kaminaga’s” relationship with his size changing alter ego – all but disappear in the rush with the supporting cast not faring much better except for Masami Nagasawa’s plucky Hiroko Asami – but even she has a random, distracting subplot that sees her embiggened for no real reason.
As I alluded to earlier, Shin Ultraman also casts a critical eye over the speed (or lack thereof) of Japanese politics much like Shin Godzilla did, but aside from a few fascinating details (the Japanese have to pay the US for any weapons used on the various giant monsters stomping the crap out of their country), it isn’t anywhere near as effective. With Godzilla it fit perfectly alongside the original movie’s desire to comment on social ills and political problems, but here it just gets in the way of the already cluttered plots and gives things a cynical edge when the film should be shooting for the joy of a Saturday morning cartoon made flesh.
However, when Ultraman does hit the target with that blue-ass beam if his, he hits big; the Kaiju designs are absolute bangers (Gabora, a giant monster that’s essentially one big drill bit, is a Gamera-class example of surrealism), the fights are inventively fun and Higuchi’s directorial style is crisp and nicely weird (he doesn’t meet a dutch angle he doesn’t love), however it’s too often bogged down with way too much fan related baggage that stops it hitting the heights Shin Godzilla did.
Still, with Shin Kamen Rider on the way, the filmmakers have decent shot of getting the formula right one more time, but in this case, Ultraman is oddly thwarted by the acts of an ultra fan.