Shinji Higuchi’s fantastic new film “Shin Ultraman” elicits a sensation that other blockbusters, huge and popular blockbusters, have often neglected: In these worlds where larger-than-life, godlike beings traipse around like they own the place (or are at least allowed to wreck it, free from consequences), people wouldn’t just feel small — we’d be completely confused. How inconsequential are we? How oblivious have we been to the rest of this incredible universe? What is our purpose? What’s the freakin’ point?
“Shin Ultraman,” an adaptation of an immensely popular and long-running tokusatsu/kaiju multimedia franchise that began way back in 1966, captures all the ecstatic joy of giant monsters fighting a giant alien and breaking buildings and blowing up mountains. But the screenplay (by “Neon Genesis Evangelion” creator Hideaki Anno) also captures the episodic quality of the “Ultraman” series, leaving audiences overwhelmed by how multifaceted this fantasy truly is and how existentially challenging it would be simply to live in a world that’s this weird.
“Shin Ultraman” takes place in Japan, where a series of bizarre and enormous monsters have emerged and wrought untold devastation. So far, these creatures have been successfully defeated by the S-Class Species Suppression Protocol (SSSP), led by Kimio Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima, “Drive My Car”). They’re a small but elite unit of brilliant problem-solvers, who suss out each kaiju’s weakness and save the world before the bureaucrats in the Japanese government can resort to self-destructive nuclear weaponry, which they’d have to buy from the United States, because of course the United States is trying to make a buck out of this.
The latest kaiju attacking Japan is Neronga, an arbitrarily-named leviathan who can also turn invisible (even though the SSSP agree that makes no sense). Neronga is so powerful that it looks like all is lost, until another giant creature — a metallic, flying humanoid that can shoot energy beams out of its arms — leaps into the fray and defeats the monster. Then, this “Ultraman” disappears, leaving the SSSP with more mysteries to solve than ever before.
Fans of “Ultraman” already know exactly what’s going on, but “Shin Ultraman” lets the secret identity of the title hero play out like a surprise anyway. Suffice it to say, the newest SSSP member, Hiroko Asami (Masami Nagasawa, “Detective Chinatown 3”), thinks her partner-buddy Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh, “Cube”) is acting like an antisocial jerk, and there’s a very good reason for that.
The SSSP quickly realize that Ultraman is on humanity’s side, more or less, but they’re not just dealing with giant monsters anymore. Earth is now being visited by weird extraterrestrial diplomats who try to make alliances with the Japanese government, and with humanity at large, but whose true intentions are always more sinister. You’ve never known how many different reasons there were to destroy the human race until you’ve seen “Shin Ultraman,” that’s for sure.
The visual effects of “Shin Ultraman” do a fantastic job of capturing the cosmic scale of these conflicts, whilst simultaneously evoking the low-fidelity aesthetics of the early “Ultraman” series. There’s no winking self-awareness here, no digital recreation of costume seams or slightly visible wires, just a good old-fashioned appreciation for the fact that the original series — colorful, imaginative, ambitious — had an aesthetic that worked in its own way, and that aesthetic contrasts smartly with the typical CGI-enhanced movies you’ll otherwise find at the multiplex in the 2020s.
The cast of “Shin Ultraman” is trapped, a bit, in a story that moves too quickly to explore most of their characters properly, so we understand most of them through narrative shorthand. But in Hideaki Anno’s screenplay, they are pretty much all just pawns in a larger, unfathomable game, played by nearly-omnipotent beings who don’t need to explain themselves and don’t always bother. The SSSP’s inability to keep up with the plot and themes of “Shin Ultraman” is a clever feature, not an annoying bug.
Shinji Higuchi and Hideaki Anno previously co-directed 2016’s “Shin Godzilla,” which also updated a beloved Japanese franchise for modern sensibilities, and it’s one of the best things anyone’s ever done with that giant fire-breathing lizard. “Shin Ultraman” makes a similar splash, adapting the original vibe of the series faithfully, but using those early tales as a launchpad for a film that feels decidedly modern. It’s an exciting picture, a smart picture, a fascinating picture, and a wonderfully weird picture. Maybe we should call it “Ne Plus Ultraman.”
“Shin Ultraman” screens in US theaters Jan. 11-12 via Fathom Events.