[Fantastic Fest 2022 Review] ‘Shin Ultraman’ is a sincere but uninspired reboot of a Japanese icon

While it seems like the world is constantly digging up old IPs to make some easy money, Ultraman has never left the spotlight. He’s always stayed in the media ever since his debut in 1966. From TV sequels to big-screen extensions, Ultraman remains relevant. Yet it’s only now his latest adventure is getting international attention. Shin Ultraman, directed by Shinji Higuchi (Attack on Titan) and written by Hideaki Anno (Shin Godzilla), is unlike other continuations of the extraterrestrial champion’s adventures. This reboot is disconnected to any preexisting TV story, and it doesn’t necessarily require previous knowledge of Ultraman’s long and celebrated run as Japan’s greatest superhero.

Shin Ultraman gets right down to business. A montage of various kaijū, who are recognizable to fans of the classic shows, opens this exciting first act. Japan (and only Japan, apparently) is suddenly overrun by giant superpowered monsters labeled S-Class Species. It’s only when a humanoid colossus of alien origin appears does the scale tip in humans’ favor. This unexpected warrior, later dubbed Ultraman, defeats these beastly invaders singlehandedly before escaping to the sky.

Ultraman enthusiasts are used to seeing big battles unfold on screen, but there’s a greater awe factor to this movie. The fights between the title hero and the kaijū are as stimulating as those in the TV properties, though the bigger budget allows for more fancy footwork and scuffling. The monsters are a far cry from their past selves; there’s no suitmation to be found here. However, the movie’s best use of CGI can be found in these early skirmishes. As the movie goes on, there’s a small dip in the artificial visuals, yet that only adds to the overall surreal quality.

Unfortunately for those craving more monster mashing, Shin Ultraman does away with the kaijū so the story can introduce other otherworldly visitors. Ultraman isn’t the first alien to come to Japan, and he most definitely will not be the last. The humans at SSSP (S-Class Species Suppression Protocol) as well as the Japanese Prime Minister get mixed up with these extraterrestrials, who say they mean no harm, but audiences know peace is never an option in these kinds of encounters. And while there’s not a dull moment in these exchanges with the aliens, these narrative portions are so exactly carved and arranged, they almost feel episodic and better fitted for another TV serial.

The word “shin” means “new” in Japanese, yet nothing about Shin Ultraman feels all that new. The repackaging is certainly nice to look at; the special effects are more impressive than not. The human characters are well tolerated, and inside jokes are amusing without resorting to the level of fan-service found in other recent superhero outings. But as big as the stakes are toward the end, the execution is maybe too neat. In place of innovation is a recycling of other Ultra last acts; the director and writer deliver a disappointingly limp and threadbare conclusion.

Neither those suffering from superhero-movie fatigue nor those unfamiliar with the Ultra franchise should pass up Shin Ultraman. There are a few shortcomings that can be overlooked, especially for outsiders. As a whole, this is a respectable and enjoyable reimagining. It certainly plays more on the safe side than anticipated or desired, but it also never degrades the character of Ultraman. Those in charge clearly understand this enduring hero’s spirit, and they showcase his strengths with both eagerness and respect.

Shin Ultraman screened at Fantastic Fest 2022.

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