Home > Reviews > Thoughts on GODZILLA: PLANET OF THE MONSTERS (spoilers)

Thoughts on GODZILLA: PLANET OF THE MONSTERS (spoilers)

Godzilla is back, and this time, it’s anime! Yup, somebody finally had the idea to put those two iconic threads of Japanese entertainment together. Or rather, they kind of had to. Apparently Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla license means that Toho can’t make another live-action Godzilla movie until after Legendary’s next two films, so a Shin Godzilla follow-up won’t be possible until at least 2021. But the deal doesn’t cover animation, so Toho was able to continue the franchise in that form.

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (Gojira: Kaiju Wakusei) is the first of a new Godzilla trilogy from Toho Animation and Polygon Pictures, the first time the big G has ever been interpreted in animated form in Japan, although there have been two American animated Godzilla series in the ’70s and the ’90s. Thanks to Netflix being a production partner, I was able to watch the film from home on the day of its worldwide release, and thus I can bring you a prompt review. (Some sources translate the title as Monster Planet, but Netflix has it listed as Planet of the Monsters — perhaps to resonate with Godzilla: King of the Monsters, the title of both the 1956 Americanization of the original film and the upcoming 2019 Legendary Pictures sequel, give or take an exclamation point. It also lists it as “Episode 1” of “A Netflix Original Series,” since it’s the first of a trilogy.) I watched it in Japanese with subtitles, but Netflix defaults to the English dub.

The film is computer-animated, but apparently cel-shaded 3D animation has advanced to the point where it looks indistinguishable from well-done 2D hand animation, although the characters still move like 3D computer models, which is a combination that’s a bit off-putting to me. But I got used to it as the film went on. One drawback of the CGI approach is that the characters spend the entire movie in their spacesuits, with no change of clothes/digital model until the post-credits scene.

At first, there’s no indication that this is a Godzilla movie. We open on a large starship where Captain Sakaki Haruo is rebelling against a plan to leave the elderly passengers behind to colonize a hostile planet, insisting it’s just a scam to rid the ship of its weakest population and leave more resources for the rest. Haruo’s grandfather (or just an old man he respects, since the Japanese use the “grandfather/grandmother” title for all elders) talks him down and he’s arrested, but he watched in horror through his cell window as the shuttle blows up in the atmosphere.

We then get a title montage with narration explaining the backstory. In “the final summer of the 20th century” (by which they probably meant 1999, unless they’re calendrical purists), kaiju began to emerge and attack humanity, with the largest of them, Godzilla, appearing in 2030. (Apparently there’s a Japanese prequel novel, Monster Apocalypse, that tells this backstory.) Godzilla proved unstoppable, human civilization was devastated, and two different species of humanoid aliens, both refugees from their own cataclysms, came to Earth to offer help: the Exif, pale androgynous humanoids offering comfort through their religious beliefs, and the Bilsards (or Bilusaludo in the Netflix subtitles), a stockier people with gray featherlike hair and eyebrows, who make a failed attempt to fight Godzilla with Mechagodzilla in exchange for colonization privileges on Earth. Eventually, all three must flee Earth together in the starship Aratrum. Over the ensuing 22 years, the refugees must deal with deprivation and starvation as their search for a new planet continues to be fruitless.

Haruo grows up feeling that humanity has lost its pride and dignity because they fled Godzilla rather than staying to fight, and in prison he develops an anonymous plan to fight Godzilla by identifying the source of the deflector shield Godzilla’s body generates to protect it from attack, the key to its invulnerability. (Reminiscent of the “post-Crisis” explanation of Superman’s invulnerability as the result of his solar-charged Kryptonian cells generating a skin-tight force field, which was why he stopped being invulnerable when Kryptonite or red sunlight disrupted the charge.) If this can be identified by the “noise” it generates, EMP generators can be fired into Godzilla to amplify the “noise” and destroy it. (I figure “noise” must be a bad translation, but I double-checked, and it’s in both the subtitled and dubbed versions. Incidentally, it’s an interesting experience to watch a scene with both the English dub and English subtitles on simultaneously, since the former is written to fit the lip sync and thus can differ considerably from the latter.) Haruo is aided in this project by an Exif priest called Metphies (as his name is spelled in shipboard display graphics, though “Metophius” would better match the sound), who believes Haruo has a destiny to fulfill. When the commanding council realizes the refugees’ only hope of survival is to go back to Earth, they have no choice but to release Haruo on probation to advise them on how to destroy Godzilla.

The ship has a near-instantaneous subspace jump drive, yet somehow it jumps unpredictably in time so that it’s effectively much slower than light, with millennia passing on Earth in just two shipboard decades. They get back to Earth 19,200 years after they left, finding it covered in forests and dense fog. Godzilla is still there, and the atmosphere makes their drones useless. Haruo advises that the only option is to send down fully 600 of the ship’s 4000 personnel to wage a ground campaign to gather the sensor data they need to destroy Godzilla, and we get a Gilligan Cut from some shipboard authority guy saying it’s out of the question to the mission actually being launched, with no explanation for how he was convinced, how personnel were selected and trained, or any of it.

Once the team gets down, they soon attacked by dragonlike avians evidently related to Godzilla (called Servums behind the scenes, but not in dialogue), damaging them so badly that their commander, Leland, calls a retreat, saying they’ll settle on the Moon and gather resources from Earth. It’s actually a more reasonable-sounding plan than Haruo’s macho determination to stay and fight for what’s theirs, but Metphies points out to Leland that their only path to regrouping and getting everyone off-planet requires following something very close to Haruo’s plan anyway, just without the active Godzilla-hunting. But Metphies tells Haruo that other worlds have been destroyed by Godzilla-like creatures, and “some” believe they’re a punishment the universe sends against hubristic species, so that Godzilla will surely seek them out rather than let them escape.

Indeed, Godzilla finally shows up 53 minutes into the 88-minute film, and it’s pretty much nonstop action from there. Leland sacrifices himself to get the data Haruo needs, Metphies is next in command, he puts Haruo in charge, and Haruo orders the big attack and does the whole screaming relentless Japanese movie hero bit, and eventually his plan works and they blow up Godzilla — but then their science guy wonders how Godzilla was so unchanged over 20,000 years and if maybe that was the offspring of the original… and then the whole nearby mountain erupts and turns out to be the original Godzilla, now grown to preposterously large size, and that’s the cliffhanger to Part 1. (Apparently the big one is called Godzilla Earth, and the offspring was Godzilla Filius. Which translates from Latin as “Son of Godzilla,” which means they’ve been fighting Minilla this whole time!) And we discover that this is what Metphies was trying to provoke all along, using Haruo’s attack as bait to draw out the “King of Destruction” whom he worships. Oops! (I suspect his name was influenced by Mephistopheles.)

The reason my summary of the last 1/3 of the movie is so sparse is because there’s not really a lot of story. I’ve come to expect anime to be smarter and deeper than Japanese live-action productions, on the whole, but this movie is pretty superficial. The first half is mostly setup and the second half is mostly action, and neither one has much in the way of character development. Haruo is the only character whose point of view we really get to know that well, and he’s just so stubbornly gung-ho and confrontational, fight and win at all costs, that he’s one-note and hard to sympathize with. To anyone who’s familiar with past Godzilla movies, it’s easy to predict that his conviction of humanity’s right to dominate and possess the Earth will turn out to be misguided and he’ll be struck down for his hubris. So he’s really not someone I could root for, since I could guess he’d turn out to be the goat rather than the hero, and there wasn’t really anyone else to sympathize with. A few other characters have agendas that either reinforce Haruo’s arc (e.g. Metphies) or create obstacles for it (e.g. Leland), but they don’t get much development. There’s also Tani Yuko, a soldier who’s basically there just to be the token female, though she mercifully isn’t gratuitously sexualized in any way. She does get one scene with Haruo where she wonders if the old people on the shuttle were deliberately murdered, with Haruo not wanting to believe the leaders are that corrupt — which is pretty interesting, considering that Haruo’s the one who staged a violent revolt to try to stop the shuttle launch. But otherwise, she’s just kind of there. Overall, the movie is much more interested in military porn and hardware and combat action than it is in character exploration, and offhand I can’t think of a single moment of humor in the film.

Visually, the Godzillas and the Servums are kind of weird-looking. They aren’t rendered in a cel-shaded 2D style like the human and humanoid characters, instead having a complex 3D surface texture, but they don’t look photorealistic either, or even like the kind of stylized-realistic 3D characters you see in Pixar or Dreamworks movies, say. It’s a weird sort of uncanny valley between them, like moving charcoal paintings or something, and it’s off-putting and visually unclear. It’s certainly a novel form of animation, but I don’t think it looks good. Maybe it would have helped if they were more colorful instead of being pretty uniformly gray. But I think the problem is that they’re just too detailed and textured. Part of what makes cartooning and conventional animation effective is that it’s simplified, that it distills things down to their essential outlines and features. A design as cluttered as these kaiju is hard for the eye to make sense of when it’s in motion.

Another problem with the film’s depiction of Godzilla is that, aside from the brief flashbacks in the opening montage, all the action takes place in the wilderness. Godzilla isn’t stomping through a city or an industrial area, just moving through woods and mountains. So while you can tell he’s quite tall in comparison to the forest, there’s still not that great a sense of his scale from a human perspective. There are humans fighting him, but mostly from the air, which also doesn’t help to establish a relatable sense of scale. And just in general, it’s a fairly dull backdrop for the action, without a lot of visual interest. Some of the best Godzilla battle scenes in past movies are ones set against distinctive landmarks — prominent downtown districts, historic castles, amusement parks, bridges, things like that. If Godzilla’s smashing through a setting, you want it to be a setting that has a personality, a strong sense of place. The more striking and unusual the environment is, the greater the sense that something unique and valuable is being destroyed, and thus the higher the stakes feel. So having a whole movie where all the action is in a rather dull-looking wilderness is just not taking the best advantage of the potential of animation to create striking vistas. If they were going to make a Godzilla anime set in the future, why not in some vast futuristic cityscape stretching clear to the horizon, or maybe even a megastructure in space, somehow?

And really, why start the story where they did? Why pack all that deep, complex backstory of the fall of Earth and the arrival of aliens and the failure of Mechagodzilla into a 3-minute, 45-second flashback and a tie-in novel rather than making that the story of the first film and saving this story for the sequel? Just one more respect in which this film feels superficial and unsatisfying.

All in all, then, the first Godzilla anime is underwhelming, especially as a followup to the very impressive Shin Godzilla. It looks fairly good in some respects, less so in others, and it’s well-made and competently acted, and it has a good score (by Takayuki Hattori, composer for Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla and Godzilla 2000: Millennium), although without any reference to Akira Ifukube’s classic Godzilla themes. But it doesn’t have much in the way of substance, or a lot going on beyond a pretty straightforward, one-track story. The more I reflect on it, the more disappointed I am with it. I just hope the remaining two installments in the trilogy do better.

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