Earth of the future has seen better days, as the giant lizard Godzilla has been having his way with the planet for thousands of years while the humans who abandoned it have tried and mostly failed to colonize other, less hellish planets than the one they once called home. This is the premise as we step into Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, the first of an interlocking three-part film story about the atomic beasty and his reign over an apocalyptic world. In Toho Studios’ six-decade history with the giant monster and his scaly friends, we’ve never seen his towering form rendered with animation in a feature before. As a longtime kaiju fan, from witnessing his first terrifying rampage across Tokyo in 1954’s Gojira to Legendary’s recent Hollywood offering, 2014’s Godzilla, I looked forward to this new incarnation of the undying icon with great interest. How well would the new medium service this creature with more lives than an irradiated cat? And would the segmented Lord of the Rings-style storytelling device work for this new venture? Well, let’s just say I’m changing my Facebook relationship status with Godzilla to “It’s Complicated.”
Directors Shizuno Kobun and Seshita Hiroyuki draw us into the drama of the piece with a tense introduction to film lead Haruo, brought to life as best he can by the vocal talents of Miyano Mamoru, known to many around these parts as the voice of Ultraman Zero in the Ultraman giant hero franchise. I say “as best he can” because the sad truth is that, while the script (lovingly penned by action series Kamen Rider Gaim‘s lead writer Urobuchi Gen) provides many chances for rousing emotion, the 3D animation threatens to drain it right back away at every opportunity.
Case in point, that intro involving Haruo, who makes a desperate attempt to stop the emigration process of multitudes of seemingly forced crewmembers aboard their ship to a planet with a harsh environment for which their ruling committee may be knowingly sending to their deaths to free up space and resources for the surviving humans struggling to keep the last of their kind intact while drifting almost aimlessly through the stars. Sounds like compelling stuff! Well, sadly, the idea of it turns out to be more impressive than the execution, as what happens onscreen barely registered with me as a viewer. When Haruo experiences the bitter disappointment that comes with the conclusion of his doomed gambit, forced to watch one more tragedy after a string of them has haunted his steps since childhood, I expect the visuals to keep up with the gravity of what the script describes. They’re just not painting the right picture.
This is why, throughout the lengthy wait for Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters to arrive on Netflix’s streaming service, I aired my woes about Toho and Polygon Pictures electing to present this film with computer-generated imagery, rather than the more traditional anime style which would undoubtedly have lent itself better to what the narrative asked for. In a perfect world, where Toho had billions to throw at every picture, this would have been incredible to watch in live-action, with its epic, futuristic scale, but that was always a fantasy best left to Hollywood (and they’ve got other mutated fish to fry). This story’s first hope, it seemed to me, would lie in old school animation. Where characters are surging with life, a wealth of humanity quaking in their eyes, body language positively roaring with joy, or pain, or curiosity, or hope.
Instead, we get blank stares. Robotic movements that we can laughingly call “running” or “fighting”, best suited to our idea of aliens than anything the film actually labels as extraterrestrial in the story itself. Even moments of stillness, which one could imagine would have otherwise constituted some fabulous imagery in other art forms, has an awkwardness that can’t easily be shaken off. Like a collection of oddly-placed mannequins dragged around static landscapes under painfully fluorescent lighting and overly-stylized shadows. Seriously, how do you even get to the point where the shadows, of all things, become a noticeable irritant? Can you tell I have issues with 3D anime?
What I don’t have issues with, which I consider to be a major saving grace of the film, is the music. When the visuals fail me, it’s the dynamic score from Hattori Takayuki (Godzilla 2000: Millennium) that picks up the slack, reminding me what time it is. When Haruo’s sly comrades among their space-faring fleet convince the higher-ups to let them return to Earth after centuries of kaiju dominance, the music cranks up to get the blood pumping, preparing us for the adventure that awaits.
It’s not a fast-paced journey getting us there, though it might have been helped by a few key visual touches. For one, when probes are sent to observe the planet, it seemed a reasonable time to jump down, soaring through the atmosphere along with them, offering brief, mysterious glimpses of the surface of a world that now feels foreign to the Earthers, whose time away has only been 20 years, but their space-jumping technology causes the surrounding universe to leap forward in time around them as they travel.
The true spectacle of the film (save for a quick glance at the Godzilla of yesteryear when Haruo remembers the creature attacking as he was dragged aboard an escaping vessel) does not begin until a landing party hits the ground. Haruo is only allowed to join this mission by the clever manipulations of the humanoid alien Metphies, who is undoubtedly the most unique character of the bunch. From a race of beings who lost their own world long ago and assimilated into human society before Earth’s mass exodus, the devoutly religious alien priest foretells of a heroic figure that will change the course of history. And he’s apparently willing to do some underhanded stuff to see it happen! Including the quiet orchestration of events that leads a young man who had just mutinied against his government and been thrown in jail to then be sent to Earth, where he quickly becomes a trusted member of the team seeking to find a way to take back the planet from its new king.
What follows is a series of long and exhausting exposition scenes where the science of their impending operation is revealed in sinfully dull detail. I’d say we could trim some of this stuff, or overlap it with more interesting imagery of the team actually beginning to enact the plan, but with a running time that clocks in under 90 minutes, it’s not really making a good case for people getting their money’s worth. Of course, if you’re watching it on Netflix, that’s less of an issue. The only concern is pacing, and I only wish I could say the film has that part covered.
Look, I’m not here to stomp on the slow burn process. Many films benefit from a more leisured pace, allowing the viewer to be drawn further into the lives of the people within a vivid, complex world. And despite the action/adventure spectacle of your typical daikaiju film experience, Godzilla is not known for being a wall-to-wall explosionfest from start to finish. But there were several moments through the first hour of this feature that were simply tiring. Not because there was no monster shooting glowy death-beams or toppling buildings. But because there just wasn’t much to hold onto in the story all around. Or rather, what we did have was rendered near powerless by stilted animation and an inescapable sense that they have to hold back for the second and third parts of the trilogy.
In one moment, a character is aggressively shoved against a wall and screamed at after suggesting something unthinkable about the mission befallen the crew. When the viewer has to actually try to feel like this is a big deal rather than the emotion naturally pulsating through the screen, it’s a little disappointing. The bright side is that the ultimate payoff of that confrontation proves one of the highlights of the film and a kickoff point for the aspects that make the thing worth diving into.
Whether the enigmatic and mildly unsettling machinations of Metphies have proved worth the effort or not, Haruo is faced with a daunting challenge, but his past with the giant beast that now attacks, accompanied by a horde of other ravenous monsters, spurns him on toward victory. Or something. The best of the film’s visual ingenuity is on display in its climactic moments as the last of Earth’s former inhabitants struggle to defeat their titanic foe or die trying. As the music swells, atomic fire lights up the battlefield and two sets of eyes meet for the last time, it’s absolutely thrilling. Finally, after too long a wait, a real movie has arrived.
Beyond those striking moments, a chilling sequence awaits, calling so much of what had previously been known into question. The movie relents with the promise of more to come, and I can only guess that what remains will be even more harrowing than what is depicted in the closing scenes. Including an after-credits moment that I’m sure some never saw but answers a lingering question for those astute enough to have asked it earlier in the film.
I can’t say I’m blown away by Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. And this review may come off like a salty reaction to the fact that the film wasn’t rendered in one viewer’s preferred format. But, while it’s true that the 3D animation choice was not what I would have wanted, I knew that going in and was prepared to judge the piece according to its own rules. This film did not enliven its characters or showcase the fluidity of movement found in titles such as Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children or even the Infini-T Force television series. Perhaps both of those titles lent themselves toward a more stylized approach than a Godzilla adaptation, which had almost exclusively played out its stories in live-action. But isn’t that kind of the point to exploring a new medium in the first place? To reach new stylistic heights? The story is fresh, but the visual representation of it is just begging to have some adrenaline pumped into it.
Despite these issues, I find that the film’s final 15 minutes showed me the potential of the animated format for a kaiju flick, allowing a seemingly unlimited playing field for imaginations to run wild. I want to know more about what Metphies speaks of throughout his time in the film, and about the revelations that closed this chapter of the story. The next installment will be on my watch list. And, no matter the outcome of this endeavor, I can only hope that it paves the way for more experimentation and inventive stylings for Godzilla and other tokusatsu franchises in the coming years.
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