As Netflix plunges more and more cash into original content, one of the areas it has ramped up production in is Japanese drama and anime. The acquisition of Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017) for global distribution was a big symbolic gesture, one that teamed Netflix up with Polygon Pictures (Blame!) for another CGI anime movie. The result is the first part of a planned trilogy of movies pitting the future remnants of humanity against a massive, nigh unstoppable Godzilla that has conquered the Earth and now rules a kaiju planet.
With that admittedly brilliant premise, the film takes far too long to get going. I made some initial assumptions while watching that appear to have proved unfounded. The basic goal of the film is to set up the following scenario: Godzilla invaded the Earth at the end of the 20th century, humanity fled to the stars, and now they’ve returned to try and wrest control of the Earth with sci-fi staples like walking tanks and powered armour. To get there, the opening half of the movie devotes an incredible amount of time to exposition (and even in the second half, when humanity finally returns to Earth, the exposition doesn’t really let up – it’s just tempered by the presence of giant monsters and sci-fi battles).
A fairly cool title sequence hints at the history of Godzilla and other giant monsters invading, with glimpses of kaiju from decades of movies. The film is more ambitious than that, though, and in order to handwave those 20th century humans developing the technology needed to flee to the stars (and come back again) not one but two alien races are introduced in rapid succession: the religiously zealous Exif and the mechanically-competent refugee Bilusaludo. My mistaken assumption was that these two races must be a deep-pull from the Godzilla mythos of yore, but while I’d be happy for a more committed fan to correct me, it seems like these two races of humanoids (almost completely visually indistinct from humans, in a very ‘original Trek’ way) are new to this movie series. Take Mechagodzilla – a franchise staple and a mechanical version of Godzilla. In his original debut, Mechagodzilla was apparently developed by the “Simians”, but in Planet of the Monsters is name-dropped as a failed project of the Bilusaludo before the humans and their alien allies abandoned the Earth.
All that is a lot take in, in a short space of time, and is compounded by a script that relies on sci-fi jargon of the worst kind. It’s very reminiscent of Neon Genesis Evangelion with a reliance on inadequately explained terminology, technology, and phenomena – complete with a shadowy ‘central committee’ with shades of Evangelion’s SEELE cabal, references to the Exif’s religion and god, and impenetrable talk about their colony ships engines and computers. It’s possible to infer, for example, that humanity’s colony ship uses a faster-than-light drive to reach other stars in search of another habitable world, but the film doesn’t really make that explicit until – relatively early on – they abandon their search and decide to return to Earth instead. It’s this faster-than-light travel that allows for the movie’s other big conceit: it’s not just that Godzilla has been left dominant back on Earth, but their propulsion system means that while just twenty years have passed aboard ship, thousands have passed on Earth. This means the movie can eat its cake and have it too when it comes to presenting a wildly different planet while still having a human crew who can remember the Earth as it was (personally, I feel like it’s an insanely complicated way to deliver that scenario; maybe the human evacuees could have just gone into cryostasis in Earth’s orbit for a while instead and ignored the aliens and the relative faster-than-light travel and all the other baggage that came with those story choices).
An astute reader may have noticed that I’ve referred to Godzilla quite a bit, and humanity and their alien allies as a whole, but I’ve neglected to mention any characters. The cruel retort would be there aren’t any, but that’s not strictly true. The movie tries to introduce several, to mixed results. The protagonist is Haruo Sakaki (prolific voice actor Mamoru Miyano, Death Note’s Light), a young Captain just old enough to have witnessed the evacuation of Earth. Now, he’s devised a complex plan to actually defeat Godzilla by breaching the electromagnetic shield that the giant monster produces that renders it invulnerable. I think. I’m going to quote from a braver viewer than I who must have filled in the movie’s plot section on Wikipedia, writing that Haruo explains that “a certain unknown organ in Godzilla’s body can emit a high frequency electromagnetic pulse that generates an asymmetrical permeable shield”. The rest of the movie, once they reach Earth, is about achieving that goal.
There are other characters, but they barely register. Metphies (Takahiro Sakurai), an Exif priest who serves mostly as an exposition machine, gets the most airtime after Haruo. A female soldier named Yuko (Kana Hanazawa) is introduced as a handler for Haruo – I neglected to mention he’s on bail, and spends a decent chunk of time commanding the anti-Godzilla operation in handcuffs – but only has a handful of lines and almost no personality. A smattering of other soldiers, human and alien, completely fail to register.
Godzilla, then, is the true star of the show and even he does not come out entirely unscathed. This Godzilla is perhaps the most heavily-muscled, aggressively-built Godzilla I’ve ever seen. He’s decidedly lacking in personality, however. The human characters all look like they’re in a cutscene from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and I managed to get used to the effect, even if I don’t think the CGI animation is as good here as it was in Polygon Pictures’ own Blame! Godzilla, though, is almost inanimate, with his only cool effect being the electric blue build-up along his dorsal spines before he unleashes his atomic breath. In some of the busier scenes, it’s hard to distinguish the big guy from the backdrop of alien flora. He’s not the only creature that suffers – the movie also attempts to introduce some uninspiring winged critters to create a bit of tension before the title fight with Godzilla, but they’re forgotten just as quickly as they appear, and the animation on them is the worst in the movie.
Strangely, even though Planet of the Monsters completely squanders its premise, I find myself oddly looking forward to the next instalment of the planned trilogy. There is a late reveal that I won’t spoil here, but that outshines virtually everything else in the film up until that point. Further, giving credit where credit is due, there are a handful of scenes that play up to the promise of humanity coming back to this changed Earth. Godzilla, as a franchise, has always been about allegory – typically, allegory for nuclear power. I’ve always felt that the original, 1954 film was as much about Godzilla as a vengeful force of nature, rising up out of the sea like a devastating tsunami, as it was about a way for Japan to deal with the twin nuclear attacks of WW2. Perhaps it is that Japan, a country built on the unstable rim of the Pacific, has the lens of its long history of natural disasters through which to view nuclear war. Planet of the Monsters is no different. It comes, like Shin Godzilla, in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown ‘triple disaster’ that struck Northern Japan. It is very difficult not to interpret the human refugees fleeing Earth as the internally displaced Japanese forced to flee tsunami-devastated or radioactively-contaminated areas of Japan. When characters talk about reclaiming their world, it seems to be that passion – that anger – that they’re channelling, turning Godzilla once again into a living symbol of destruction, one that can be overcome by sheer human willpower and co-operation – unlike in the real world, where things aren’t so simple.
Perhaps the next instalment, less saddled with creating an elaborate new cinematic universe, can deliver more thrills and literally any characterisation. If it can build on some of the climactic scenes of this movie, it might just be worth it.
Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters / GODZILLA -怪獣惑星-
Directors: Kōbun Shizuno & Hiroyuki Seshita
Japanese Release Date: 17th November 2017
Version Watched: 88 min (Netflix)