One of the things you should probably know about me is that while I love a deep, thought-out, well-written movie, there are times where I just can’t argue with giant monsters beating each other senseless and wrecking major cities in the process. That’s why, when I heard Netflix had come out with a new installment in the world-famous Godzilla franchise, I immediately dropped everything to go watch it. What I got, however, was actually a thought-provoking new take on everyone’s favorite radioactive lizard.
As you may have been able to guess from the poster here, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is not a live-action movie: it’s an anime, which is a first for the franchise. Produced by Netflix along with some prominent video game designers, it was released in Japan late last year, and only made available to the rest of us in the past month. I was initially skeptical of how good a movie a bunch of video game makers could come up with, and also because I, like everyone else, am accustomed to how things generally go in Godzilla films: Godzilla fights the random monster of the week, demolishing major cities in the process (usually Tokyo–they never get a break there), along with some generally cheesy, half-assed human character side story that doesn’t really mean a whole lot. The point is to see giant creatures slugging it out, and it’s generally assumed that the humans can’t do a whole lot to stop the monsters. So it may come as a surprise that in this movie, it’s all about humans trying to take down the big guy himself.
According to the background narration in the beginning of the film (and yet another round of ret-conning the Godzilla universe), in the not-so-distant future giant monsters emerge all around the world and wreak havoc on human society. Then, the biggest, baddest monster of them all, Godzilla, appears and destroys both monsters and humans alike. Multiple attempts are made all around the world to stop Godzilla, but to no avail. The situation is so hopeless that humanity, helped along by some alien visitors, at last build a starship and evacuate the Earth, resolving to find a new home among the stars where they won’t run the risk of getting incinerated by radioactive lizard-breath. The story then picks up years later, with the human race lost in space, running low on resources, and generally dying out with no hope in sight. A lone soldier, Haruo Sakaki, decides to speak out against the ruthless pragmatism of the ruling council and put forward a new plan: for humanity to return to Earth and take the planet back from Godzilla. Once they arrive, however, they find that due to space travel relativity, 20,000 years have passed on Earth, effectively making them the invaders of what is now Godzilla’s planet.
Even by the standards of Godzilla movies, the beginning point here is honestly pretty dark, making the stakes probably the highest and the situation the grimmest of any Godzilla movie to date. I mean, Godzilla basically took over the planet and humanity is going extinct because of it: that’s pretty intense. Planet of the Monsters gives us an entirely new way of looking at Godzilla, not just as a big scary monster that threatens a couple of cities, but a potentially cataclysmic, world-ending force of nature. This starts with the design of Godzilla himself: this animated interpretation shows us a much bigger, chunkier version of him than we’re used to. No longer does it just look like some goofy guy in a suit or an overgrown iguana. Godzilla looks completely alien, and is probably the scariest, most inscrutable, and most inhuman we’ve seen him in quite a while.
This movie’s relationship to the rest of the Godzilla mythos is tenuous at best: it never really explains where Godzilla or any of the other monsters came from, and the traditional wisdom that Godzilla is a mutant creature created from radioactive fallout isn’t really elaborated upon here. The question is never really answered, but several characters seem to believe that Godzilla is God’s judgment upon humanity for spoiling their planet. Instead of a fable about the dangers of nuclear testing, Planet of the Monsters offers a much larger indictment of human culture as a whole, and our assault on the planet of our original, which at some point could result in the planet fighting back in some form. There’s even some background scientifically on Godzilla’s abilities–the creature’s whole body is a massive energy conductor, and the so-called “atomic breath” is really electrical discharge. Godzilla even manufactures his own protective EM “shield”, making him invulnerable to attack. Pretty fascinating stuff. Furthermore, Godzilla seems to be something of a religious object in the film, especially for the alien Exif, who claim to have seen monsters like him devastate similar worlds where people also took their planet for granted. This peak into the spirituality of Godzilla is very interesting and something I don’t really recall ever having seen before.
Unlike most Godzilla films, the focus of Planet of the Monsters is very much the human characters, and while not all of them were filled out to my satisfaction, it comes off very much like a retelling of the classic tale Moby Dick. The main character, Haruo, is the story’s Captain Ahab, a charismatic and passionate leader who has a lot of potential, but is weighed down and punished in many ways for his obsession with defeating the focus of all of his guilt, rage, and pain: Godzilla. As such, you’re never really sure whether you should be rooting for him or hoping someone more responsible takes over the mission, and this kind of morally gray, fully-realized character is a very nice change of pace. Much like Moby Dick, however, Haruo’s quest for revenge, conveniently disguised as a crusade to restore pride to the human race by taking back their planet, ends up being the undoing of him and everyone around him as it’s revealed that the Godzilla he and his army take down–with heavy losses, mind you–was just a baby. The original Godzilla, who by this time has grown so enormous that he appears to be a mountain range, promptly emerges from his hibernation and uses an array of new powers, having evolved over the past 20,000 years, to destroy the entire force without breaking a sweat.
If you go back and think about it, it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Haruo’s mission is doomed to failure from the very start: humanity is returning to a planet they don’t know anymore, full of dangerous conditions and uncharted territory, fighting Godzilla on his own home field without any proper knowledge of what may have changed since they’ve been gone. It’s a pretty bleak ending as Godzilla stomps away, and Haruo, who appears to be the only survivor crushed beneath the wreckage, continues to swear bloody vengeance against his eternal foe.
Getting off of the heavy stuff for a moment, Planet of the Monsters also gives us something most Godzilla films don’t by blending the traditional giant monsters with high-concept, high-tech sci-fi elements reminiscent of a space opera. The blend of Interstellar, Blade Runner, and other such films are pretty apparent in the conditions on the colony ship, which is old and falling apart, and the dystopian society that governs it. Aliens are also present, as two species that attempted to help Earth fight Godzilla now coexist alongside humans as fellow refugees. Also, they all just look like humans apparently. Huh? But regardless, seeing guys in power suits, mechanized walkers, and flying hover cycles taking on Godzilla was pretty darn cool, and as you’d expect from an anime, the directors make the battle scenes incredibly epic. Traditional “special effects” don’t really have much meaning here, but if they did, this movie would get two thumbs up from me easily.
I do have some small problems with Planet of the Monsters, though, mostly having to do with character and story developments that didn’t quite connect for me. I wish we had a little more background on the relationship between Haruo and the Exif priest Metphies. What does Metphies see in him that leads him to stand up for his plan and eventually grant him leadership of the army? What’s their background association, if any? It might help explain a few things. Also, what exactly was the point of Yuko Tani, Haruo’s lieutenant? The sole female character in the movie is pretty much given nothing to do other than bounce around following other people’s orders, which probably won’t feel good to most women viewers. There’s also some kind of relationship, be it familial or otherwise, between her and Haruo that was never quite explained to my satisfaction. I know things sometimes get lost in translation when you’re dubbing a Japanese movie into English, but still, I was left a little confused and frustrated. Also, did I mention the fact that the aliens look like humans? Seriously, what’s the deal with that?
I should also add that some of these questions still have the potential to be answered, and the themes I’ve brought up could possibly be explored more in the future. How could that be true, especially after such a dark ending to the film? Well, I forgot to mention that there’s a short post-credits scene you should stick around for if you watch the film. I won’t entirely spoil it for you, but it basically puts a whole new spin on the story’s events and opens up the field to a host of wild possibilities. There’s two more of these anime Godzilla films coming to Netflix, as it turns out: Planet of the Monsters is just the first in a planned trilogy. Needless to say, this has me pretty excited. One of the earliest scenes in the film shows the humans and aliens attempting to fight Godzilla with a mechanized robot version, the one Godzilla fans all know as Mechagodzilla, but it failed and was never launched. The earliest spoilers for the second film indicate that Mechagodzilla is set to return, so is it possible the anti-Godzilla weapon wasn’t actually destroyed and could still be used? We’ll have to wait and see.
My Rating: 7/10
It may be a pretty radical departure from previous Godzilla films, but Planet of the Monsters proves that yes, anime Godzilla does in fact work. Really well, in fact. The new movie provides a lot of pulse-pounding action while also bringing fans a fresh new take on Godzilla and those fighting him, upping the ante by making the struggle against the king of the monsters a battle for the very survival of humanity. The religious overtones and social commentary present in the film, along with some of the characters, also weren’t explored as deep as they could have been for my liking, but were just present enough to make me very intrigued. With sequels on the horizon, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters has me waiting on the edge of my seat to learn more about this new world its creators have set up for us, and is a pretty good lead-in to whatever they have planned next.
Also…I may or may not have marked this down a whole point because, once again, of the failure of imagination that was the song “Godzilla” by Blue Oyster Cult not appearing in the ending credits. I mean, come on. It would be on par with the awesomeness that was Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” playing out the original Iron Man film. Is that too much to ask?
Check out Kyle Robertson’s new novel, Camp Ferguson, available online now at Amazon.com and via Kindle devices!