Director: Kobun Shizuno, Hiroyuki Seshita
Writer: Gen Urobuchi
Producer: Takashi Yoshizawa
Stars: Mamoru Miyano, Takahiro Sakurai, Kana Hanazawa, Yuki Kaji, Tomokazu Sugita, Junichi Suwabe, Daisuke Ono, Kenta Miyake, Kenyu Horiuchi
Years after enormous monsters overran the planet, a colony of spacefaring humans returns to take back Earth from Godzilla.
Maybe it’s my narrow Westerner worldview talking, but Godzilla and anime seem so perfectly paired for a Japanese pop culture marriage, I’m mildly surprised it hasn’t happened before “Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters.” Even the 1998 American-made “Godzilla” had its own Fox Kids animated series and Hanna-Barbera co-produced a Saturday morning “Godzilla” cartoon from 1978-1981.
Godzilla’s “at last!” arrival in his native country’s chief cel-shaded form comes with both excitement and disappointment. A “Battlestar Galactica”-inspired space opera provides the excitement. Big G’s scandalously scant screen time supplies the disappointment. Ultimately, “Planet of the Monsters” impresses as a mature science-fiction epic with large-scale scope, although it undeniably underwhelms as a Godzilla-specific story.
“Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters,” known in Japan as “Gojira: Kaiju Wakusei” and more succinctly translated as “Godzilla: Monster Planet,” composes the first part in a planned trilogy of anime features. Bearing in mind that the film’s secondary, perhaps even primary, purpose serves to set up Act One in a larger story, its nature as 90 minutes of excessive exposition makes some narrative sense. Taken out of that context, “Planet of the Monsters” has a harder time justifying how heavy it lays on introductions and explanations.
Earth began its evolution into the titular setting during a late 20th century kaiju invasion. Following almost half a century of Godzilla-related devastation, salvation seemingly came from the stars. Two different alien races of humanoids, one aiming to expand its religious reach and the other searching for a new home, came to Earth and created a coalition to save mankind.
Thinking one was referring to their species while the other was referring to their planet, I did not immediately realize that the Exif and the Bilusaludo were different races. Chalk this up to my momentarily disengaged attention or, equally possible, the movie’s habit of homogenizing characterizations to make individual personalities indistinguishable. More on this in a moment, but getting everyone and everything mentally sorted plays a particular problem in this early montage when seventy years of history are summed up in a hurry.
Unfortunately, the coalition’s Mechagodzilla creation never activated for battle. Hopefully it will in the sequel. In the meantime, humans, Exif, and Bilusaludo were forced to flee Earth aboard colonization vessel Aratrum.
After 20 years of wandering space in search of a habitable new home, the 4,000 remaining survivors grow increasingly despondent, as well as hungry from depleted rations. Young captain Haruo Sakaki, fueled by vengeance since witnessing his parents’ incineration in Godzilla’s atomic breath, has a bold plan to reclaim Earth from the monsters. Haruo’s status as an imprisoned mutineer doesn’t make him the most trustworthy strategist aboard Aratrum however.
Exif archbishop Metphies eventually convinces the Central Committee that they’re out of other options. Reluctantly agreeing to pursue Haruo’s proposal, a battalion of soldiers and scientists reverses course to do the impossible: defeat Godzilla. Yet when they arrive back on Earth, they find that time passed thousands of years faster than it did during their interstellar travel, and Godzilla threatens to be more powerful than ever before.
Much like Gareth Edwards’ 2014 film (review here), “Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters” suffers from the problem of not featuring enough of its main attraction, either the first word or the last. Godzilla’s first full-bodied appearance comes with only 30 minutes left in the runtime. The remaining monsters consist of two brief swarms of winged reptilian creatures.
And much like “Shin Godzilla” did (review here), Godzilla functions more as a thematic surrogate than as a sentient character here. This incarnation of Godzilla is a purely destructive force of nature without a true personality. S/he is imposing, awesome, and fearsome, but unmotivated by any agenda other than animalistic annihilation.
Circling back to a previous point, this makes “Planet of the Monsters” lackluster in terms of highlighting its supposedly central figure. Then again, the spacefaring saga built around this threat remains independently engaging.
“Planet of the Monsters” features copious amounts of techspeak and other science blather of varying value. Often inconsequential dialogue detailing the nitty gritty of fungus fossilization or coordinate calculations clutters up a lot of real estate. Although even with all of this talking, the movie manages to move swiftly by using fluid, colorful visuals to provide energy that interchanges may not have. No matter what, “Planet of the Monsters” almost always looks terrific, whether ordinance is exploding in fiery clouds or officers are maneuvering fingers over holographic HUD displays.
Keeping the story from digging deeper hooks into viewers are ill-defined secondary characters. Outside of Haruo and Metphies, deducing who everyone is and remembering their roles are tasks rendered impossible by character models too similar in style. Several soldiers and scientists in Haruo’s battalion have the same blonde hair, fair skin, and uniform. I had no idea a particular trio was three separate people until I looked up the roster after end credits rolled. This isn’t on the audience to perceive design subtleties. This is on the script and the voice work to inject uniqueness into each person, and that doesn’t consistently happen.
“Planet of the Monsters” loads itself with commentary about demoralization, the realities of responsibility for decisions affecting numerous lives, even artificial evolution versus nature’s dominant will. The movie moves a majority of its themes thoughtfully, and in ways expressly intended for adult consumption, such as in depicting hopelessness aboard the Aratrum through one crewmember’s gunshot suicide.
Surprisingly, this bleakness never bears too much weight. On the contrary, it inspires reactionary themes of courage, self-sacrifice, faith, and perseverance. A lot is at stake within the story, which in turn infuses smart subtext into the action.
Not everything comes to a satisfying conclusion. One thread concerning the Central Committee having possibly exterminated geriatric citizens to purposely thin the herd earns two conspicuous mentions and little else. We have a seed planted of conspiratorial machinations, but no confirmation as to how much this matters to any plot points at hand.
This sentiment encapsulates the substance of “Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters” in a nutshell. Despite being only moderately compelling as a standalone story, the film stokes considerable anticipation for a subsequent installment because of how many intriguing pieces it places on the board. An extensive amount of fiction spews forth to get straight. Now that it is, hopefully the next chapter can focus its firepower on fulfilling the promise this film exhibits for breakneck entertainment with meaningful material to mull over. A brighter spotlight on Godzilla would certainly be a plus too.
NOTE: There is a post-credits scene.
Review Score: 65