Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Thursday, January 25, 2018

Series Report Card: Godzilla (2017)

32. Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters
Gojira: Kaijū Wakusei / Godzilla: Monster Planet

I can't tell you how happy it makes me that kaiju movies are officially cool again. After Gareth Edwards' 2014 reboot of “Godzilla” saw box office nearly as big as its titular creature, the floodgate was officially open. King Kong is back. The “Pacific Rim” monsters are back. Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah are coming back. Even the giant animals from “Rampage” are back! To tide over fans until Legendary finally releases their “Godzilla' sequel next year, Toho has started producing movies about their King of the Monsters again.

The last time Godzilla's home studio devoted a new series to their star monsters, the results were not always super inspired. The Millennium Eiga often produced same-old, same-old feelings. For their latest wave of films, the studio has gone in a radically different direction. Hideaki Anno's “Shin Gojira” was as much political satire and art film as it was a giant monster movie. Their next entry into the new “Godzilla” series was something even more expected. “Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters” was the kaiju king's first foray into animation. It got a speedy state-side release too, hitting American Netflix only a few months after its Japanese debut. So... Is it any good?

As the 20th century came to an end, giant monsters emerged all over Earth. The most dangerous of them all, massively powerful and seemingly indestructible, was Godzilla. It was essentially the end of the world. With the assistance of two separate alien race, humanity fled to the stars. Due to faster-than-light travel, twenty years pass on the space ship while thousands of years pass on Earth. With their resources dwindling, humanity decides to return to their home world. They find a planet completely different in its topography, inhabited by strange, dangerous animals. They also find Godzilla, who is still alive and just as unstoppable as ever.

When an animated Godzilla was announced, I thought it was a pretty cool idea. At its best and most unhinged, the “Godzilla” series has always been wildly imaginative. By completely freeing itself from Earth-bound special effects, the franchise could go off in any crazy direction it wanted. “Planet of the Monsters” fulfills this promise, by being the most science-fiction oriented “Godzilla” movie ever made. Most of the film's early scenes take place deep in outer space. One of the main characters is an alien. It sets far in the future. Even a series as consistently wacky as “Godzilla” could never go to places this far out in live action.

Whatever good will “Planet of the Monsters” creates with its sci-fi set-up is quickly squandered. Within its opening minutes, the film bogs the viewer down with exposition. Instead of slowly giving us the information throughout, “Planet of the Monsters” delivers the entire back story in one fifteen minute dump. From there, the movie attempts to create a lore of its own. Much attention is paid to the alien species' religious beliefs. There's much hand-wringing about how space travel affects the elderly. It's all overdone and slightly derivative, quickly alienating even a receptive viewer.

I should say the idea of an animated Godzilla movie is hugely exciting, conceptually. When I first saw the trailer for “Planet of the Monsters,” most of the wind went out of my sails concerning that idea. The thirty-second “Godzilla” movie is not brought to life with the traditional animation still largely favored by Japanese animators. Instead, the film is brought to life with a cell-shaded CGI animation. I do not find this approach aesthetically pleasing. It makes the anime-style character designs look out of place. The environments and creatures frequently look flat. The movement is often choppy. Few of the elements mesh together. The result is off-putting, never allowing the viewer to fully believe in the movie's world.

In the west, anime is still predominately associated with sci-fi and action stories. “Monster Planet” was directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Sheshita. Shizuno has directed a bunch of “Detective Conan” movies but Sheshita specializes in cell-shaded anime like this. Both of them worked on “Knights of Sidonia,” a similar looking series. Both fulfill expectations, as far as sci-fi and action expectations go. The heroes attempt to fight off Godzilla with small, flying vehicles that shoot lasers. This lead to several high-flying, speedy action scenes. The CGI approach probably gave the director's more freedom to create faster paced, wilder action scenes. However, I imagine these scenes would be more appealing in traditional animation.

In fact, the film seems a little too willing to fulfill typical anime expectations. “Godzilla: Monster Planet” leans on many well-known anime troupes. There are giant – though still smaller than Godzilla – robots that are operated by human pilots. There's a heavy focus on mecha designs in general, including spider-like tanks and giant artillery. The expedition to Earth is partially led by a pretty young female character, the kind likely included to appeal to waifu-obessed otakus. The hot-blooded hero makes big, passionate speeches about fairly trivial stuff. It's all stuff I've seen a hundred times before.

Godzilla movies are not well known for having lovable human characters. The on-the-ground subplots are often seen as an unavoidable obstacle to getting to the giant monster stuff. Yet the best kaiju films feature at least mildly interesting heroes. Such as the astronauts and Namikawa in “Monster Zero,” the crack reporter in “Godzilla Versus the Sea Monsters,” or the telepathic Miki from the Heisei series. None of the characters in “Godzilla: Monster Planet” even approach that level. Haruo, the hot-blooded hero, creates constant melodrama in the most boring way. The alien cohort is constantly going on about the space-religion, quickly growing tiresome. The various soldiers and military leaders make no impression. The cast is, simply put, dull.

That's a big problem because there's not nearly enough Godzilla in “Planet of the Monsters.” The film runs under ninety minutes. It takes about a half-an-hour for the humans to get back to Earth. Godzilla makes his first non-flashback appearance a little while after that. That's a lot of time to spend with these boring humans before we get to the good stuff. Luckily, the film's treatment of its star monster is fairly interesting. Godzilla is the biggest he's ever been. He's so large that he resembles a moving mountain more than a living thing. His appearance is craggy, angular, massive, but still recognizable as Godzilla. His movement causes the land to shift around him. His powers are devastating. It's a decent take on the greatest kaiju of all.

“Godzilla: Monster Planet” is not one of the Godzilla movies where he fights another monster. The opening flashback fits in some cameos from other Toho creations. I spotted Orga, Kamacuras, Dagahra, and Dogora, all especially deep cuts. A very odd-looking variation on MechaGodzilla is part of the backstory. The new kaiju addition to the story is a fairly uninspired looking species of dragon-like creatures. Wikizilla tells me they're called Servum and they look more like “Gamera's” arch-enemy, Gyaos, then something befitting the “Godzilla” series. Godzilla, with his newly added build-in force-field and super-effective breath weapon, is clearly the star of the show.

Early into development, it was announced that “Planet of the Monsters” was meant to be the first part of a trilogy. The filmmakers were clearly banking on this. The film essentially ends on a cliffhanger. The climax is a fake-out. The plot is seemingly resolved, in a very big and dramatic way, just for a huge twist to be tossed at us. After that, the movie ends abruptly. We are then given a post-credit scene, which is admittedly sort of neat. Is it enough to get me to come back for two other movies? I'm still not sure.

“Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters” is ultimately a somewhat underwhelming affair. The off-putting animation, weak characters, and halting pacing contribute to a somewhat lackluster presentation. The Japanese box office receipts were only decent but I'm sure the Netflix deal was highly profitable. Polygon Picture and Toho Animations are apparently already working on the sequel, in which that weird MechaGodzilla redesign will get more to do, so I guess that's a done deal. A sequel would have to ditch a lot of things – the lame characters, the weird animation, the dead-weight mythos – to be interesting. It's hard to get my hopes up about that right now. [Grade: C]

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