As I sat through Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (aka Godzilla: Monster Planet), the first installment in a new trilogy of animated Godzilla films from Polygon Pictures and Toho Animation (and streaming on Netflix), I kept thinking back to a live-action Japanese film from 1995, called Gamera: Guardian of the Universe. (I ask the readership to bear with me. Perhaps it's not fair to compare this latest anime to one of the best monster movies in cinema history, but I do think there's an interesting point to be made here.)
Guardian of the Universe, which was also the first chapter in a trilogy, delivered plenty of dazzling special effects and riveting monster action, but the chief factors behind its lasting popularity are its deft storytelling and compelling human drama. In the aforementioned film, the mythos behind the monsters was sufficiently explained, and the characters had their own stories and personalities and agendas, which made them interesting and memorable. Best of all, you didn't necessarily need to watch the two sequels in order to appreciate these elements or the film they were in; even if you removed the sequels from existence, the story would still be compelling, the characters would still come across as interesting individuals, and Guardian of the Universe would remain an exceptional, and highly entertaining, piece of filmmaking.
Planet of the Monsters, on the other hand, delivers so little in terms of human drama (despite the characters occupying virtually all of the 88-minute run time) and the world-building is so flimsy that only a well-written sequel could provide better comprehension and development for either. And at the same time, a well-written sequel would simultaneously function as a reminder of how its predecessor failed: "Why couldn't they have done it this well the first time?" There's a bigger issue at hand, too: Planet of the Monsters is so incredibly dull that, frankly, it doesn't matter to me at all what — if anything — will happen to these characters and their world in the next two films, neither of which I am particularly excited for.
**Spoiler warning: Spoilers for Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters below**
In a move reminiscent of superior films (such as Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim), Planet of the Monsters' first act exposits a great deal of backstory regarding a worldwide monster attack. The siege began at the end of the 20th century: New York was devastated by the giant praying mantis Kamacuras; the jellyfish-like kaiju from Ishiro Honda's obscure Dogora (1964) appeared in the skies over London; Dagahra, the sea monster from Rebirth of Mothra II (1997), claimed thousands of lives in Sydney; Ankara was annihilated by Orga.
City after city was pummeled into the ground, and just when it seemed things couldn't get any worse, a creature more powerful than all the others — Godzilla — rose into view and laid waste to everything, man or monster, before it.
It gets stranger. Man, now replaced as ruler of the planet, learns he's not alone in the universe. Two races of extra-terrestrial humanoids show up in UFOs to help deal with Godzilla. The Exif, a religious race, encourage Earth's residents to find "a path of devotion." Then come the Bilusaludo, who hail from a "third planet" swallowed up by a black hole — a nice reference to the aliens from the '70s MechaGodzilla movies; fittingly, the Bilusaludos' solution to defeating Godzilla is to build a mechanical duplicate of him.
However, even their advanced technology can do nothing to halt the monster's wrath, and all three races end up fleeing into the cosmos in search of a new world to call home. Twenty years later, nothing hospitable has been discovered, and a return trip to the eponymous Planet of the Monsters might be the only option.
All of this is encompassed within the first ten minutes and probably would've made a more compelling central narrative than what the film chooses. (The story summarized in the exposition might've been a better film.) As for what we ended up with, the writing is sadly not strong enough to even work on its own terms. The script whisks by at a detrimental speed, seldom allowing a scene the breathing space needed to enhance the world or develop interest in any of the characters. And when, on occasion, the film does slow down, it mostly opts to focus on excessive babbling that tells us more about the technicalities of an upcoming mission as opposed to fleshing out the people who must carry it out. Result: no personal stakes.
About the human characters, there's little to be said: most of them are completely interchangeable and do not stand out from one another, which only adds to the picture's incredibly superficial feel. Consider our protagonist, Haruo Sakaki, a soldier committed to reclaiming Earth from the monsters. The film's opening provides plenty of opportunities for compelling personal motivation (his parents were killed by Godzilla; his grandfather perished in a suicidal emigration mission ordered by the ship's central committee — so he could understandably have two distinct enemies) but he never emerges as a believable person. We never see his parents, let alone understand them; we're barely permitted any footage of the grandfather; the film doesn't even come close to forming credible antagonists out of the committee members who sent so many people off to die.
There's not much to get involved in, and Haruo is simply not interesting enough in and of himself to make up for what's lacking around him. Thus his dialogue regarding his love for the planet and his hatred for Godzilla ring on a completely impersonal note. (With some editing, one could remove all scenes and references to his backstory and present him simply as a rash devotee who just wants his planet back.) He has zero chemistry with a female soldier, who I guess is supposed to be the leading lady but who possesses just a bit more presence than the many nameless extras wandering in the background. There's no sense of camaraderie between the humans and the aliens. When characters die in horrific explosions, or being chomped on by dragon-like creatures called Servum, or in battle with Godzilla himself, there's no emotional, or even visceral, impact.
Continuing the negative trend is the poor integration of the aliens. Returning to my earlier point of how the film's backstory might've made a more compelling feature film, the movie makes the critical mistake of skimping through the aliens' initial arrival and their first interactions with the people of Earth: it amounts to a mere handful of seconds.
There is no scene even remotely comparable to, say, the flying saucers emerging from the lake in Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965): a scene which bothered to build itself up and last long enough to generate both awe and tension. The aliens in Planet of the Monsters, like their human comrades, are total bores. Pacific Rim could afford not to dwell on its extra-terrestrials since they primarily served as the setup for a pattern of action. But here, the aliens are clearly meant to be interesting characters with personalities, beliefs, philosophies, you name it — and they fall drastically short.
As mentioned before, these animated slats of wood take up much of the film's runtime. Because of this and the film's relatively low amount of science fiction action, Planet of the Monsters is not even twenty minutes old by the time it has worn out its welcome.
Most of the kaiju seen during the main credits never turn up again, so there are no on-screen monster battles. This is not an intrinsic flaw: many of the best Godzilla movies, even the ones featuring other monsters, primarily focused on mankind's mission to protect itself from Godzilla. But the makers of this animated feature are only partially successful with their interpretation of the King of the Monsters.
On the positive side, there are a few moments of personality-charged spectacle, such as when Godzilla focuses an emotionless eye on his next victims before obliterating them with his atomic breath, or when he blasts adversaries out of the sky while they attempt to retreat. And, without giving away the big twist which precedes it, the finale is nothing short of spectacular.
On the debit side, most of Godzilla's actions consist of him merely plodding amongst the trees, with bare-minimum movement. Even when being shot upon, his primary reaction is to stand still and occasionally turn his head, waiting a while before retaliating with his atomic breath. Meantime, his massive arms and tail barely move — even though such actions would attribute to giving the monster a sense of him being alive, a sense of character. The more interesting bits (attacking other monsters; surviving a colossal nuclear bomb strike) happen off-screen. And the unmemorable musical score by Takayuki Hattori rarely elevates the tension.
With a more polished script, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters might've been something of a modern classic. As is, it's a largely dull, impersonal product with only a few bursts of genuine interest to its name. I hope the remaining two films in this trilogy will prove to be better and more entertaining. But, once again, no matter how well the mythos and character material is handled from this point forward, it cannot excuse the flimsy handling in this inaugurating chapter and Planet of the Monsters' inability to stand strong on its own. At best, it'll serve as a launching pad for better things to come.