Last year's Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, the inaugurating chapter in a new trilogy of animated Godzilla films from Toho Animation and Polygon Pictures (and streaming through Netflix), ended on a cliffhanger. Our hero, the leader of an intergalactic squadron composed of humans and extraterrestrials, regains consciousness in a primitive shelter of some kind, lying prone on his back, surprised to find himself still alive. (The Earth has been dominated by monsters for the last 20,000 years, and a creature more powerful than all the others has wiped out most of his command.)
Awareness steadily coming back to him, our protagonist glances over and realizes he's been rescued by a native humanoid girl with pristine white hair and oddly colored eyes. This was followed by a cut to black, conveniently opening the window for a sequel and putting an end to the sleep-inducing monotony I had been plowing through for the previous 89 minutes. I was quite thankful for it.
Despite containing a few potentially interesting ideas, Planet of the Monsters came across to me as a relentless bore: excruciatingly impersonal, populated with an abundance of paper-thin characters, and drastically short on breathtaking monster action. It hardly went down as a classic in my book.
Nevertheless, I wanted to hold out hope that, even in the lingering aftermath of disappointment, better times were ahead — especially in consideration of the talent behind the trilogy. Screenwriter Gen Urobuchi's credits include Puella Magi Madoka Magica, an animated series I expected to loathe but ended up utterly enchanted with. And co-director Hiroyuki Seshita had previously helmed the dramatically thin but visually exciting Blame! In spite of the sour experience their monster movie had given me, I found myself speculating — wishing — Planet of the Monsters was simply a misfire and that their next stab at Godzilla would prove much more satisfying.
Alas, no such luck; lightning has failed to strike once again. Everything poorly handled in Planet of the Monsters remains poorly handled in the sequel, just amplified to a more dismaying degree. And whereas the first film had one boffo sequence — Godzilla rising from the ground and wiping out his enemies as they attempt to flee — Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle fares as a plateau of ennui, static from start to finish, without a single impressive moment to its name.
As before, screenwriter Urobuchi turns out a flat story placing too much emphasis on virtually indistinguishable characters either wandering between trees or spewing technobabble in the shadows of gloomy rooms (the venue this time is a self-automated fortress-city hidden beneath a layer of fog). Characters left over from the previous movie make a return appearance, but still no one has been fleshed out into a relatable — even slightly interesting — person. (And virtually nothing is done with the mysterious native girl from the first movie's epilogue.)
Our protagonist and a young female soldier with whom he'd previously shared a chaste camaraderie have now progressed to a discomforting blip of a romance that appears out of nowhere and is dismissed just as quickly, and thus registers zero emotional impact.
Would-be tensions arise when the humans learn their tech-savvy alien counterparts are using an amorphous metal to "fuse" themselves into the fortress-city and thereby improve their "efficiency." (Don't ask.) And as the third act approaches and it becomes necessary for the humans to wage war with Godzilla, Urobuchi frantically grabs for profundity with the humans debating whether they should "fuse" with their machines: It could improve their chances, but at what cost?
If there is a domineering theme in City on the Edge of Battle, it seems to be: "What does it mean to be human, and is it worth it?" A question which has been addressed countless times in other films and other forms of media, and in much more emotional and interesting ways than as done here.
Amplifying these crippling faults, co-directors Seshita and Kobun Shizuno drag out the "drama" to patience-crushing lengths, and little skirmishes with the hostile creatures inhabiting the Monster Planet prove too short-lived to generate much excitement. Even when Godzilla at last marches against the humans, his big action scene proves cataclysmically dull.
I was one of the three or four genre fans in this solar system who didn't think much of 2016's Shin Godzilla, but even I cannot ignore that film's one stellar moment of monster action: when an aggravated Godzilla laced his ray throughout Tokyo, obliterating everything for miles around. Sharp editing and Shiro Sagisu's outstanding music went a long way in rendering a scene of genuine spectacle.
By contrast, City on the Edge of Battle's climax lumbers on for what seems like forever before it mercifully ends, with no particularly impressive actions occurring in the interim. And it certainly doesn't help that returning composer Takayuki Hattori turns out what could very well be the most unmemorable soundtrack in the history of the Godzilla series. Even now, mere hours after suffering through this film, I am struggling to hum even a single note of his original music.
In trying to pinpoint positive qualities in Part 2 of the Godzilla anime, one must boil it down to identifying nice little easter eggs. For example, in the epilogue, one of the characters utters the name of a monster more frightening than Godzilla — and it's a name so ubiquitous in this series that fans can accurately predict it without even seeing the film.
But meager dabs of fan service are about as far as fun and entertainment goes in Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle. We are now two-thirds of the way into this trilogy, and at this point I don't have much in the way of hope that Part 3 will be any better. Here's hoping Toho Animation and Polygon Pictures prove me wrong with Godzilla: Planet Eater.