Sudden RainReview:
Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (2017)

(2/5)
Author: Patrick Galvan
Published:
February 14, 2018
Note: review may contain spoilers


At the risk of sounding like a hopeless cynic, I must confess I wasn’t particularly excited for Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. The Toho Godzilla series, as I see it, has been in pretty sorry shape for quite a long while now—with the last few entries qualitatively ranging between mediocre and whatever exists three steps beneath unwatchable dreck—and very little about this new production struck me as anything to get high hopes for. It pains me to admit it, but we have reached the point where this film franchise, for me, is merely something that exists; word of upcoming entries is not something I can, these days, form especially passionate feelings for one way or the other. A measure of my sheer disinterest: when Anthony informed me we were once again compiling a list of reactions to Godzilla’s latest design, I did make an honest attempt to drum up a paragraph or two elucidating my thoughts, only to grow bored about three sentences in and ultimately abandon the prospect altogether. I simply could not work up sufficient enthusiasm, or even curiosity, to pen any thoughts on any aspect of this film’s hype campaign. (For what it’s worth, though: had I participated, I would’ve given it a mixed vote.) Still, as release of the animated picture drew nearer and nearer, I reminded myself of the handful of times in the past where I subjected myself to a certain piece of media expecting a truly wretched time and came out utterly enchanted. In fact, one such experience derived from something with connections to the movie under discussion. A while back, I decided, just for the hell of it, to check out Puella Magi Madoka Magica: a twelve-episode anime written by Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters scribe Gen Urobuchi. This was a show of which I expected to endure one episode, perhaps two, and then wander away from in sheer annoyance, never to return. And yet, much to my surprise and great elation, I was sucked in from the get-go and ended up breezing through the entire series over the course of two afternoons. My prefatory trepidation didn’t stand a chance against the simply wonderful storytelling erupting on the screen before me. And there was always a chance that Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters would replicate what is ultimately one of the most rewarding experiences art can give us. But, of course, the only way to find out was to wait for the film and give it its day in court.

Godzilla animeAlas, my inner-pessimist ended up soaring—sinking?—in triumph this time around. For Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is yet another dud in Toho’s repertoire. And the fact that it promises two sequels from, as far as I know, the exact same creative team doesn’t leave me expecting brighter moviegoing times in the future.

The new timeline begins in “the last summer of the 20th century.” Humanity has been displaced as the dominant species by a sudden onslaught of giant monster attacks. The New York skyline was set aflame as Kamacuras invaded Manhattan; the jellyfish-like Dogora appeared in the European heavens and laid waste to London; two reptilians—Anguirus and Rodan, it seems—attacked elsewhere in the world, though they were eventually vanquished via “Operation Hedorah”; thousands of lives ended under the crushing feet of Dagahra as the sea monster came ashore in Sydney; the Turkish capital of Ankara fell in ruins before the might of Orga. With each attack, civilization suffered catastrophic losses; and the bad times were just getting started. For then, in the middle of the already apocalyptic scenario, a creature more powerful than all the others rose into view. Christened Godzilla, it wiped out everything, including other monsters, unfortunate enough to get in its way. Nothing, not even simultaneous bombardment by one hundred and fifty nuclear warheads could impede its wrath. Los Angeles, Paris, city after city crumbled to the ground.

As Godzilla rampaged unopposed across the planet, humanity found unlikely allies descending from the sky. Two alien races came down in UFOs, each with their own ideas in assisting the hapless residents of Earth. The first were the Exif: an ostensibly religious race of “observers and predictors” who have witnessed civilizations on other planets fall victim to monsters not unlike Godzilla; they arrived encouraging humankind to find a “path to devotion.” The second extra-terrestrial race, the Bilusaludo, had an entirely different agenda and strategy in mind. They heralded from a “third planet” which disappeared into an accursed black hole and wandered through the universe seeking a new place to migrate to. Having deemed Earth suitable for their living conditions, they promised to eradicate Godzilla in exchange for being allowed to relocate to our world. Their solution: construct a mechanical doppelgänger of the monster and use it to engage in battle. (An homage to the 1970s MechaGodzilla movies—something I appreciated very much.) Alas, their advanced technology proved too little too late, as Godzilla wiped out the Bilusaludos’ defenses before his robotic clone could even be activated. Nothing, not even assistance from outer space, could put an end to the creature’s wrath. And so, the three races—humanity, the Exif, the Bilusaludo—resorted to a final option: abandon the planet to Godzilla and flee into the cosmos to search for a new world to call home.

To accomplish this, a spaceship, the Aratrum, was positioned outside Earth’s orbit, evacuees boarding transportation vessels to reach it. One of the younger evacuees was a boy named Haruo Sakaki (voiced by Aya Suzaki) who, prior to escaping the planet, observed the death of his parents. The evacuation was going according to schedule. Haruo was boarding with his grandfather while his parents followed behind, in the process of being transferred to the station via bus. And just when it seemed everyone would escape with their lives, Godzilla appeared on the horizon. Light flashed from the nuclear titan’s dorsal fins and its all-destroying atomic breath blasted two transportation ships, the resulting explosion incinerating a row of buses—the very buses transporting young Haruo’s parents. Haruo successfully escaped with his grandfather and took part in the uncertain intergalactic venture.

Planet of the Monsters opening scene

Twenty-two years pass. No inhabitable planet has been located, and the combination of sickness, malnutrition, cold, and cabin fever has taken a deadly toll on the Aratrum’s passengers. Eventually, the ship stumbles upon the planet Tau-e. An emigration project is called for, the volunteers consisting of older residents, including Haruo’s grandfather. Haruo, now a captain (voiced by Mamoru Miyano), believes the Aratrum’s Central Committee is attempting to dispose of the elderly in order to save resources. Determined to stop the project, the leery captain takes a shuttle hostage, loading it with explosives and threatening to detonate them. In the end, Haruo is arrested and watches from his cell as the emigration ship launches toward Tau-e. And, much to his horror, uncontrollable explosions burst from the ship before it can even touch the planet’s surface, the failed landing claiming the lives of everyone aboard.

The above four paragraphs summarize the first ten minutes. And, at this point, I would like to repurpose a complaint some people held against Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, applying it instead to the animated movie under discussion. That opening sequence, expanded into feature-length form, would’ve been a better film than the one that was made. Or perhaps a better way of putting it would be: since the main story they decided upon had potential but was simply not executed that well, it might've been easier for them to make an expanded version of its prologue into an enjoyable product. And I freely admit: had I the option of choosing between this movie and a movie version of its prologue—about a global monster attack and chemical warfare against the monsters (how else explain "Operation Hedorah"?) and the sudden arrival of seemingly helpful aliens and a massive nuclear attack against a creature more powerful than all the others—Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters would've instantly been demoted in the Netflix streaming queue. Then again, this is all speculation. For all we know, a feature-length version of that material, by the same creative team, would’ve been just as bland. Who can say?

Briefly returning to an earlier point, I was not part of the crowd which complained about the story structure in Pacific Rim. (I accepted that movie cramming its backstory of mankind building huge robots to fight giant monsters into four minutes at the beginning.) And yet I objected to what is, essentially, the same narrative strategy, employed here in Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. Why is that? Why did I approve of a specific technique in one film and reject it in another? It’s a simple matter of payoff. Del Toro’s movie didn’t pretend to be anything deeper than a heartfelt tribute to the monster movies of yesteryear and, more importantly, a straight-forward piece of entertainment. He wasn’t out to make a “meaningful” film of Shakespearian depth; he was carrying out a complex pattern of action; and the backstory gave him an excuse to show off what he could do. (The opening four minutes explained why giant robots were fighting giant monsters.) And on those terms, Pacific Rim succeeded with flying colors. The action sequences were fun; the script was conscious in its use of archetypes and utilized just enough human drama to keep things afloat between battle sequences; the first-rate cast transcended the material handed to them, creating genuinely affable characters before del Toro’s always sensitive camera; and, minus a somewhat dull underwater finale, the movie was ceaselessly entertaining. Pacific Rim delivered in the long run as a motion picture, as a fun time at the movies; thus, I did not mind the confined setup. Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, which aspires to be somber and human and involving (in addition to entertaining), does not deliver, does not work within its own parameters, and I minded very much indeed.

Anime Godzilla charging atomic breath

The core faults stem from Gen Urobuchi’s script (virtually none of the qualities I so admired in Puella Magi Madoka Magica are exhibited in this latest outing from him). To begin with, even though the screenwriter certainly has some ambitious concepts regarding this society traversing through the cosmos, he doesn't allow his ideas sufficient breathing space to flesh out and manifest into engaging sequences. Nor does he go the distance in providing dramatic conflict where needed. As a result, much of the film's beginning feels like a series of extremely rough sketches. Consider this. Once the film finishes telling us why the Aratrum and her residents are drifting around in outer space and why Haruo is under arrest, we immediately segue into a subplot of the captain and an Exif priest named Metphies (voiced by Takahiro Sakurai) concocting a plan to convince the Central Committee to return to Earth. (Haruo feels humanity could have vanquished Godzilla had they kept fighting a while longer.) This is not objectionable in and of itself and, indeed, presents a good window for suspense: how will they convince the Committee their best option is to go home? A tension-filled first act could’ve been developed here with a subplot of resistance: say, a Committee member whose consent is required in order for the Aratrum to turn around but who stubbornly refuses to see the wisdom in doing so no matter how many people starve on the ship. Unfortunately, no such roadblock turns up in the story. Haruo and Metphies have no sooner finished conversing when we abruptly cut to the Committee openly considering a return trip, with no passionate opposition from anyone in the room. Sure, some members question whether it’s a good idea, but it never amounts to anything but a perfunctory spattering of dialogue. There are no truly intense debates, no argument building to a satisfying climax. And it gets worse (i.e. lazier). A mere five minutes of screen time pass before the ship’s leaders—again, without resistance—decide it’s best to warp-speed back to Earth. The film’s not even one-third of the way through its run time and it already seems bored with its own story, eager to see itself end. (For all we care, the Aratrum has been drifting around in space for the same twenty-five minutes we’ve been watching the movie.) And even though it is, in fact, moving too fast for its own good, it feels interminably slow.

Adding to the impersonal tone is the filmmakers’ perplexing decision not to emphasize why Haruo’s plan is even necessary; the supposedly heinous suffering taking place aboard the ship occasionally turns up in discussion but is almost never shown. No central characters are visibly affected by disease or hunger. No one besides Haruo seems to have been impacted by the still-recent deaths of the elderly. Even what we glimpse in that opening backstory sequence amounts to very little in terms of jolting the audience's emotions. Apart from a few coffins being ejected into space and a faceless person, about whom we know nothing, blowing his brains out, there is nothing personal going on, no scene which provides a visceral understanding of why the Aratrum must return to Earth as soon as possible. Because of this, there’s no sense of urgency, no sense of sadness, no gravitas—and no personal stakes, at all.

Things pick up a bit once the crew returns to Earth. Though still a bit crammed for my liking (a skirmish between ground forces and a flock of dragon-like monsters called Servum ends just when it seems to have started), the story ultimately feels more relaxed at this point than it did previous. It’s also in the second act that the movie delves into a two-sided outlook regarding mankind’s place on Earth: sympathizing with the humans’ wish to reclaim their planet but simultaneously underlining that the monster invasion only happened in the first place due to man arrogantly assuming predominance in the face of nature. I also appreciated scenes detailing how much the world has changed environmentally—due to gravitational time dilation, 22 years aboard the Aratrum equates 19,200 years on Earth. The vegetation boasts sharper-than-razor leaves; flora and fauna alike produce electromagnetic reactions and contribute to the fog now perpetually cloaking whole sections of the planet. There is a nice recurring idea on how life continues to change and adapt with time, an idea which hits its pinnacle by the time we reach the third-act twist. As I watched the film, I couldn’t help speculating that Urobuchi really invested himself into this part of the story but couldn’t care less about the scenes leading into it, including them only because he was obligated to meet the 88-minute run time.

Haruo and Yuki from Planet of the Monsters

However, even at this markedly improved point, the script still presents plenty of crippling issues. The big one, the one which hampers the whole enterprise from start to finish, is the complete and utter lack of memorable characters. Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters aspires to be an emotionally investing film; thus, relatable people whom the audience can care about is an absolute must; and the film doesn’t even come close to delivering in this regard. Haruo Sakaki is perhaps the closest thing we get to a three-dimensional character, and I imagine the filmmakers saw him as an embodiment of the movie’s dual outlook on mankind, but he’s still little more than a loquacious bore. His big scene, in which he enunciates a motivational speech on why humanity and its comrades must persist in the war against Godzilla, feels no more inspirational than any of Hiroki Hasegawa’s superficial prattling in Godzilla Resurgence (2016). There is absolutely no sense of camaraderie between him and anyone else in the picture, least of all a female soldier named Yuko Tani (voiced by Kana Hanazawa), who possesses about as much personality as a beige room. Thinking back once again to Urobuchi’s wonderful Puella Magi Madoka Magica, I can vividly recall his (predominately female) cast of characters in that series and, if asked, could easily write a small bio on each and every one of them: who they were, what motivated them, how they changed throughout the series, and so on. The man has a genuine knack for engrossing female characters, but you would never know it from this film. That, in Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, Urobuchi takes his one female character with some prominence (meaning, in this case, she has more than a few shots' worth of screen time) and resorts her to just standing around for the most part is bitterly disappointing.

No one else leaves much of an impression, either, not even the aliens. And this segues into another major criticism I pin against the film. The aliens, meant to be engaging participants in the story, are, like their human counterparts, unpardonably forgettable. First off, the Exif and the Bilusaludo feature lazy designs—especially the latter, who are completely indistinguishable from regular humans; one could walk into this picture halfway through, take one glance at them, and feel safe in assuming they were fellow tellurians. Worse yet: a distinct lack of engaging characteristics. The Exif are, admittedly, a tad more interesting on a basic concept level, only because their race has some faint ties to Godzilla, having witnessed creatures like him in the past. And there is apparently some commentary on religion going on in the film, which comes through them. But even that doesn’t amount to much at the end of the day because the Exif characters as well as their Bilusaludo brethren are, with the slight exception of the philosophizing Metphies, boring.

Again, perhaps if that inaugurating ten minutes had been expanded into a whole, complete story with neatly rendered sequences of the Exif and the Bilusaludo arriving on Earth, explicating what they wanted, actively interacting with humanity, they might’ve become well-rounded individuals. And, by extension, dramatic components in this supposedly deep and thoughtful story. Alas, they are not.

Anime Godzilla over destructionAround the fifty-minute mark, a creature resembling Godzilla appears and the war for the planet begins. Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters was joint-directed by Hiroyuki Seshita and Kobun Shizuno, the former having previously made Blame!, a post-apocalyptic animated film somewhat thin on character material but rich with genuinely intense action scenes. In regards to Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, I know not which director had more creative influence (and my exposure to Shizuno’s solo efforts is zero), so I shall credit both for the stunning moments in this protracted battle sequence, not to mention some truly creative shots illustrating the monster’s size. A favorite moment of mine occurs after one of our “characters” opens fire with a tank-like machine, striking the behemoth again and again in the back. Irritated by the bombardment, the radioactive monster roars, emitting blue light from its dorsal fins as it turns to face its adversary, its expressionless eye fixating on the target before the tank and its occupant are obliterated by a blast of atomic energy. This is followed by a gorgeous low-angle shot aimed upwards at the victorious monster, wreckage of the war machine jabbing into the foreground, the long moment of silence emphasizing the destruction’s impact.

Recalling the climax of Godzilla Raids Again (1955), the third act takes place mostly in the air, the characters’ strategy including a plan to lure their enemy into a canyon and trap it in an avalanche. Directors Seshita and Shizuno appropriately provide several lively airborne shots, along with some cool monster moments, such as when an aerial fighter zips too close to the target and gets swatted out of the sky by a set of lashing claws. In another moment reminiscent of the 1955 film, a pilot dives in for a close-quarters attack but fails to pull up in time, colliding into the landscape. The skirmish in Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, all in all, is hardly the most memorable monster vs. man death match in cinematic history (and it runs a bit long), but it does inject some much-needed adrenaline into the film’s veins. And the creature, though a bit sluggish for my taste, is certainly an improvement over the meandering windup toy which menaced Tokyo in Godzilla Resurgence. It roars upon sighting its adversaries. It turns its head to follow airborne opponents. It often growls while charging its ray. And there is even a moment where the radioactive beast generates some sympathy. After becoming ensnared in the humans’ trap, the monster, buried up to its shoulders in rock, lies prone and vulnerable, eyes glinting, before turning its head toward the heavens and bellowing in confusion. In this moment, it comes across less as a voracious behemoth and more as a frightened animal simply trying to survive.

And, as it turns out, that impression might not be too far off.

the giant Anime Godzilla

Now it’s time to discuss the film’s highlight. Haruo and his men are gathered before the fragmented remains of their opponent when one of the scientists postulates the carcass they are staring at does not belong to the same Godzilla they came to destroy. (They slew one of its descendants.) Haruo counters with his steadfast determination that man can still win the war. “Since we’ve established a valid strategy,” he says, “we can be more effective next time.” Just then, an explosion-like tremor surges through the ground. A flock of startled Servum passes overhead, fleeing for their lives, escaping the imminent danger. The squadron’s equipment detects an underground heat source mere seconds before whole sections of earth begin to burst open. Through the smoke and debris emerges the Godzilla, the one which drove humanity from the planet nearly twenty millennia ago, still alive and more powerful than ever. Metphies enunciates one of the movie’s themes: “When those fleeting lives destined to die forget their humbleness and sing praises of their glory, such will shake the very heavens and split the earth, and they shall know the wrath of the divine.” Godzilla, towering more than three hundred meters in height, belts forth its unforgettable, blood-chilling roar and sends the humans and their alien comrades scrambling to escape. (History has repeated itself.) The King of Destruction watches idly for a long moment, as though relishing in the panic it’s causing, before emitting a new weapon—a super oscillatory wave—from its maw, crippling the fleeing vessels and sending them crashing upon the ground crew. Godzilla then takes a lumbering step and swings its humongous tail, producing a mysterious wave of energy that ignites the forest and topples everything still standing. Within a matter of minutes, the once-gloating beings and their advanced machinery have been put in their place once more. Haruo, pinned beneath the rubble of one of his war machines, watches haplessly as the creature he swore to destroy marches forward, unchallenged, the indisputable ruler of Planet Earth. A truly extraordinary sequence, one I would argue ranks with the most sensational the series has offered yet. And the music by Takayuki Hattori, once again demonstrating how brilliantly he can use a choir, complements the spectacle to absolute perfection.

anime Godzilla stares at enemiesI only wish I could extend that same level of enthusiasm to the remainder of the score. I was one of the three or four sentient beings in this solar system who absolutely adored Hattori’s music for Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994) and Godzilla 2000: Millennium (1999), unapologetically saluting both scores in my Top 15 Favorite Godzilla Soundtracks article last year. And for years, I salivated at the idea of Hattori making his return and writing music for the Big G a third time. So you can imagine the crushing disappointment with which I report that Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters contains what is easily, with no doubt in my mind, the dullest and least satisfying Godzilla score Hattori has composed yet. Only a handful of moments left me thinking, "Yes! This is Hattori! This is the sweeping majestic quality I've been longing for!" The rest fares as bland and quite forgettable. Even the gentler themes (normally the composer’s forte) fail to register much of an impact this time around, much to my disappointment. I would chime in with more comments regarding the score—except I can't, due to having already forgotten the vast bulk of it.

When I first heard Takayuki Hattori would be helming the score for Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters (indeed, the only glimmer of excitement I felt pre-release), I predicted he would be delivering the most memorable score the series has had since Michiru Oshima's time. From this point on, I only hope that, should he stick around for the forthcoming sequels, he return to his former prowess. Something like his awe-inspiring Godzilla 2000: Millennium theme would be nice, or something vivacious such as his work in Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla. Hopefully what we're dealing with right now is merely a warm-up session and better things are to come.

It would be unfair to say Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters was made without any creative thought put into it, but the actual execution of its admittedly intriguing ideas makes for a rather dull time at the movies. The film wraps up with a little post-credits sequence of Haruo regaining consciousness in a cave, having been rescued by a native humanoid previously glimpsed rummaging around in the forest (my guess: she’s a descendant of humans who were left behind after the monster invasion). Coupled with the cold and impersonal movie which precedes it, this bonus bit does precious little in the way of engaging my curious side. All in all, the new animated trilogy in Toho’s Godzilla series is off to a rocky start. I hope the next two installments will be superior efforts, but for the moment, Godzilla has been revived in not-so-special fashion yet again.