Even the serious Godzilla movies — like the 1954 original parable about the horrors of the atomic bomb — are fun, in some way. It’s a thrill to watch a giant monster topple buildings and crush tanks. The second of three anime Godzilla movies, though, is extremely self-serious, depressing and fairly light on fun. Somehow Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle is the biggest bummer in Godzilla’s filmography.
Part of the reason why the movie, which is now streaming on Netflix, is such downer is because it’s the middle entry in a trilogy, the follow-up to Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters. Middle chapters are usually the darkest ones (think Empire Strikes Back), but City on the Edge of Battle is especially bleak, doubling down on the sorrow and jargon of the first movie without giving audiences anything to connect with.
The film picks up where the first left off, with Captain Haruo Sakaki waking up after failing to kill Godzilla and reclaim Earth some 20,000 years after the kaiju first took over the planet. Well, Haruo and his team managed to kill a Godzilla, only for the original, 300-meter-tall Godzilla to obliterate most of his squad. However, Haruo and Co. get a second chance, thanks to the Mothra-worshiping descendants of humanity and the remains of Mechagodzilla. The robot kaiju doesn’t battle Godzilla in the traditional sense. Instead, the self-aware alien metal the ruined machine was made of has spent thousands of years building itself into a Godzilla fighting city, hence the title.
City on the Edge of Battle focuses on one of the two races of alien allies who swooped in without much explanation to help humanity in the first film’s prologue. The Bilusaludo, pragmatic tech-warriors, created Mechagodzilla, and they take the lead in using the city in a renewed attempt to defeat Godzilla. Getting to this point involves a lot of talking in which characters explicitly state what they want to do, yet somehow there’s still no sense of motivation behind them.
When the Bilusaludo and Haruo disagree over the best course of action to defeat a seemingly unstoppable foe, their argument hinges over maintaining humanity. The Bilusaludo want to become one with the metal, giving up individuality in the service of extreme efficiency. It’s a creepy, interesting idea, but the movie introduces it so clumsily that it’s difficult to grapple with the basic mechanics of what it all means, let alone the ethical implications. Plus the human characters barely have any development, certainly not enough for audiences to care enough about them or worry about the implications of winning a battle at the expense of their individuality.
City on the Edge of Battle ends on an especially depressing note, not just because the mission to kill Godzilla results in another horrible failure (there’s a third movie in the series coming up, after all), but because it feels like it doesn’t matter. When these characters lose friends and faith, you’re not empathizing so much as just struggling to give a shit. Watching such overbearing sadness without being able to find any emotional purchase in it is a weirdly hollowing feeling.
At least Godzilla is cool. The big monster isn’t really in the first half of the movie at all, which is a shame because in his stead there are tons of boring technical conversations, grand proclamations, and feeble character development, but once he begins his attack on Mechagodzilla City, he’s awe-inspiring. As in Planet of the Monsters, this craggy, metallic Godzilla feels huge and deadly in a way that’s unique for the franchise. Some shots of the monster, enraged and engulfed in flames, are downright hellish.
He’s a terrifying villain, albeit not an especially complex one, which is why the striking imagery isn’t enough to save the movie. Two films in and Haruo’s struggle is beginning to feel pointless. So it’s natural, not nihilistic, to wonder what the point is.
Maybe, now that Godzilla killed even more of the cast, the next Godzilla anime will have to put more focus on the survivors, giving us somebody to root for when they face the King of the Monsters for a third and final time.
Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle is available to stream on Netflix.