There have now been 32 Godzilla movies, including the two American ones. And, as is perhaps fitting for a giant monster born from nuclear mutation, Godzilla is quite a versatile beast. In some incarnations, he’s a sobering metaphor for the horrors of nuclear war, and other times he’s dancing on alien planets after punching a bad kaiju in the face. Some Godzilla movies are deadly serious, while others are indulgently goofy. That’s all fine. The issue with Godzilla: Monster Planet, the latest film, which hit Netflix on Wednesday, is that it can’t quite decide which type of Godzilla movie it wants to be.
That’s especially a problem, because it’s concerned first and foremost, with being an okay anime.
Monster Planet (also known as Planet of the Monsters) is the first animated Godzilla movie, but it breaks new ground for the franchise in other ways too. The film, which opened in Japanese theaters in November of last year before heading to Netflix for a worldwide release in January, is set either 20 or 20,000 years in the future, thanks to some physics-based space travel shenanigans. When kaiju started attacking, mankind was forced to flee the planet. But, the two-decade-long refugee mission was a failure, so, while running low on resources, humanity had no choice but to go back to Earth.
The protagonist, Captain Haruo Sakaki, is upset because he thinks the ship’s committee is corrupt and that humankind shouldn’t have given up the fight against Godzilla. When they return to Earth, he leads a small band of soldiers against the King of the Monsters.
That’s a lot of plot, to say nothing of the two species of helpful aliens that pitch in to help the humans in the movie’s prologue without much explanation. Gratuitous, essentially human-looking aliens are a hallmark of some of the cornier Godzilla movies, but the speed at which Monster Planet introduces them and takes them for granted doesn’t jive well with the more somber tone of the rest of the film. Godzilla is a destroyer of worlds, as he’s been in several past movies, but he’s viewed exclusively through the lends of a space anime, which might be more satisfying if that anime were better.
The characters are non-entities. Haruo, with his underexplained personal vendetta against Godzilla and intense longing for his home planet, is familiar. If you’ve watched Attack on Titan, except with almost no time devoted to explaining where his Captain Ahab-like dedication is coming from. Everyone else is largely interchangeable. A hyper-religious alien almost stands out, until you remember that movie glossed over the very idea of alien allies.
It’s not a bad anime, exactly, it’s just that with the exception of Godzilla, it’s nothing we haven’t seen in countless spacefaring anime before. That unique aspect, the presence of kaiju, doesn’t get much of a chance to fully rear its ugly head.
It doesn’t help that the movie isn’t especially pleasant to look at. The cel-shaded animation style resembles that of another Netflix anime, Knights of Sidonia, but it doesn’t work nearly as well in this visually cluttered film. Everything is the same color and equally shiny, and its hard to make out the foreground from the complicated backgrounds, rendering most of the action a blur. Godzilla is the only exception to this, as he towers over everything else. With nothing but a sickly yellow sky behind his imposing silhouette, we can clearly see Godzilla, and he looks terrifying.
The King of the Monsters only gets a couple moments where the awesome majesty of the kaiju genre bursts through space anime tropes, but they’re the film’s highlights. Even though there aren’t any buildings 20,000 years in the future to give Godzilla a sense of scale, he still looks massive. He’s also slow, which is terrifying. Monster Planet illustrates his mass in a way that hasn’t quite been done before. His very existence — to say nothing of his inability to be stopped — is fleetingly breathtaking.
At just 90 minutes long, Monster Planet feels overstuffed and underdeveloped, probably because it’s only part one of a trilogy of movies. The second, which will add Mechagodzilla to the mix, will open in Japan this year. So, it’s possible that things will improve now that the set-up is out of the way. From the sound of it, the sequel will transition to being another sub-genre, one that both Godzilla and anime have tackled with aplomb: Giant Robots.