Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters Review

Hollywood’s next live-action Godzilla movie is scheduled to hit theaters in 2019, just a few months before its title character turns 65 — an age traditionally associated with retirement for a lot of us frail human beings. This film is the sequel to Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla reboot, which hit theaters a few months before the character turned 60, the age when AMC moviegoers start collecting senior citizen discounts.

While he may be getting a little long in the tooth by human standards, to write the king of the kaiju off as geriatric would be to ignore his prodigious lifespan. In Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, the 30th Toho production and first-ever animated feature based on Japan’s greatest pop cultural export, that lifespan is established to be at least 20,000 years. As we reported last month, the film is coming to Netflix in 2018 as part of a slate of 12 original anime series that the streaming service plans to release over the course of the year. It already had its opening weekend in Japan, however, and I saw it at Toho Cinemas Shinjuku, a landmark Tokyo movie theater housed in a building topped with a life-size Godzilla head.

So let’s take a deep dive. Here’s what you should know about Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters before you stream it next year.


The Film’s Title is an Intentional Sci-Fi Homage

If that title, Planet of the Monsters (Kaiju Wakusei in Japanese), sounds like an homage to Planet of the Apes (Saru no Wakusei in Japanese), that is probably no coincidence, as the movie’s plot is indeed something of a riff on Planet of the Apes.

A ship full of human refugees drifts through space, having evacuated Earth after the planet was, as the movie’s website puts it, beset by “the emergence of colossal creatures” near the end of the twentieth century. During the film’s opening credits, these creatures are shown devastating major cities like New York, London, and Paris. Aided by the so-called “Exiles,” a group of humanoid extra-terrestrials reminiscent of the Elves in Lord of the Rings, the refugee ship has traveled for two decades, across a dozen lightyears.

When it turns out the planet they were bound for is uninhabitable, the humans must soon make a return trip to Earth. One of them is a young man named Haruo, who as a boy, witnessed the death of his parents during an attack by Godzilla on the spaceship launch site. For Haruo, it was only 20 years ago when that happened; but if you saw Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, you may remember that the effects of time dilation in space can seriously skew temporal numbers.

20,000 years have elapsed back on Earth, more than enough time for Godzilla and other monsters who look like rock pterodactyls to exercise full dominion over the planet. While there is nothing equivalent to the iconic beach scene with the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, there is a fun little Easter egg on a map teasing how buildings in Tokyo’s famous Shibuya district have become fossilized.

Let’s talk, now, about the second thing you should know. This one requires a little more discussion, and it could prove contentious.


The Film Continues the Tradition of Withholding Sight of the Monster

If you are one of the people who was disappointed by the lack of screen time for Godzilla in the 2014 movie bearing his name, then you should know that Planet of the Monsters involves a lot of talky setup among human and humanoid characters in scuffed-up spacesuits. Roughly the first half (maybe the first two-thirds?) of the film plays out in this fashion.

It is unclear, at this point, whether Netflix intends to release the film solely in English-dubbed form or whether there will also be an English-subtitled version available that maintains the beauty of the spoken Japanese. In the U.S. iTunes Store, for instance, there have been times when films like Ghost in the Shell and The Boy and the Beast were only available in dubbed form.

Personally, I have never been a fan of dubbed anime. With the exception of some of the Studio Ghibli films that Disney has (or had, until recently) distributed in the U.S., I think the voices in dubbed versions tend to be over-exaggerated. I do not mind reading subtitles, but I can see how that might detract from the visuals and be a real turn-off for some people, particularly in a dialogue-heavy film like this.

Last year, in his Fantastic Fest review of Shin Godzilla, Jacob Hall wrote about how that film, otherwise known as Godzilla: Resurgence, strove in part to be a political satire. Co-directed by Hideaki Anno, the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion (it even utilized some of the music from that epic anime series) Shin Godzilla also chose to skimp on the title monster, preferring instead to show us scenes of ineffectual government officials conferring at length, only for them to reach the monumental decision that it was time to move to another room (all while Godzilla continued to wreak havoc on civilization outside). Planet of the Monsters lacks that element of political satire, yet it does call to mind Evangelion with its abundant use of technical jargon and holographic control-room displays.

Maybe it is just the fact that apes are innately more humanlike, capable of showing emotion with their faces, but compared to, say, the Andy Serkis’ King Kong, Godzilla has never struck me as a monster who conveyed much interior life. Here again, he does not display personality so much as he exists as a force of nature. In the background, that force of nature rampages unchecked, while in the foreground, minuscule humans show themselves capable of great courage and dispiriting weakness as they struggle to survive in the face of overwhelming adversity.

For some fans, this might situate Planet of the Monsters firmly in the pantheon of strong franchise entries that capture the heart and soul of what Godzilla is truly about. But that asks another question: what is the true Godzilla ethos? At its core, is Godzilla meant to be a disaster movie, a monster movie, or some singular permutation of both?

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