The Godzilla series is in a weird place these days. The series was previously retired (in Japan at least) with the release of 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars. But following the success, and presumably the resulting cash influx, of the 2014 American film, the Big Guy returned to Japanese screens in 2016 with Godzilla Resurgence. While everyone expected another live-action film to be announced, Toho instead threw a curveball by disclosing that the next Godzilla would be an animated movie — the first in the franchise’s history — and wouldn’t connect to Resurgence in any way. The resulting film, Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, is just as much of an odd, shambling beast as Resurgence, equally preoccupied with carving out a new angle for the franchise, but in a totally different mindset of what that angle should be. At least there aren’t so many boardroom scenes this time around.
Like Resurgence, Planet of the Monsters is a real talker of a movie, frontloading a metric ton of story and exposition. We’re caught up to speed on the story for this iteration with a brisk opening monologue: Godzilla and other monsters emerged towards the end of the 20th century, and in this version neither technology nor bureaucracy could avert disaster. Even with the help of not one, but two humanoid alien races who show up to lend a hand, humanity is devastated by the kaiju attacks, and the few thousand survivors take to the stars in a faster-than-light ship in the hopes of finding a new planet to live on.
We join our heroes after twenty years of jumping around the galaxy trying and failing to find a new home. Our chief protagonist, a man named Haruo, who remembers leaving Earth in the midst of Godzilla’s attacks, comes up with a feasible-sounding plan for killing the beast once and for all. With no other options, the ship returns to Earth, where twenty thousand years have passed thanks to the mechanics of lightspeed travel.
Once all that exposition is out of the way, however, the periodic info-dumps continue unabated, with most of the front half of the film bogged down with lengthy scenes detailing Godzilla’s physiology, the proposed plan to kill him, and how Earth’s environment has changed in the years since mankind left. This is probably the first thing that will turn off many audience members — if you’re looking for a dose of pulpy, action-heavy monster mayhem, Planet of Monsters may not be the movie for you.
But let’s say you’re cool with your monster movies being big on chatter; what exactly is being said? What’s the subtext here? While Resurgence is all about cool heads prevailing thanks to efficient bureaucratic mechanisms, Planet of the Monsters goes the opposite route by doubling down on emotional intensity. For Haruo, the mission to kill Godzilla isn’t a matter of practicality or even survival — for him it’s all about ideology. In Haruo’s mindset, humanity’s time in space has robbed it of its dignity, its pride. To him, the move to evacuate Earth rather than continuing to attempt to fight Godzilla (or die trying) is a failure on mankind’s part, a mistake that he intends to correct. If you’re subtext hunting, he can easily be seen as a half-century-late reflection of the bitterness and anger that many Japanese felt following Hirohito’s surrender at the end of World War II.
Haruo doesn’t care that Earth has seemingly been rendered largely uninhabitable in the time we’ve been away. Taking back Earth is a matter of pride for him, a mission to not reclaim a homeland as much as an ideal. Depending on your mindset, this is another potential roadblock for your enjoyment of the film. If you’re of even a marginally pragmatic mindset, Haruo’s breathless idealism will come across more as utter lunacy than the fist-pumping inspiration the movie might want you to think it is. In this way, Planet of the Monsters feels like a reaction to the cool, bureaucratic pragmatism of Resurgence, but perhaps an overreaction. If you buy into Haruo’s pride-driven, sentimentalist worldview, you’ll be able to get behind him as a protagonist. Otherwise, you’ll probably find yourself rooting for the stuffy, pragmatic military types the film positions as villains (or at least a hindrance to the hero). And even if all that ideological fist-pumping is your jam, it’s hard to escape that Haruo and the cast in general, just aren’t terribly interesting or developed as characters.
And then there’s the ending. Without giving too much away, the film ends on a massive cliffhanger, one that wraps up none of the film’s characters, story-arcs or overall narrative. When you load up the film on your Netflix account, the fact that it’s labeled as “Part 1” of a series should help you see this coming, but even knowing that what you’re watching is part of a whole, the open-ended nature of the climax pretty much cripples the film’s ability to function on its own. There’s no resolution, no closure — just a glorified “to be continued” screen.
So why watch the movie at all, if the open-endedness makes it far from satisfying, and the main character is a crazy person depending on your worldview? Well, even if it doesn’t succeed in its lofty ambitions, Planet of the Monsters certainly feels like a better balance of action and subtext than Resurgence did, if only because the action scenes aren’t constantly being broken up with the director’s bureaucracy fetish. The action scenes, even if they only really happen towards the end of the movie, are fun and well-animated. The film shares many faults with Resurgence, a preponderance of exposition among them, but its talkiness feels less grating here. There are some more Easter eggs to please fans, and enough high-flying action scenes to keep you interested if you’re just here for the fireworks. How well this whole venture will work out in the end, however, when all three installments have been released, remains to be seen. As it is, Planet of the Monsters is a unique, if rather unsuccessful attempt at taking the Godzilla franchise into some new territory.