Go onto Netflix and search for “Godzilla” and you’ll be greeted by the 1998 Roland Emmerich blockbuster, the US remake of the Japanese icon that was so uneven and misjudged that its monster became known as “Zilla”, an unofficial cousin to the original kaiju. That same fate is unlikely to happen this equally surprising spin-off from the Toho franchise: Godzilla’s first animated feature film.
GODZILLA: Planet of the Monsters takes its time introducing the creature, knowing that to do so too soon would ruin the impact. But there’s no risk of that: from the off, this anime is a colossally impressive spectacle, one that builds a gargantuan world to explore far beyond the city rubble of a ruined Tokyo. We join the story long after the whole Earth has been mostly destroyed by the emergence not just of Godzilla, but multiple kaiju, battling with each other and leaving humankind as fatal collateral damage. After half a century, in 2048, the remaining survivors flee on a vessel, emigrating to form a colony on the planet Tau-e.
It’s an expansive backdrop against which to paint a story, and directors Kōbun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita have the imagination and mythology to fill it – our humans are accompanied by the Exif, a species of alien keen to convert humanity to its religion. That philosophy looks above the basic sense of right and wrong and focuses on concepts of honour, nobility and heroism – all the kinds of qualities one might need to take on the God-like force of nature that is Godzilla. It should come, perhaps, as no surprise that the Exif seem keen to go head-to-toe with the monster, as the enigmatic priest Metphies releases classified data to Haruo about Godzilla. The report’s conclusion? That Godzilla generates an electromagnetic shield using his dorsal fin. Destroy that weak spot, destroy the creature.
Haruo, who saw his parents killed by Godzilla as a child, is all too happy to lead the charge for vengeance – and so, when he realises that humankind’s emigration plan is only designed to kill off the weak and elderly, he convinces the colony to turn around and go back a dozen light years to home.
It’s far from an easy homecoming: the planet is uninhabitable, still populated by monsters and humans are bottom of the food chain. And that’s before you even consider our colony’s depleted tech resources, limited arsenal and the fact that their entire hope of success relies on maybe hitting a square foot on the back of a killer radioactive lizard.
Godzilla’s alliance has always been an ambiguous one, but the Shinto-like figure never loses his association with the environment and a sense of eco-correction: if he began in 1954 as a force of terror, born of humankind’s war and nuclear destruction, here, he’s reimagined as a similar bringer of balance, as the Exifs view kaijus as an essential part of the universe’s life cycle: civilisations become arrogant and wasteful, up pop monstrosities to put them back in their place. Rinse, wipe out, repeat.
Haruo’s heartfelt backstory (acted well by Mamoru Miyano – or Chris Niosi, if dubbed dialogue is your thing), and kamikaze sense of justice, make it easy to root for the humans, even though the rest the cast (as is tradition with Godzilla movies) are less well defined – there’s less substance to this narrative than Ishiro Honda’s classic, but it makes up for slightly less depth with much more scale. After laying that emotional and mythical groundwork, Knights of Sidonia veterans Shizuno and Seshita conjure up a collision between two equally angry powers. It’s one that’s stuffed full of glowing machines, rapid-firing pulses and impressively rendered foliage – a stunning, imaginative montage of mechanical warfare and a natural world that’s grown all too unnatural.
But this is all just the context for the unveiling of one thing: Godzilla himself. He’s later than you might expect in arriving, but his creature design is gorgeously detailed: a mass of hefty muscle and sparking body tissue, all of which reinforces the staggering bulk of the stony idol, a rugged tower that never quite fits on the screen. This Godzilla is, literally, a beast. (Even with another alien race hoping to activate Mechagodzilla to defeat him, it’s hard to imagine them ever succeeding.)
Combined with Takayuki Hattori’s music, which increasingly harks back to the original Gojira theme with its staccato, running strings, the stage is set for a wonderfully tense and intimidating climax. The result finds fresh fear in an old legend. It’s undoubtedly the first part of a trilogy, but the unfinished ending makes such a bold introduction to this sci-fi incarnation of Godzilla that even when you see him, you can’t quite believe it’s the genuine original article. Forget the levelling of a single city: he and a whole planet of monsters await us, and if these exciting 90 minutes are anything to go by, this anime trilogy promises to live up to the official title, even as it leaves the familiar legend far behind. Searching for “Godzilla” on Netflix just got exciting once again.
Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.