Last year, Netflix made a huge bet when they decided to fund the feature film adaptation of Blame!, turns out that bet didn't hinge on a single project. Less than a year later, director Hiroyuki Seshita (assisted by Kobun Shizuno) and his team return to tackle an even bigger project: Godzilla: Monster Planet [Gojira: Kaiju Wakusei]. This latest entry in the Gojira franchise is the first ever to cross over into the world of animation, and it is tasked with reeling in an entirely new group of fans into the franchise. While it's probably facing an uphill battle there, the film itself is pretty amazing.
Gojira is a tough franchise to crack. It will soon be celebrating its 65th birthday, but it seems that most people in the West still haven't quite figured out what to expect from a Gojira film. That might have something to do with Emmerich's and Edwards' poor US entries, but those familiar with the Japanese films should know by now that the Gojira films aren't big action spectacles at heart. The mayhem and destruction in these film is usually quite limited and restricted to just a couple of scenes. What surrounds that mayhem is usually a lot more tepid, focused on politics and humanity's inability to take care of its home planet.
Not only is Monster Planet the first film to turn Gojira into an animated creature, it's also the first film to move the franchise into hardcore sci-fi territory. The Gojira films were never that consistent in setting, tone and even genre, but the fact that they never tried to hide the man in the rubber suit kept them quite lighthearted and frivolous, even when they packaged a more serious message. Now that the man in the suit is gone, the monster is suddenly a lot more threatening, and Monster Planet reflects that. The fact that Seshita and his team already had a background in gritty sci-fi probably wasn't a mere coincidence.
Monster Planet reminded me a little of 90s anime, in the sense that even though its sci-fi concepts may not be very realistic, the film doesn't shy away from digging into them. It's part of the reason why the first half of the film is rather slow and talkative, with much of the film's premise being discussed quite elaborately. That means you shouldn't expect to see too much action right away. Apart from a quick Gojira cameo at the start of the film, the first half hour is spent in space, with humans fleeing from planet Earth in search of a new home. When it finally becomes clear that their mission is doomed to fail, their only remaining option is to return to Earth, in the hope Gojira died off when they were gone. It isn't until the halfway point of Monster Planet that the first signs of some good old-fashioned kaiju action start to rear their head.
On a visual level, Monster Planet is probably the best in its class. It's clear that Seshita has learned a lot from previous projects, and the evolution in the quality of the animation is stunning. Seshita and his team have been doing this style of animation for quite a while now and it really shows that they're a well-oiled team, constantly honing and improving their skills. The level of detail here is astounding, the animation itself is abundant but not buttery-smooth, as to mimic the more classic, hand-drawn feel. Not everyone is going to like the 2D look backed by computer technology, but the benefits far outweigh any possible reservations I might've once had. When Gojira and friends finally make their big appearance, it quickly dawns that this level of impact, size and grandeur isn't something that would've been possible with traditional animation.
The soundtrack is not quite as impressive. Seshita applies the score only to enhance and amplify moods, never does the score add anything unique of itself. It's not too surprising, these types of sci-fi/action films aren't generally known to have extraordinary soundtracks, but seeing how Monster Planet doesn't mind deviating from the norm, it would've been nice if they had gone the extra mile. The sound effects are on point, especially when used to accentuate the scale of the events. Gojira is a humongous creature and not only does he look like one, he sounds like one too. When the infamous Gojira scream finally rages through your speakers, you can only be in awe of his epic proportions.
This being a Netflix production, the film comes with quite a few dubbing options out of the box. French, German and English dubs are available, luckily Netflix also included the original Japanese dub. There is quite a lot of dialogue to wade through, so people who have trouble with subtitles don't have to worry too much about having to read their way through the film, but compared to the original dub, the other options to feel kind of flat and lifeless. That said, those wanting to make the switch from dub to sub should probably pick a less dialogue-heavy film.
The first half of the film is reserved for world-building and character introductions, interwoven with some welcome sci-fi distractions. It's all just one big setup for the 45-minute battle that takes place in the latter half of the film. If that balance sounds it a little off, it's probably because Monster Planet is in fact only part one in a new mini-trilogy of films. The entire film is little more than an introduction to the new version of the monster, which is why Seshita had time to dig a little deeper into the finer points of the story, rather than rush through every little plot point.
There's no need to worry, the film still works well enough as a stand-alone entry. Of course, the story isn't finished, then again that's been the case for every planned trilogy opener. Or even stand-alone films with open endings (think Planet of the Apes). Monster Planet merely sets the stage for a wider quest and an ever bigger finale. Two things I'm really looking forward to, especially when there's money and talent backing these sequels. And if you really can't handle the open ending, just hold out until all three films are available, and you'll be able to binge all you want.
Seshita is quickly making a name for himself. Making an entrance like this into the Gojira franchise is pretty daring, but it's a bet that paid off. The film has a certain gravitas that is new to the series, but it works well enough, and it makes the second part of the film all the more impressive. If you hate Seshita's trademark cell-shaded look than Monster Planet isn't for you, if you dislike open endings it's probably a little early to watch this one, but if you're an anime and/or sci-fi fan and you're up for a little Gojira action mixed with hardcore sci-fi, this is by far the best entry in the franchise so far. Bring on the sequels.