Tuesday, January 23, 2018

You blew it up


You want to say, "nice try," but shouldn't you have something better to say about something you liked than that?

Directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita
Written by Gen Urobuchi
With Mamoru Miyano (Capt. Haruo Sakaki), Takahiro Sakurai (Metphies), Junichi Suwabe (Mulu Elu Galu Gu), Tomokazu Sugita (Martin Lazarri), Daisuke Ono (Maj. Elliot Leland), and Kana Hanazawa (Yuko Tani)

Spoiler alert: moderate

I probably overvalue Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters because its premise is so wonderful and long-overdue, even if it is, in many respects, mishandled.  So even if I do overvalue it, it's still the exact kind of kaiju movie I've always wanted somebody to make—indeed, I had an idea a little bit like it myself, ages ago, when I still had the capacity for creative thought of my own—and it's the kind of kaiju movie that we almost caught a glimpse of, back in Godzilla: Final Wars and Pacific Rim.  But where both of those films were far too distracted by other concerns to ever really lean over and gaze hard into that beckoning abyss, Planet leaps headfirst right into it, and finally gives us what we have to call, in some sense, the ultimate kaiju movie: the one that at last takes the underlying narrative logic of all kaiju cinema to its inevitable extreme, and gives voice to the audience's long and deeply held suspicion that a world that's become overrun with monsters—which is the world posited by any Godzilla series, if only it goes on long enough—is by necessity a world that human beings can no longer call their own.

The title gives it completely away, of course—and, as Planet explains in an expository montage, during the last decades of the 20th century, the Toho monsters (both legendary and very, very obscure) arose from their eons of slumber, wiping humanity off the face of the planet in their malign indifference to our race.  Every action humanity took to defend itself only made matters worse, culminating in a massive nuclear strike upon the greatest of all the monsters, Godzilla, as he roamed across the United States... and, obviously, this tactic didn't work.

Oh, that's very mature, Japan.

Thus we soon find ourselves moved twenty years down the line, and face to the face with the last remnants of humanity aboard their spacefaring ark—some 4000 souls, no more—evacuated from a forsaken Earth with the assistance of the last remnants of two other, alien species, who had arrived on Earth in humanity's waning days with offers of assistance that, clearly enough, didn't pan out.  Amongst these various remnants, then, is Captain Haruo Sakaki, an angry young man, who we meet as he threatens a suicide bombing aboard a colonization shuttle in protest of the ruling committee's decision to send a bunch of elderly citizens upon a low-hope colonization mission to a dreary and unsuitable planet.  It's only through the intervention of one of these old people, who turn out to be more-or-less actively suicidal themselves in their desire to die with actual ground beneath their feet, that Sakaki gives up on his act of terrorism and consents to being arrested—though, luckily for him, he's not even in the brig long enough to face trial, because as resources run out, and the odds of finding a New Earth dwindle to a statistical impossibility, the committee turns to Sakaki as the only officer aboard who's ever once presented any kind of plan to kill Godzilla and retake their homeworld.

And up until they actually do go back, Planet of the Monsters is kind of excellent, although mired in superfluous post-Earth sci-fi tropes—it's Battlestar Galactica and Planet of the Apes and a whole lot more besides; most notably, its backstory is, on paper, frighteningly identical to After Earth's—and, as you can guess, it's not necessarily what you might want out of a Godzilla movie.  (There's an argument, and a very good one, that the collapse of modern human civilization in the face of rampaging monsters, as depicted with vertiginous speed during that five minute introductory montage, is more inherently interesting than anything that comes after it; and, if you accept that argument, it follows that Toho and Polygon Studios, when putting their animated Godzilla project together, should have just made that movie instead.  Indeed, when you consider that Planet started out production as a TV series rather than a feature film, and that—to its great discredit—it has no interest whatsoever in concealing this fact, let alone in being its own self-contained story, even the best excuses for starting twenty years after the fall of mankind begin to evaporate away.)

Still, I said it's excellent, and it is, and (while I sadly still haven't gotten the chance to actually see it) my understanding is that it picks up on a thematic thread left behind by 2016's Shin Godzilla, in that Planet is likewise more concerned with the collective, rather than any particular individual.  In truth, this is kind of the way things go in a lot of Godzilla flicks; but rarely is it so foregrounded as here.  Sakaki is presented as the "protagonist," but it's rather deep into the movie before he actually matters more than anybody else, even as a focal point for the narrative; and Planet is surprisingly good at capturing the warp and weft of this diaspora society as it languishes, and the swirl of compromise and vitriol that characterizes decisions made by committee.  It's all the more surprising, given that the issues facing this society, and the choices presented to its ruling committee, are almost always pitched with the kind of [tech tech] balderdash that would look lazy even in a Star Trek: Voyager script.

And I mean one by Brannon Braga, too.

But as been-there done-that as it undeniably is, the fact is that it's not often done very well in movies or in TV, and hence there's still something a little fascinating about this dying society, with its apocalyptic dislocation and its dependence upon a new, alien religion as the only opiate available to them.  (As a result, the most interesting character in Planet by far is Metphies, an Exif, one of the two species that's joined humanity in exile, and who's taken on the ambiguously-formalized role of high priest; it follows that the most interesting exchange of dialogue in Planet is a brief conversation between Metphies and Mulu Elu Galu Gu, another kind of alien, each nostalgically lamenting their respective race's inability to colonize and conquer Earth before the monsters ruined it for everybody.)  In any event, it's the most intriguing backdrop a Godzilla movie's ever had, and beats the franchise's other, very occasional attempts at sci-fi worldbuilding (especially the obscene self-parody of Final Wars) with a big, knotty stick.

It kind of doesn't matter, though, because the target of all these plans, Earth, is not that interesting in and of itself—or, when it is interesting, it's mostly interesting in bad ways—despite the relativistic effects that have made twenty years in space twenty thousand, back on the planet.  The prospect of a world actually overrun with monsters is not well-presented: we get some non-Godzilla flying beasties, but they are godawfully terrible (you can kind of squint and see a Rodan in them, but the movie's certainly not keenly interested in you making that connection), and it comes part-and-parcel with some talk about evolution that makes no sense, along with a jungle full of trees that are made out of metal and a hill of lichen-like growth that has taken on the shape of humanity's own fossilized ruins (and, fine, when it comes to all this, I'll give it some credit, for it's some fine, fine good-bad sci-fi claptrap).  Ultimately, though, Planet's just frustratingly strange in the constraints it puts on its spectacle: it is, after all, a movie that could only be made as animation, unless you wanted to spend $300 million on it, and it pushes breezily past the limitations of all Godzilla's previous live-action romps—but only right up until the moment that it actually arrives upon the selling point that's right there in its damn name, that is, a world devastated by all of Toho's famous monsters, not just the one in the title.

And this is where we stop, and talk about how Polygon animated their monster movie: with cel-shaded 3D models.  It's a technique we've all seen before, of course, and it's not like anime hasn't been using it for years, though it is the first feature I've seen that makes this technology the core (and, indeed, exclusive) element of its aesthetic.  It works extremely well for the backgrounds and machines; it works well enough, I think, for the people, because while there's a jarring, mechanistic feel to their movements, those movements also have a real weight that's incredibly intriguing to look at, and it never interferes with the "acting" on these cartoons' faces.  The impression of Planet's characters as powering-down robots subsides quickly enough, then, especially as the animation's lighting and coloring resists any urge that might have been there to be "realistic"; it dedicates itself instead to a delightfully graphic, comic-book-style scheme, with great inky swathes of unmotivated black alongside other solid hues.  (As for the animation-qua-animation, I'm especially impressed by the uncanny elegance of the hair mechanics—big locks are animated individually—which is perhaps expensive, and doubtless time-consuming, and that might well be why this movie doubles right the fuck down on Space Future Patriarchy, and has no female characters worthy of the name, and the only one who even kind of gets there has a short bob.  Thus I'm basing this observation entirely on Metphies.)

But people are not what we come to see in a Godzilla film, and it does not work—like, at all—for this Godzilla film's monsters, which might be cel-shaded, but look like scarcely more than the giant, hideous lumps of texture which they fundamentally are.  The pseudo-rodans get the very worst of it, but Godzilla is surely almost as bad.  The monsters don't look like they even belong in the same universe as anything else on the screen—indeed, they don't look they belong in any universe, period—and the explosions (rendered with naked CGI) are somehow even worse.  2D and 3D have never had a pleasant history of cohabitation, I suppose, but Planet is like watching domestic abuse.

It's not aided, one little bit, by the offensively bad style that goes into its action—yeah, I don't know if there's a principled reason why watching models of mid-century jet fighters shoot at Godzilla looks cool, but watching people on flying sci-fi motorcycles shoot at Godzilla looks ridiculously stupid, but I do know I don't need such a reason to declare it so.  Maybe it's simply that Planet is so despicably pleased to go full-tilt anime during its action sequences, winding up incredibly exhausting without ever once being exhilarating; you can describe it, without missing much, as a collection of fast POV zooms that do active violence to Godzilla's pixels, interspersed with screaming close-ups of anonymous faces and the wailings of an electric guitar.  (The film bleeds, not very seamlessly, from a good, appropriately-militaristic, Akira Ifukube-inspired score to random thrashing, and I'm tempted to say that this is the single worst thing the movie ever does.)  It's all so savage and chaotic that the only reason you even know that major characters haven't already died is because no one's made a big deal of their demise, although God knows it looks like Sakaki dies two or three times over.  (Planet plays routinely with the prospect of a protagonist-switch.  It's perhaps a pity it doesn't commit to one: Sakaki's an odd choice for a Godzilla movie protagonist, after all, amped-up and angry and determined beyond all reason to Make Humanity Great Again—his approach to nature is that human beings were meant to trample it underfoot; more dissonantly still, his approach to experimental weapons science is that it is awesome—but it is only in the very, very end that our hero's arrogant viewpoint gets its comeuppance.)

So, what we're left with is a premise in search of a much better demonstration of its power, though it never abandons the great benefit of simply having that premise, which no other kaiju movie before it has ever been able afford.  I think, on balance, it's almost worthwhile, just for its uniqueness within the subgenre—the next film may or may not be better, and I would've been much happier if there hadn't been a "next film" in anyone's mind while they were making this one—but I'm not angry I saw it, nor do I quite regret that it exists.

Score: 5.01/10

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