Wednesday, June 5, 2019

In other Godzilla news, this weird crap


Possibly the wrongest Godzilla has ever been, at the very least Gen Urobuchi's trilogy has proven itself admirably crazy—and outright insanity in pursuit of heavy-handed allegory is no vice. I think that's how the saying goes, right?

2018 and 2019, respectively
Directed by Kobun Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita
Written by Gen Urobuchi

Spoiler alert: moderate

Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle and Godzilla: The Planet Eater continue the would-be-TV-show-redeveloped-into-a-feature-film trilogy that was begun back in 2017 with Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, a film which I had no love for at the time, except for a contradictory impulse to value it for its originality while sadly deploring many of the ways it actually brought that originality to the screen.  Its premise, perhaps you recall, was as tantalizing as anything ever dreamed up in a franchise that's rarely wanted for intriguingly goofy ideas: in the first part of the 21st century, Godzilla and other monsters arose from the radioactive, polluted detritus of civilization, and humankind was more-or-less exterminated by them, with only a mere 4000 managing to escape the cursed Earth by way of an interstellar ark built with the assistance of a pair of alien species who arrived too late to help, the stern engineers of the Bilusaludo and the ethereal techno-priests of the Exif.  But life aboard their ark became stagnant, and a plan was hatched by Capt. Haruo Sakaki (Mamoru Miyano) to retake the planet humans had once called home.  By way of relativistic effects that are, of course, not presented with any particular mathematical rigor, 20,000 years have passed on Earth for the mere 20 they've been gone.

Rad?  Oh yes; and badly mishandled, too.  Yet in the light of its two sequels, I suppose that I must like Planet of the Monsters even less than I did at the time, because it becomes so redundant in context with them, essentially a scene-setting prologue to a single unified Godzilla movie that for some reason runs 289 minutes, despite only having enough material for about 200, even taking into account certain indulgences—in other words, pretty much exactly the not-entirely-well-used runtime occupied by these very sequels, released year-on-year in 2018 and 2019 respectively.  In any event, there's no reason Planet of the Monsters couldn't have been folded into City on the Edge of Battle, if pared down to half an hour (and if City were pared down to one), which is surely all that would've been required to hit all of their actual plot points.  That would leave us with a Planet of the Monsters/City hybrid and Planet Eater (untouched) as its follow-up, and that would be precisely fine.  But who does duologies?  Apparently nobody—both JCs tried, once apiece, and see how that worked out—and that's a shame.

Even so, watching City and Planet Eater without a pause between them (and with Planet of the Monsters in the receding distance of more than two years ago) was probably to their benefit, and it's worth pointing out that the main story of the trilogy (minus the opening and minus an interestingly-detached series of epilogues) is told in something very close to real time, with City starting up right where Planet of the Monsters ended, shortly after a costly victory against a creature that turned out to only be Godzilla's son (and Minya has, somehow, never looked worse), which awakened the real Godzilla, 20,000 years old, grown to the size of a mountain, and more than capable of scattering Haruo's strike force to the winds.  So City begins, essentially, with Haruo regaining consciousness in the home of his rescuer—a descendant of a human race that it turns out wasn't exterminated entirely, Miana (Ari Ozawa)—while his surviving comrades meet her twin (oh?), Maina (Reina Ueda), and all of them get dragged off to the subterranean realm of the Houtua, a band of post-apocalyptic semi-primitives eking out a hunter-gatherer life under the shadow of an ecosystem defined by Godzilla-descended monsters.  Here our heroes discover that their captors are all telepathic and they all worship a giant Egg, which their ceremonial glyphs don't fail to suggest is that of a giant moth.  (And it's delightful, for me anyway, that while Planet of the Monsters ripped off Planet of the Apes, City follows suit and rips off Beneath the Planet of Apes, in this way and in others.)

Reunited, Haruo's task force determines that the scavenged wonder metal the Houtua are using is the Bilusaludo nanometal from their failed (and previously barely-mentioned) Mechagodzilla project.  Allowed to leave with Miana and Maina in tow, they seek out the Bilusaludos' destroyed base, where they find not Mechagodzilla, exactly, but a whole city of living nanites that has maintained a camouflage against Godzilla, its dull AI waiting for the day that its masters might return to finish the fight.  To this end, Haruo and—more to the point—his Bilusaludo allies, notably Mulu-elu Galu-gu (Junichi Suwabe), take command of this newly-christened "Mechagodzilla City," rebuilding its weapons and resolving to lure Godzilla into what they hope and pray is a deadly trap.  And it is around this point that the Bilusaludo start making themselves seem pretty untrustworthy with the way they monopolize control of these all-consuming nanites, whilst Haruo's attendant Exif priest, Metphies (Takahiro Sakurai), becomes preoccupied with a token of his religion and the coming of something he promises is even worse than Godzilla.

Essentially, then, City on the Edge of Battle doubles down on the crazed world-building of the first film, revealing the Bilusaludo and Exif not simply as factions with possible ill-designs toward humanity, but walking, talking thematic devices, offering Haruo and his comrades choices that nominally present themselves as discussions on "how best to defeat Godzilla" up until the point where they drop the pretense and become incredibly explicit philosophical monologues about "how best to live as a thinking, striving ape."  And, as we move into Planet Eater, the series trebles down on this.

At least as far as the aliens are concerned, this does not happen at the expense of their characters, since their goals, personalities, and ideologies are effectively all the same thing—and this goes for the Houtuo, as well, even if they're technically not "aliens" and even if they're (slightly) less prone to declaring out loud the mode of existence they represent.  But by the same token, of course it impacts the humans, who are purely reactive to the ideas presented to them by the three factions—especially Haruo, who has now fully taken on the role of protagonist (a notion somehow expressed in dialogue by Metphies)—and they respond to all of these ideas like they've never been exposed to science fiction before, despite having spent the past two decades living in a giant freaking spaceship.  The tiny beats of "character" we get are therefore either so remorselessly plot-driven or so full-tilt allegorical they aren't likely to involve anything but the shallowest of actual feelings.  This is true for Haruo, though he is probably more "likeable" in these installments as he wrestles with what amounts to existential questions, rather than presenting purely as a one-dimensional Godzilla-hating madman; but it's even more true of everyone else, like Dr. Lazzarri (Tomokazu Sugita) and Yuko (Kana Hanazawa), the latter of whom would solely be The Girl with the function of being attracted to Haruo and getting into a particular scrape that gets way too close to tentacle hentai for comfort (that is, "whatsoever" or "at all"), though—in fairness—she also serves as a human proponent of the Bilusaludos' pathological technophilia, at least, you know, until she realizes what that means.

It also comes at the expense of "monster action" as such, and yet, in a total upending of the usual Godzilla paradigm, this is arguably actually a good thing, because City continues Polygon Studios' Planet of the Monsters tradition of just freakishly unacceptable monster design.  Or, rather, implementation: once again, the human(oid)s are presented with cel-shaded 3D models, and once again, I really like it, in spite of its weaknesses—it's slightly clunky, and, once Yuko takes her spacesuit off and gets down to a tank top, you realize that despite being anime these films have not the slightest interest in breast physics, winding up kind of subliminally appalling (if, at least, in the opposite direction of "creepily deviant"), and doing a better job than anything else of underlining the humanoid figures' limited rigging, so that they become a starting place for noticing that the harder parts like muscles have been oversimplified too—but it's still very fine at giving the characters a believable weight and dimensionality, and is even better than that at permitting some more striking animated cinematography, with the treatment of shadows and color in the latter two installments being more realistic, but also more painterly and thoughtful.

Hence the humanoids are fun to look at (the Houtuo twins in particular are excellent Avatar-inflected Beautiful Powerful Savage designs, with canny hints of their Mothra series precursors; the very tall Exif also make a significant impression), and so City and Planet Eater alike are fun to look at when it has humanoids onscreen.  But City eventually has to focus on Godzilla, so City is not always fun to look at, with the great beast once again an enormous clump of grotesque texture, overrendered and underanimated simultaneously—he looks like a Star Fox villain (you half-expect him to start spitting polygons at you rather than his heat ray) and instead of on twos, it looks like he was animated on forty-eights (and I'm barely exaggerating, I really do think the kaiju doesn't move but every fourth frame, perhaps in a very misguided attempt to replicate the classic films' penchant for overcranking).

Even so, I think City's modestly aware of how awful its Godzilla looks—which is one major reason why it's better than Planet of the Monsters—and the climactic setpiece has the decency to put him against laser towers and flying mecha, and then have him spend a great deal of it completely still while he suffers EMP harpoons (don't even ask, this series is Peak Technobabble) and overheats, meaning he doesn't have the same tendency as Planet of the Monsters' creatures to clash so terribly against his surroundings, or against humanoids.  It's ultimately a pretty exciting sequence, seizure-inducing as it likely is, vastly preferable to the abysmal Junior battle from last time.  And while it sometimes falls down into genericism, Godzilla veteran Takayuki Hattori's score is largely excellent throughout the sequels (he never makes a plain misstep as he did in Planet of the Monsters' ugly-looking and ugly-sounding climax).  It emphasizes the incongruities between monsters and men in a good way, less Akira Ifukube-inspired than last time, but with some lovely, lovely bits of Jerry Goldsmith's more experimentalist works in it (either by design or convergent evolution, I can't say), and it does enormous amounts of work on behalf of the action and even on behalf of the characters—hell, there's more character work done in the Romantic swell of Hattori's last track for the last pre-credits scene of City than in the rest of the movie combined.

But that's where the films' thematic import makes itself plain as day and continues onward, even more intensely, into Planet Eater.  Till now, the trilogy has been content mostly to forward its innovations as goofy pulp ideas that spin the Showa Era's nonsense into new forms but with the same essence—evil aliens, moths as a symbol of reconciliation with holy nature, out-of-control technology—from resurrecting the Mothra Twins as action heroines to reinventing Mechagodzilla as a nanotechnological city.  (Is it a shame that the mechs the city builds are not, actually, Mechagodzillas?  Fucking clearly, and I don't get the decision to make 'em so generic they look like the cannon-fodder mechs in a Gundam show—but whatever.)

Yet it's here that the trilogy's latent tendencies kick into high gear and it starts using its new ideas for, well, actual new things.  It winds up at a visceral rejection of technological transcendence and posthumanism before deciding to spend the next full ninety minutes discussing how that's an essentially nihilistic position.  That's where it starts to remind me of End of Evangelion and The Silver Key and Final Crisis—I assume Hideaki Anno's mind-breaking depression was a stronger influence here than H.P. Lovecraft's fear of deep time or Grant Morrison's drugged-out magic, but Urobuchi's reimagination of the Godzilla series' canon for his own purposes is about as Lovecraftian, or as Morrisonesque, as anything is likely to get without actually being Lovecraft or Morrison.  It turns out the entire trilogy was an effort to work through despair by way of cosmic horror, represented here by the most whacked-out take on King Ghidorah conceivable, a literal extradimensional deity that presents as something like a mass hallucination shared by humans and Godzilla alike (as is perhaps made overly-clear, it cannot be detected by instruments, nor be fought with physical means), whose presence is accompanied by the corruption of spacetime itself.  About as strange as a higher-dimensional entity could be while still being rendered in a visual medium for brains that obviously can't comprehend those dimensions, we get the distinct impression that despite its size and omnipotence we're only seeing the barest part of it intersecting with our reality, Flatland-style.  (I am also impressed by the way that Metphies reveals the name of the God of the Void to Haruo.  It's in an audiovisual quote from, of all things, There Will Be Blood; and extra points to City for using a post-credits scene to return to this terrifying moment.)

Planet Eater necessarily becomes borderline surrealistic, a voyage into Haruo's (and, by extension, humanity's) insecurities and venalities, and while I certainly don't approve of its philosophy—it's ultimately pretty Goddamn nihilistic in its own right, promoting a pointless path for humanity that leads to an early death for intelligence in the universe, and reduces us to animals, while also implying an eternal return from which we can never escape—but it's a heartfelt thing anyway, only mildly damaged by the fact that the ultimate visualization of Ghidorah's battle with Godzilla, while conceptually sound (well, in this batshit context), obviously can't support dozens of minutes of runtime, but Urobuchi has a need to continue his video essay and therefore to continue cross-cutting to it over and over in order to (re-)emphasize the physical stakes.  Still, the video essay part is so bizarre it can't help but be compelling (compare and contrast to, for example, High Life, another, duller space-based metaphor for the shittiness of man), and there's always something fascinatingly insane going on.  It's a tremendous evolution from the basic sci-fi post-apocalypse of Planet of the Monsters to the mystical madness of Planet Eater, but ultimately, if this is the kind of thing you want out of animation—and that's a huge, huge qualifier I probably should've expressed much earlier—it's absolutely a trip worth taking.

Score: 7/10 and 8/10, respectively

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