VOD Triple Play: Godzilla (Netflix).
Netflix’s trilogy reinvents Godzilla in interesting ways, deftly re-purposing decades of monsters and lore.
Toho’s big green kaiju has been around for almost seventy years, and in that time he’s pretty much done it all. One area he’s had trouble crushing has been the animated frontier. Sure, we’ve had the hilarious 1970’s Hanna-Barbera cartoon series…and the less than hilarious Godzilla series based on the reviled 1998 Hollywood film. But really, big green never conquered the animated market, despite calling the animation capital of the world home. Well, Toho and Netflix decided to do something about that.
Netflix’s Godzilla trilogy fires on all cylinders. The 3D animation is crisp and gorgeous. The story is initially a bit tired, reflecting many familiar tropes. Luckily, as the trilogy progresses, the studio really hits its stride with Godzilla’s biggest strength – cultural metaphors. The action flows nicely, building to a cathartic climax in each film. The characters are strong, despite a angsty protagonist. Finally, the film manages to pay homage to all of Godzilla’s wild and wonderful history in ways that are sharp and insightful. Let’s dive in.
Godzilla: Planet of Monsters (2017)
Young Haruo Sakaki witnesses the last days of man on planet Earth. Ecological disasters have ravaged the planet and awakened gigantic monsters. The biggest and baddest is Godzilla, who not only destroys his monster competitors but 90% of humanity. Two alien races arrive on Earth, each having experienced similar tragedy on their extinct home planets. When their help fails to stop the titan, all three races flee to space…but Haruo watches helplessly as his parents are destroyed by Godzilla just before take off.
Now a grown soldier on the space colony, he devises a way to finally kill the monster. He convinces the council of three species to let him return to Earth with a volunteer army and a plan to kill Godzilla once and for all.
The first film in the trilogy is the weakest…and the most action packed. Haruo is your stereotypical conflicted protagonist, think Neon Evangelion’s Shinji or Attack on Titan’s Eren Yeager. He’s angry, he’s supposedly important, and he’s utterly unlikable. He is, however, surrounded by interesting stuff. The convoy of humanity reminded me of Battle Star Galactica, and the dystopian tropes of a limping humanity forcing the old and unfit be carelessly discarded felt like Snowpiercer.
When we finally get back to Earth, the ideas blossom ten fold. We have a planet that has completely shifted to serve a new life form – Godzilla. The grass can cut you, birds are dragons, and the remnant of humanity left alive has become a diminutive but psychically powerful minority.
The action flows, despite the viewer not being 100% in the know about what is happening. The animation and music are very good. The combat scenes feel satisfying, if a bit vague. The science fiction is certainly “hand-wavy” in the first part, but becomes the bedrock for the ideas going forward.
Godzilla: The City on the Edge of Battle (2018).
Having failed to destroy the ultimate form of Godzilla, Haruo and his party are marooned on the planet. The mysterious Houtua, a remnant of humanity who have survived due to the psychic protection of a Mothra egg, take Haruo in and explain the nature of the new world.
One of the alien leaders discovers that the Houtua use a metal that is left over from their attempt to create a MechaGodzilla to kill the first monster. He backtracks the material and discovers MechaGodzilla City, a site of living bio metal that had survived with its mission intact – kill Godzilla.
Here we go. This episode really exults in the lore of Toho’s Godzilla franchise. The Houtua are essentially Mothra’s Shobijin – the little shrine maidens who worship Mothra. They are fantastically re-imagined as evolved humans who seem primitive but are powerfully in-tune with nature. The race that created MechaGodzilla are based on the old Showa era aliens who actually created the monster, but they are re-imagined as Vulcan-esque logical beings who worship machines and A.I.
The fact that we never get a bipedal MechaGodzilla or a physical Mothra further cements the metaphysical ground of the series. Every faction is a metaphor for an issue, and this retroactively spreads to our heroes and Godzilla.
Godzilla: The Planet Eater (2018).
Haruo made a fateful choice in the fight against Godzilla and MechaGodzilla City, which left his friends injured and desperate. The Houtua twins try to convince him that peaceful survival is the only way to win against Godzilla, but the last remaining alien race has another gambit: summon their god, the reality warping King Ghidorah, who will kill Godzilla…for a price.
The final movie nails the philosophical nature of the Toho series, while dropping the ball on the action. Each faction is now firmly a philosophical ideal, which is beautifully matched to which monster they worship. Haruo’s angst becomes the central pivot, as he is the last living “human” to have actually lived on Earth before Godzilla arrived. His struggle to reconcile his beliefs with those around him make the meat of the series. Unfortunately, that makes for a very cerebral film that lacks any really good monster fights.
I was worried that a lot of the first two film’s thread would get dropped…and they are…until the final half hour. It all comes back around and pays everything off, but you need to be patient. The pacing is fine but not as good as the first two episodes. The film sacrifices big beats for big ideas, though the animation in the final episode is probably the best in the trilogy.
I absolutely loved this series. I’ve seen Godzilla re-imagined so many ways – force of nature, existential threat, bureaucratic nightmare, mental fantasy, silly lucha libre monster. This one was the most interesting, while relegating him to the sidelines. There’s a price to pay for making everything so heady: the fights become less frequent and more fraught. The upside is that everything has such a clear purpose and meaning that you don’t mind. Even angry Haruo winds up being insightful and important.
This animated series is a gift to fans. 70 years of lore gets transmuted into the smartest and sleekest version of itself. I loved the re-invisioning of Mothra, MechaGodzilla, and the weirdo alien races from the early Showa era. Nothing in Godzilla’s past is forgotten, it’s just made fresh and new. For fans of the franchise, here’s your favorites given a new spin. For fans of anime, this works just as well as Evangelion or Attack on Titan. For monster mash lovers…maybe go see the old Godzilla films instead…