Netflix’s Godzilla Anime Trilogy is an Interesting, Disappointing Extension of the Kaijū Mythos (Review)
On paper, there’s a lot to like about Netflix’s ambitious Godzilla anime trilogy, which just wrapped up with the final installment earlier this month. Co-produced with Polygon Pictures and Toho Animation, the three films — 2017’s Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters, 2018’s Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle, and 2018’s Godzilla: The Planet Eater — feel like a concerted effort to break free of Godzilla canon. (Indeed, co-director Kōbun Shizuno revealed they “had the blessing of Toho to not be constrained by previous entries in the franchise.”)
While I do love a good kaijū movie, I don’t have a particularly strong attachment to the Big G and his many, many foes. I was, therefore, excited to see how the production staff — including directors Shizuno and Hiroyuki Seshita and writer Gen Urobuchi — might breathe new life into the kaijū canon. And there are plenty of new (and interesting) ideas strewn throughout the three movies, including some pretty significant re-imaginings of classic and beloved kaijū. (Warning: Godzilla purists might get a bit apoplectic at them all.)
Towards the end of the 20th century, monsters began to appear on Earth, with Godzilla the most powerful of them all. Even the arrival of two alien species, the otherworldly and spiritual Exif and the technologically advanced Bilusaludo, is unable to stop Godzilla’s rampage. The surviving humans, Exif, and Bilusaludo are forced to flee the planet aboard the spaceship Aratrum and find a new home elsewhere.
But after two decades of searching, their efforts have been in vain. Faced with rising tensions, diminishing supplies, and apparent acts of sabotage, the Aratrum leadership finally agree to return to Earth and face down Godzilla. But upon arrival, they discover that 20,000 years have passed (a nice little nod to relativistic physics there) and that Godzilla’s continued existence has significantly altered Earth. Even Godzilla himself is no longer the monster they originally faced.
The survivors’ only hope lies in a combination of Exif spirituality, Bilusaludo engineering, and the strategy of a hotheaded young soldier named Haruo Sakaki, who swore revenge on Godzilla after his parents were killed on Earth so long ago. But Earth isn’t as abandoned as they think: a mysterious civilization has somehow survived Godzilla’s notice. Meanwhile, tensions and betrayals from within the survivors’ ranks threaten to undermine all of their efforts.
Needless to say, this Godzilla trilogy sets the stakes quite high, sometimes ridiculously so, such as when alien technology threatens to remake the entire planet or our heroes find themselves face-to-face with a new foe from another dimension. At points, I was (somewhat humorously) reminded of anime series like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Project Blue Earth SOS that constantly placed their protagonists in one world-ending scenario after another.
At the same time, for all of its raised stakes, epic showdowns, world-ending betrayals, and apocalyptic images, the trilogy has a surprising dearth of energy and urgency. At the very least, those wanting a fun, massive, knock-down drag-out kaijū smackdown will almost certainly be disappointed. The trilogy’s far more interested in ideas — e.g., the tension between science and religion, the dangers when both science and religion run amok, what (if any) significance human life can have in light of natural forces like Godzilla — than atomic breath. And considering that Gen Urobuchi wrote it, it’s not surprising that the trilogy takes those ideas in some pretty dark, nihilistic directions.
Granted, some of those ideas are not necessarily new — as Daniel Dockery points out, Godzilla has often been portrayed as a natural force — but they’ve rarely been pushed to such extremes, especially by the time Godzilla: The Planet Eater enters its final, super-apocalyptic act.
I’m reluctant to criticize Godzilla movies for being too “cerebral,” simply because I think that’s too limiting of what a Godzilla movie can be. (Case in point, 2016’s Shin Godzilla, which is as much a satirical look at Japanese bureaucracy as anything resembling a “typical” Godzilla movie.) But as interesting as I found it to be, I rarely found the Godzilla anime trilogy suspenseful or anything resembling emotionally gripping.
Much of this comes down to the characters themselves. With the exception of Sakaki and the Exif leader Metphies, all of the characters seem fairly interchangeable and indistinguishable from each other, both in terms of design and personality. But Sakaki is so consumed with hatred for Godzilla that he becomes pretty one-note (while the films try to evolve him, it’s too little, too late) and Metphies’ cryptic nature (which is obviously meant to make him seem more alien and spiritual) renders him fairly boring, too.
And then there’s the animation. This being a Polygon Pictures production, all of the animation is done via 3DCG, and all that entails. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding CG anime, with some arguing that it allows animators to work more quickly and create more consistent work, and others arguing that it looks cheesy and/or soulless. I’ll just put it this way: if you’re a 3DCG skeptic, than Netflix’s Godzilla trilogy probably won’t convert you.
This certainly isn’t Polygon’s best work for Netflix (I think that’s their Blame! adaptation). There are some cool visuals, such as the mysterious Houtua’s underground civilization and Ghidorah’s inevitable appearance. But the CG animation often makes characters look like they’re sleepwalking through the scenery (especially Metphies); the dust and scratches on characters’ equipment, though intended to create a broken down, lived in aesthetic that highlights their tenuous existence, looks like rendering errors that QA missed; and it consistently made this viewer feel one more step removed from the story and its action.
(Obviously, CG animation is not inherently bad — just look at Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Though considerably more stylized, fantastical, and cartoony than the Godzilla trilogy’s hard sci-fi aesthetic, it’s still a perfect example of how CG animation’s technical capabilities can accentuate and enhance the storyline in ways that would be more difficult to do with traditional animation.)
The end result is a trilogy that’s certainly not lacking for ambition and scope; it just fails to deliver in any meaningful way. It propounds good ideas, but the over-reliance on heady dialog at the expense of character development and the flashy looking but ultimately hollow animation and design make these three Godzilla movies more of a slog than you’d ever want from a kaijū movie.
What’s particularly frustrating is that the trilogy does end on a surprisingly lyrical and poignant note, one that finally delivers some grace for Sakaki and tempers its nihilism. But at the same time, it drives home the fact that Netflix’s Godzilla trilogy will consistently and ultimately leave you wondering what might’ve been.