A little friendly argument flared up in the comments of my review of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe about the relative quality of the movies that make up director Kaneko Shusuke and writer Ito Kazunori's Gamera trilogy of the 1990s. And through this, I was amused to discover that, while there are only six possible ways to rank three movies, it appears that absolutely nobody can agree on a single ranking for these films.

So let me start off by acknowledging that I would set 1996's Gamera 2: Attack of Legion (whose onscreen English title refers to it as Advent of Legion, which is frankly a lot better) a solid step down in quality from Guardian of the Universe, largely on the grounds that while the first movie feels somewhat unlike any daikaiju eiga I have known, Attack of Legion is a lot more typical. Outside of a few individual moments, it closely resembles the 1980s/'90s Godzilla films, and while it is better than most of them (though one of the ones it's not better than is Godzilla vs. Biollante, the one it most particularly resembles), I feel like I enjoyed Kaneko and Ito more when they were pushing into newer, fresher storylines, and not just telling me the same sci-fi tinged tale of the military having a plan in place to stop any potential daikaiju, but it falls apart the first time it gets tried out, and only the large and destructive monster that has been largely mistrusted can save the day, though nobody's entirely sure if he's any better. And there's a psychic girl tossed in there for flimsy, continuity-related reasons.

That's a snippy way of reducing Attack of Legion to its most generic elements, but the happy fact is that however we want to rank the Kaneko Gameras, the difference in quality is fairly minor, and it's quite a privilege to have two consecutive films in one daikaiju eiga franchise both operating at such a high level of style, narrative coherence, and well-conceived action. A few months after Attack of Legion opened in Japan, Toho would bow its Rebirth of Mothra trilogy, in some ways a weird response to Daiei's new wave of Gamera vehicles (the RoM films are where Toho's daikaiju eiga first incorporated CGI, something that Guardian of the Universe had already employe, and Attack of Legion would rely on even more), and in other ways (mostly in that they're unambiguous children's movies, and not terribly bright ones, either), feeling like a conscious and deliberate attempt to totally ignore anything going on elsewhere in the world. Viewed against that backdrop, even the worst of Attack of Legion still makes it absolutely and incontrovertibly a top-shelf daikaiju eiga, regardless of whether it's slightly better or worse than its predecessor sitting on the same shelf.

I've basically already told you the plot, but just to flesh it out: about a year after the devastating battle between Gamera the giant tusked flying fire-breathing turtle and Gyaos the giant bat bird, Japan is still getting back on its feet, relying on international cooperation to rebuild and also police the oceans for the return of Gamera, still assumed to be a danger in the absence of counter-evidence. The potential of a giant turtle is about to be of no importance at all, though, for an aberrant meteor shower strikes Japan, and within the next couple of days, a cluster of enormous insect-like creatures have been spotted, and the city of Sapporo starts to be overrun by a kind of unknown plant material. Plucky scientist Honami Midori (Mizuno Miki) is the first to assemble all of these events into one: the meteor brought a species of space-insects to Earth, and now they're going to raid the planet for silicon, building a hive as they do so that will permit them to launch a new colony into space once they're down ravaging this planet into a dessicated husk. It takes every scrap of military power that the government, in the form of Colonel Watarase (Nagashima Toshiyuki), can throw at the insects (which have by this point been nicknamed "Legion" in reference to the swarm of malevolent spirits from the Christian Bible), just to keep them from advancing.

Japan and the world are just about fucked when out of the sea, in an absolutely terrific image that's only kind of spoiled by having the worst CGI in the whole movie, who should come but Gamera, protector of the whole world, to stop the aliens. He's been a bit slow, though, for the alien nest in Sapporo is about to produce an enormous creature almost twice Gamera's own size, all chitinous plates and enormous, crawly legs, and huge, utterly unknowable demon-bug face. And as is typically the case in Gamera films, the turtle gets much the worst of it in their first fight, being blasted into oblivion; all hope seems lost until Honami has the thought to contact Kusanagi Asani (Fujitani Ayako), the teenage girl who'd formed a special psychic bond with Gamera during his last appearance, and may be the only one who can do anything to bring him back now.

Good or bad, brilliant cinema or just tacky genre picture, there's one thing that even the crankiest hater couldn't deny: the enormous Legion Queen that comes to destroy Japan in the second half of the film is a magnificent movie monster. As much as the '90s Gamera design and the previous film's primordial beastie Gyaos are terrific, well-built, wonderfully detailed and articulated pieces of rubber sculpting at its best, the queen in this film has to count among the best monsters in any daikaiju eiga ever filmed. It is, for one thing, an alien being that honestly feels like it could not possibly have evolved on Earth, while looking familiar enough that we can immediately contextualise its sharp, stabbing edges and horrifying features: it is a marvelous creation out of the most fevered sort of nightmare, and just watching it twitch and snarl is fantastic. When it actually starts to fight with Gamera, the film takes off into the stratosphere: the final battle scene isn't merely better than anything in the first movie, it's as good as anything I've seen in any post-'60s daikaiju eiga, and it's enough to make me want to call effects director Higuchi Shinji, between this film and the last, the best man in his field since the death of Tsuburaya Eiji. The creativity of the attack strategies used (at one point, the queen zaps Gamera with whiplike tendrils made of energy, or something like that), the overwhelming drama of the smoky nighttime lighting, the rumbling momentum of Ohtani Ko's score, the excellence of the models, and the feeling of enormity are all basically perfect; colossi colliding into one another with the force of gods.

Nothing in the film is anywhere near as good as that climax; nothing in a lot of films is as good as that climax. Certainly, the only thing "wrong" with Attack of Legion is that it feels so unabashedly normal: after Guardian of the Universe told a tight thriller story that functioned entirely on its own, an interesting mystery even when it had nothing to do with daikaiju, the sequel falls into the trap of throwing a lot of stuff at the story, hopping from one narrative thread to another without doing anything to make them feel like they belong together. Not that the humans in Guardians of the Universe are rich, complex portraits of humanity, but at least they felt consistent through the feature, an anchor for the plot. The people in Attack of Legion are more like cogs.

What the film does boast that sets it above all the movies with similar plots is Kaneko's strong guiding hand and clear awareness of what he wants the movie to be. It is a serious film, with only enough humor to temper the controlled panic of its characters and the sense of real fear undergirding all of it: what is this unknowable creature from out of the blackest nightmares, why can't we stop it, what is it going to do to us? Encourage real stakes and a sense of danger are uncommon in daikaiju eiga; it is what made Kaneko's first movie such a surprise, but it's maybe even stronger here.

It's still, ultimately, a really well-made program filler, with some shaky acting (the Americans in the first scene are absolutely the pits), some amusingly overt product placement (the Legion likes Kirin Beer), an out-of-nowhere ecological lesson in the very last scene, and CGI that's, on the whole, not quite as good as in the last film, I assume because there's so much more of it. But those are not especially damning sins, and Attack of Legion is every bit as good a proof that its genre can have interesting, grown-up thoughts in its head as its remarkable predecessor was.