Pretender to the Throne
Godzilla is directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich and stars Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Pitillo, Hank Azaria, Kevin Dunn, Michael Lerner, and Harry Shearer.
If one were to consider the 1998 American Godzilla to officially be a part of the Godzilla library, the question must be asked: what exactly is it about the 1998 Godzilla that is impressive enough to qualify it as a Godzilla film? Certainly, we are not dealing with the same Godzilla that made Tokyo and all of Japan his personal playground for the better part of the 40 years prior. No, this is a Godzilla that is making his presence felt in New York City: the perfect spot for a monster attack in the United States. So let me rephrase the question: is a Godzilla film, set in New York, and entrusted to none other than Roland Emmerich enough to qualify said film to be a part of the official Godzilla library? The answer, my dear readers, is a big fat no.
The 1998 Godzilla was the first of an originally planned American Godzilla trilogy; Toho was in the middle of their second Godzilla hibernation period, not intending to bring back the character until the start of the new millennium (I think it was around 2004 when Toho had planned on rebooting the series). Toho granted permission for an American Godzilla film to producer and distributor Henry G. Saperstein, and after jumps through many hoops, a Godzilla film produced by TriStar Studios, written by screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, and utilizing the talents of director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin was in the works, at least until Emmerich decided to throw out Elliott and Rossio's script and, with Devlin's assistance, create a new one from scratch. Emmerich made it very clear that, if he agreed to do the film, he would be granted total creative freedom with no worries about studio interference. Right then and there, Godzilla was doomed to fail, because if there's one thing we've learned about Roland Emmerich over the years, it's that the man is a savant when it comes to style-over-substance.
I was only knee high when Godzilla first hit theaters back in 1998, so I have utterly no memories of the film's rampant advertising campaign. You maybe have seen pictures or short video clips of it: buses, billboards, and other large structures with a poster for the film that read: his ____ is bigger than this ____. TriStar had no confidence the film would do well, evident in their refusal to give test screenings and set aside time to fix any flaws. Thus, their only hope was to market the crap out of the film and try turning Godzilla into the film that everyone was talking about, increasing the likelihood that people would go see the film just because they saw posters for it on every street corner, not because they thought it would be a great time at the theaters. Either way, it's a ticket someone pays for, and that's all that matters at the end of the day. When all was said and done, Godzilla walked away to the tune of $379 million, but given the fever pitch of the marketing campaign, this was nothing short of a disappointment. The planned sequels were cancelled, and Toho immediately began production on a new Godzilla film, leaving this Godzilla to be nothing more than an ugly scar on the franchise.
So let's take a bite right in: the film opens with sepia-tone footage of French nuclear tests, coupled with shots of iguanas crawling around on a beach. The first sentence of the Wikipedia plot summary contains the following: "an iguana nest is exposed to the fallout of a military nuclear test." The movie hasn't even started yet and we're already at strike one: the confirmation that this Godzilla is an iguana, and not the kind of T-Rex, stegosaurus hybrid we've known Godzilla to be. Roland Emmerich has stated that he wanted this Godzilla to represent a giant animal and not a giant monster, which sort of defeats the purpose of the whole thing, but I digress. We then move on to a giant sea creature attacking and destroying a Japanese fishing vessel, about the closest this film ever comes to honoring the original 1954 Godzilla. It's perhaps the only time you can watch the film and be optimistic that things won't turn out so bad, but no, it's all downhill from here. The film introduces us to Dr Nick Tatopolous (Broderick), a scientist who is out in Chernobyl, studying the effects of radiation on worms. He is greeted by the U.S. State Department and is taken to Panama and Jamaica to help study giant footprints and the remains of the fishing vessel. Nick deduces that the footprints and the shipwreck are not from a dinosaur, but from some giant creature that was subjected to nuclear testing. That very giant creature soon surfaces in a rainy New York, and needless to say, he's quite the unwelcome visitor.
- Godzilla clocks in at a whopping (and inexplicable) 139 minutes, but I credit Roland Emmerich for this: he does find a way to inject some kind of entertainment value into the film and keep it from feeling as long as the run tie suggests. Now, don't get me wrong: this is not a type of entertainment that will slap a silly smile on your face and make you want to watch the film over and over again. The best way to describe how Godzilla is entertaining is rooted in morbid curiosity: this is a film that believes it's something awe-inspiring, something that will have people talking for years. The most famous giant monster of them all is coming to America, and he's stomping around none other than the Big Apple, truly a must-see. For at least the first 10-15 minutes, you buy into the notion that this Godzilla will be somewhat awe-inspiring, an honorable addition to the Godzilla library, and that it was not a mistake for Toho to entrust their beloved kaiju with a Hollywood studio. Then you see Matthew Broderick driving and singing to the tune of Singin' in the Rain, then you begin to notice the questionable acting and the lame dialogue. Finally, you see the hideous CGI creation that is Godzilla. By this point, you have already given up hope that Godzilla will be decent, but you can't shake the notion that you want to keep watching, not because you're amused by what you're seeing on screen, but because you're fascinated watching Godzilla continue to go through its delusion of grandeur with shameless, childlike zeal. It's a movie so infatuated by being the first American film titled Godzilla, that it doesn't care one iota how many technical blunders it suffers along the way. It's about cranking out some kind of an audio-visual product, all for the honor of slapping the title Godzilla on the poster when all is said and done. It's like the filmmakers knew deep down this was a bad movie, but instead of hanging their heads and feeling sorry for themselves, they were going to embrace this misfire like a badge of honor. Yeah, this movie is a piece of shit, but it's OUR piece of shit!
A quick sidenote: Something else that helps is that Godzilla never takes itself too seriously: a barrage of one-liners and goofy character interactions is evidence that the movie is at least having fun with itself. Certainly, the movie is in the spirit of what Emmerich likes to do with all his blockbuster sci-fi films: have fun with little to no regard towards facts and logic.
- It seems unfathomable to believe that this Godzilla could be any worse than the likes of Toho's worst, such as Godzilla's Revenge or Godzilla vs. Megalon. From a pure film-making standpoint, this Godzilla is, in all seriousness, above and beyond what those films had the audacity to churn out. That's still not saying much though, because Godzilla's special effects, specifically its CGI, is simply unacceptable. Godzilla himself is as shoddy as can be, especially during the early scenes that take place during the day. It's no wonder that Godzilla ends up appearing mostly at night, that way Emmerich and crew can better conceal their hideous CGI. As an added bonus, Godzilla runs away nearly every time he appears, like he's the world's shyest giant monster. There was no faith in the creation of this Godzilla, nor was there faith in the equally shoddy baby Godzillas that make up the film's third act. The entire sequence in Madison Square Garden is a complete ripoff of the velociraptors chasing the children scene(s) from Jurassic Park, and it all adds up as just a way for Emmerich to pad the run-time. Good special effects is the one thing you'd think this movie would get right, but no, Emmerich can't even provide that to us. Would you believe Terminator 2 came out almost ten years earlier?
- So the misrepresentation of Godzilla as an iguana is strike one. The awful special effects was actually strike three. Strike two against the film is its pitiful lineup of characters and the equally pitiful acting performances to go with them. I commend Matthew Broderick and find the guy to be a perfectly fine actor. I have no clue though what kind of preparation he did for this role. Broderick, while able to convey Tatopolous's charming nerdiness, is incapable of showing anything resembling fear, as if Tatopolous is experiencing fear for the first time in his life and doesn't know what short of facial expressions and tone of voice are supposed to go with fear. Jean Reno isn't even trying to hide how much he is not taking the movie seriously, while poor Maria Pitillo looks like she has little confidence in her performance and is getting by on the bare minimum. It's unfortunate Pitillo's career never amounted to anything more prominent than this movie. I think the right director and the right script would have given the chance to deliver a performance to prove she did have some talent. But anyway, there's nothing really to like about any of these characters. Emmerich even goes as far as to put in Mayor Ebert and Assistant Gene: obvious parodies of film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. I get that Emmerich was salty about the negative reviews Ebert and Siskel gave to some of his earlier films, but what I don't get is Emmerich not having the guts to have Godzilla squish these two like bugs. Emmerich was probably so despondent by the end of principal photography, that he no longer had the energy to do so. What a shame.
Kenpachiro Satsuma, the actor who played Godzilla during the Heisei series, walked out of a fan convention and gave a quote that I think perfectly summarizes the 1998 Godzilla and everything that's wrong with it: "It's not Godzilla. It doesn't have his spirit." This is not Godzilla we're watching; this is some giant, cowardly iguana creature that is so far off from everything Godzilla represents, it's best to think of this monster as one of he various names that fans have critics have dubbed the monster over the years: GINO, which stands for Godzilla In Name Only, or what Toho started to trademark the monster as: Zilla. I personally prefer Zilla, because I see it as a monster that thinks it's Godzilla but is unworthy of having "God" in its name.
All the signs were there from the start: the quick shooting schedule, the lack of test-screenings, and the reluctance of its director, co-writer Roland Emmerich. Was anyone that surprised that Godzilla was the disappointment it ended up being? While the entertainment value is there, Godzilla is heavily lacking in everything else: compelling characters, convincing special effects, and the spirit of the kaiju it's based on. It's a soulless film that believes it's something more special than it actually is, which is why you can at least watch it with morbid fascination. In the years since, Emmerich has stated he regrets taking the directorial role, and Dean Devlin admitted to he and Emmerich's script being the source for the film's failure. Failure is the only way this Godzilla will be remembered: a failure to bring Godzilla to American studios (until 2014 at least), a failure to honor what Toho spent the better part of 40 years on, and a failure to represent who Godzilla is and what he stands for. I will never consider it to be a part of the official Godzilla library, and based on the reactions of Emmerich, Devlin, and several of the actors over the years, they probably don't want to either. Godzilla In Name Only or Zilla, indeed.
Recommend? No. The only thing I can possibly recommend is if you're in the mood to watch a movie you can watch and make fun of for 2+ hours.
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