HCF REWIND NO. 180: GODZILLA [US 1998]
AVAILABLE ON DVD AND BLU-RAY
RUNNING TIME: 133 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Following a nuclear incident in French Polynesia, a lizard’s nest is irradiated by the fallout of subsequent radiation. Decades later, a Japanese fishing vessel is attacked by an enormous sea creature in the South Pacific ocean; only one seaman survives. Traumatized, he is questioned by a mysterious Frenchman in a hospital regarding what he saw, to which he replies, “Gojira”. Scientist Dr. Niko ‘Nick’ Tatopoulos is pulled from his work studying earthworms in Chernobyl to investigate. When three trailers are somehow towed underwater, Nick arrives at the aftermath and encounters the Frenchman, who turns out to be Philippe Roaché, an insurance agent. Nick identifies skin samples he discovered in the shipwreck as belonging to an unknown species. He dismisses the military’s theory that the creature is a living dinosaur, instead deducing that it is a mutant created by nuclear testing…..
Though I’ve certainly come close to doing so, including several times last year, walking out of a film is something I never do. If I’m hating a film, I still stay, hoping that something may come along to go some way to justifying the extortionate amount of money I’ve paid for a ticket. But there is one film I got up during and headed for the exit, in fact the fire exit so I could loudly slam it and annoy the other audience members. That film was Godzilla from 1998, a film as a Godzilla fan I found so painful that I just couldn’t stand it any longer. I stormed home and put on not one but three of the Japanese films. Why was this film called Godzilla when the monster in it didn’t look or behave like Godzilla? Why was there a complete lack of respect for the Big G’s legacy? It took me until now to view the film again, and in full this time. As I put in the disc, I wondered if I had been too harsh on the film, despite it being one most fans tend to hate, and thought that if I tried to forget all linkage with Godzilla and just imagined it to be a stand-alone monster movie, it might be quite enjoyable. Some wish. Watching this crap for the second time meant that I felt less emotional about the insult caused to the King Of The Monsters but was able to focus on and notice more of the bad aspects, which are numerous in number. This is an astoundingly poor film whichever way you look at it, the only good parts being some decent special effects sequences. It’s not so much a film to watch with your brain switched off as one to watch if you don’t have one in the first place.
There has actually first been plans to make an American Godzilla film back to 1983, during Toho’s hiatus, with Steven Miner directing from a script by Fred Dekker. Set against a backdrop of Cold War action, and borrowing heavily from Gorgo, it had Godzilla as a ‘protosaur’, a nuclear-powered ancestor of dinosaurs, revived by a nuclear accident. Named Godzilla after a mythical Japanese dragon, it actually turned out to be a baby, and the daddy, now breathing fire like in the Hanna-Barbara cartoons, trashed San Francisco looking for it until killed by special missiles. This certainly sounds like a fun spectacular, but proved too spectacular and no studio wanted to do it. Toho then revived Godzilla for a new series, but in 1992, the success of Jurassic Park encouraged Tri-Star Pictures to have a go. Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio turned in an even more ambitious script. It had Godzilla be the creation of ancient Atlantians as a defence against a creature that can assimilate various other creatures. Both monsters, the latter now called the Gryphon because he has the features of the mystical beast, were revived by a nuclear accident to battle in New York. It sounds even better than the previous script, though it distances Godzilla even further from his origins. Jan Du Bont, beating out Tim Burton and Joe Dante, was chosen to direct, but again the project seemed too expensive despite extensive rewrites.
Enter Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, on a roll after Stargate and Independence Day, who rewrote the Elliot and Rossio script so heavily that it bares hardly any resemblance to it except that Godzilla trashes [well, that’s too strong a word really] New York. Fans were increasingly worried when the two seemed to have a rather low opinion of the Japanese series, though they did show some respect for the 1954 original Godzilla, so that was something. Godzilla’s appearance was kept a secret for as long as possible and horrified many when it was finally revealed, though I distinctly remember still feeling positive about the movie. At the very least, it would be cool to Godzilla destroying a city with state of the art Hollywood effects, wouldn’t it? Well the film came out and, contrary to what many say, did do okay at the box office even if it did quickly tail off and fall very short of being the mega-hit that the studio expected. The critics laid into it, though I have a feeling that this would have also been the case with the Miner or Du Bont versions. US critics especially tend to look down on Godzilla: check out the late Roger Ebert’s review of the 1954 Godzilla as a good example, and that’s from a usually great and broad-minded film critic. Anyway, the Japanese response was poor too, with Kenpachiro Satsumo, suitmation Godzilla actor from 1984 to 1995, publically walking out, hopefully smashing a door to two as he did, saying the film didn’t have Godzilla’s spirit.
Now the first few minutes of Godzilla are promising and I did seriously wonder if I had previously been wrong about the film. The opening credits have a rather eerie atmosphere as we see stock footage of nuclear tests intercut with yellow-tinted shots of lizards, all set to very dramatic and intense scoring by David Arnold. Then we have a thrilling attack on the Japanese fishing craft, with a great shot of huge claws ripping into the hull. After this though the movie quickly goes downhill as we meet our main human characters and they open their mouths. Frankly, Emmerich and Devlin’s script is one of the worst ever written for a giant monster movie [yes, worse than King Kong Lives]. Its constantly flippant tone of “we know this is rubbish” wouldn’t be so bad if it was actually funny. Scientist Nick has people constantly mispronounce his surname and call him “the worm guy”. Phillipe, the “insurance agent” who actually proves to be an agent of a different kind, moans about American coffee. This kind of thing is a substitute for characterisation in Emmerich and Devlin’s book, while of course the main female character, Audrey Timmonds, an ex-girlfriend of Nick’s, is a plucky reporter who is letched over by her boss. The other major protagonist is cynical mayor Ebert [yes, named after the very film critic I mentioned earlier, and even part of a gag involving his reviewing partner Gene Siskel], and said character’s cynicism pervades the whole film. At least Stargate and Independence Day has an appealing naivety and liking for the material. With Godzilla, nobody seems to care, and this extends to some of the performances, especially Matthew Broderick, who constantly seems to be on the verge of saying what he really feels.
Godzilla arrives in Manhattan almost half an hour in, and you can certainly say that the early part of the film has a swift pace. Then Godzilla appears and….well, in the first major set piece you tend to mostly just see his legs, but creator Patrick Tatopoulos reimagined him as a lean, digitigrade [walking on the toes] bipedal iguana who always stands with its back and tail parallel to the ground. Not much like the real Godzilla then, and it seems like the 2014 film has done a much better job of tweaking the design while respecting the original, though taken on its own the 1998 version is, I have to say, quite an impressive looking creature. The effects make him appear to change in size constantly, but he certainly looks alive and usually part of his background. He is nothing like Godzilla though. He has no personality [something Godzilla had even in the first movie]. He can’t seem to wait to reproduce, laying lots and lots of eggs. He simply loves tuna. He runs away whenever faced with the army, leading to lots of Star Wars-like chasing around skyscrapers with admittedly good effects except for some horrid CGI explosions [and those don’t tend to look any better even now]. He only uses his breath [which is now fiery but also creates a big wind] once [and nobody mentions it], and, perhaps worse of all, he can’t even be bothered to knock down any buildings. He steps out of one, but we don’t see the scene in full and don’t see how he got in. He also seems to go out of his way to avoid many of the expected landmarks.
Emmerich and Devlin’s disdain for the Japanese Godzilla series means that they refuse to give fans much of what they would have wanted to see. Instead, they endlessly borrow from American monster movies. The whole film sometimes seems like a remake of The Beast From 20 000 Fathoms with a few bits and pieces of King Kong and Them!, but you also get things like a variation on the “bigger boat” line from Jaws and, once Godzilla appears to be killed, a lengthy sequence set in Madison Square Garden where our two heroes are chased around by lots of baby Godzillas which obviously tries to one-up the superb kitchen scene from Jurassic Park [with a bit of Aliens too] but just ends up dragging and shows how weak Emmerich is at doing this kind of thing compared to Spielberg, though for the most part the action is at least well edited and clear. Then Godzilla revives when his babies are killed, but doesn’t show much rage and prefers to chase three people in a taxi before being dispatched again on the Brooklyn Bridge. No special weapon: this Godzilla is killed by normal weaponry. Then you have some of the most cringe-worthy ‘wrapping up’ bits ever until, at last, the thing ends….well, not before we see that a lone egg has survived and has began to hatch. There actually were plans for three movies, one to maybe feature lots of Godzillas and one to include King Ghidorah, but thankfully the world was not subjected to them.
The film doesn’t even succeed as a fun, trashy, ‘B’ movie, partly because it’s constantly so incredibly idiotic but doesn’t seem to be aware of the fact. Say what you like about, say, King Kong Vs Godzilla, but at least it knows it’s ridiculous and doesn’t pretend to be otherwise while still actually having some wit and social commentary in its humorous portrayal of advertising and the media. Emmerich and Devlin obviously considered such films rubbish, but then made a movie in which the army keep losing a 200-foot creature, and said creature is able to hide in the underground system but can’t fit through the Park Avenue tunnel which is actually far wider. Godzilla can also run faster than any car but can’t catch up with one taxi in the climax. And what happened to the other lizards, and presumably the other animals, that were near the bomb tests? I know that one comes to expect plot holes in a monster movie, and it doesn’t always matter if one does contain them, but Godzilla is so dreary that they are so much more noticeable. Perhaps to help conceal flaws in the effects, most of the film is shot at night-time with it constantly pouring down with rain, but the visual possibilities of this go unexploited and just makes the whole effort seem even more miserable. The film may be generally light-hearted, but nobody seems to be having much fun, and it shows throughout. The human interest stuff, such as the ‘will they, won’t they’? banter between Nick and Audrey, mostly grates because of the bad writing. Only Jean Reno really manages to escape with his dignity just about intact.
Composer David Arnold said that he didn’t know how to approach the score, and it shows, because his response is to musically treat almost every scene as if it were a stunningly epic piece of cinema. There are plenty of reasonable themes, like a sweeping march, a lush love theme and an ominous motif cribbed from Bernard Herrmann’s Cape Fear score, plus some exciting action scoring in the manner of Arnold’s Bond scores, but it all gets too much and even this film music fan wanted it to just shut up a few times. At least Arnold seems to be enjoying himself, unlike most others in this misbegotten mutation of a movie. It’s a resounding failure as both a Godzilla film and a general monster movie. Did I hate it quite so much the second time around? I would say no, but it’s still a bad film and should not have been made, except, I suppose, to make it easy for Gareth Edwards and co. to better.