So thanks to my friends and the Rifftrax crew, I watched the 1998 American Godzilla movie last month. While I had originally planned to put it off until later… a lot later, I figured I might as well use this viewing on the big screen as my research for MONSTERS CONQUER THE WORLD and knock out the review while it’s still pretty fresh in my mind. Depending on who you ask, the movie is either a nostalgic 90s guilty pleasure or the most disappointing movie that isn’t Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Godzilla actually has a lot in common with Phantom Menace: both were hotly anticipated, with months of hype and seemingly limitless potential to be awesome, tons of CG effects, lots of which don’t hold up today, and both made tons of money, despite being filmic diarrhea reviled by fans and critics alike. But while Phantom Menace is a complete failure at filmmaking and storytelling on even the most basic levels, Godzilla fails in ways that are less catastrophic, but just as unsatisfying.
All that said, there are flashes, glimmers, and glimpses of moments where the movie actually works. If it wasn’t pretending to be a Godzilla movie, and wasn’t so desperately mimicking Jurassic Park, it’d be a decent creature feature. We’ll talk about all that, how the movie sat in development hell since the 80s, the bitchin’ early versions of the movie we almost got instead, and that fucking Taco Bell dog. Grab your Chernobyl worms, a can of Josta, and COME WITH ME.
If you didn’t click that last link, you really should, because that shit will instantly transport you back to 1998. I don’t have many nice things to say about Godzilla, but I flipped the fuck out when Puffy did that song live on SNL. That said I don’t know what the song has to do with Godzilla.
The Wallflowers also covered David Bowie’s “Heroes,” and it’s exactly as exciting as every other Wallflowers song.
The score by David Arnold gets completely overshadowed by those two mega-hits, and it’s a bit of a shame, because it’s one of the few things this movie gets right. It’s just what you want out of a soaring monster-thriller score. It didn’t stick with me like some movie scores do, but I’d say that has more to do with the movie itself than the music. I’m listening to it by itself for the first time for this review, and it’s pretty great. Snappy military drums and orderly composition for the military scenes (nearly ripping off Aliens’ terrific score), wild horns and chaotic brass for the monster scenes, and suitably schmaltzy sparkles and strings for the civilians. Arnold’s resume includes 5 James Bond movies, Stargate, and Independence Day, so the dude obviously knows what he’s doing. Now he does that “Sherlock” TV show that the internet has a boner for right now.
The first 30 seconds or so are solidly promising. The opening credits kick off with grainy footage of atomic tests, olde tymey music that slows down eerily before giving way to a really moody piece of foreboding score. Then they start throwing in shots of komodo dragons and iguanas amongst the nuclear testing, and before a single word has been spoken, red flags are going up. “It seems like they’re insinuating that Godzilla is just an irradiated iguana, instead of an ancient deep-sea dino monster resurrected/created by nuclear testing,” you might think. And unfortunately you are 100% right.
The original Gojira never explicitly states who created Godzilla, and the characters refer to humanity as a whole creating Godzilla. But really, the U.S. was doing all the nuke testing… it was probably us. Still, it reflects director Ishiro Honda’s theme of “The Brotherhood of Man,” the idea of a world community that would come together in times of global crisis. It’s used in a more hopeful tone in his later Godzilla movies, but in Gojira, we all share the blame for that nuclear nightmare. 1998’s Godzilla throws even that little bit of subtlety or intrigue out the window and blames it on France. Because director Roland Emmerich wants everyone living with the memory of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to go fuck themselves I guess. Or maybe it’s because the whole cast of “The Simpsons” is in this movie and they demanded Godzilla feature some of that series’ stale “France sucks” jokes.
Seriously, Hank “Moe/Apu/Chief Wiggum/etc.” Azaria, Harry “Principal Skinner/Kent Brockman/Mr. Burns/etc.” Shearer, and Nancy “Bart/Nelson/Ralph Wiggum/etc.” Cartwright are all in this movie. I guess Homer and Marge weren’t as zazzed by the script?
And while the plot point of the French creating Godzilla is a bullshit cop-out and a whack joke that isn’t funny enough to be worth it, it does give us Mother. Fuckin’. Jean. Reno.
Not surprisingly Leon the Professional and Hank Azaria are the two best human characters in the movie, because they’re the only ones that are actually likable. Reno is cheekily typecast as a mysterious French bad-ass, and Azaria plays a pretty ridiculous New York stereotype, but that could be said about most of the cast. When the movie does get to NYC, I was forcefully reminded of the awesomely cringe-tastic pimp and cop scene from Godzilla Final Wars. Godzilla’s New York is pretty much exclusively populated by people on the verge of saying “‘Ey I’m walkin’ here! Only in New Yawk! Foggedaboutit! You talkin’ to me?”
And that’s one of the real story-telling issues with this movie. Every lead acts like a comic relief character. Every other line they speak is a sarcastic quip that lands with a thud. It doesn’t feel like a gigantic marauding monster is terrorizing the biggest city in the world, it feels like an episode of “Friends.”
The attempts at comedy don’t just fall flat, they undermine the story, suck away any atmosphere the movie manages to build, and make the characters look like sociopathic creeps that are incapable of giving a shit even when people around them are dying by the hundreds. But who needs sympathetic characters when you have random female characters inexplicably and vocally moist about Matthew Broderick.
It took this last viewing for me to piece together why Emmerich and co. went this route. Godzilla was made before Spider-Man and X-Men blew the box office’s ass off. The reason I bring up those movies is because they both ended up being smash hits that taught Hollywood that a beloved property, even a colorful, outlandish, goofy one, can make beaucoup bucks if you go all in and embrace that property for what it is. Prior to Spidey and Wolveriney going H.A.M. on movie-goers’ wallets, Hollywood was terrified of playing superheroes straight-faced. The old Superman movies with Chris Reeves are filled with slapsticky crap after part 1. Tim Burton’s Batman films snuck by executives thanks to Burton’s amazing visual style and dark humor, plus some strategically placed star power. Joel Schumaker made Batman movies so schlocky and campy they make Adam West look like Christian Bale.
Way more so than the folks behind those Superman and Batman movies, Emmerich and co. were ashamed of Godzilla’s legacy. I remember interviews with these dickbutts where they talked about how they watched all the classic Godzilla flicks… as a crash course on what not to do. These guys parroted all the same complaints about Godzilla you’ve heard a billion times from baby boomers who sneer at any pre-Star Wars attempts at special effects: “Fat guys in rubber suits, the actors’ mouths don’t match what they’re saying, cardboard cities, I suck on fat wieners e’ry day, etc.”
So it’s a Godzilla movie that is helmed by people that hate Godzilla. I get where peoples’ heads were at though. Emmerich and Devlin had just made a zillion bucks with a sci-fi disaster movie, so why not throw them another one, this time with a marketable character that everybody has heard of? But instead of updating what people loved about Godzilla for a modern audience, like they did for alien invasion movies with Independence Day, they said “fuck it, let’s see how much we can copy Jurassic Park without pissing off Spielberg.”
Godzilla’s raptors in the kitchen routine makes up the bulk of the third act. It’s painfully obvious plagiarism, but I was delighted by the non-stop shots of billboards advertising Blockbuster and Josta, the world’s first energy drink! Like so many Godzilla movies, even this one manages to be an accidental pop-culture time capsule.
The characters also casually call each other “retard” and “wop.” I guess I should just be grateful none of the characters call Godzilla any homophobic slurs. Hey, speaking of Godzilla…
He’s a normal iguana that mutated into a giant, hermaphroditic T-Rex with spikes coming out of his back that can outrun helicopters and disappear into the shadows of the city better than Batman. Because Emmerich and Devlin didn’t want this to be unrealistic and cheesy like the old Godzilla movies.
And of course there’s the much-hyped CGI presentation of the monster. They were smart to put most of Godzilla’s shots in rainy nighttime scenes to help hide the weird washed-out and grainy look of late 90s CGI. Just like every rubber suit Godzilla, sometimes CGI works, and sometimes it really doesn’t. When they combine the CGI with practical effects on the set, they do a pretty good job of selling Godzilla as a real thing that is interacting with his surroundings. But those shots are rare, and many of Godzilla’s scenes show him weightlessly flying around the city. The best CGI in the world couldn’t make a lighter-than-air Godzilla look plausible, and this movie certainly doesn’t have the best CGI in the world.
But even all that’s not quite what hurts the most. While that CGI thing up there doesn’t really look or move like Godzilla, it is a legitimately cool looking creature. What really makes the movie a nut punch for me as a Godzilla fan is that they took away Godzilla’s two most iconic abilities: his near-invincibility and his deadly atomic breath.
Godzilla kinda of sort of half-assedly gives their iguana poseur monster a breath attack. But it’s more that he breathes onto some cars and they get blown around until they explode, rather than a true blue beam of nuclear fire blasting out of his mouth:
And then remember how Godzilla is an indestructible force, an avatar of nature itself lashing out at mankind for our nuclear hubris? An unstoppable behemoth that shrugs off bullets, rockets, missiles, even nukes and lasers and bizarre futuristic super-weapons? Well in this movie he gets tangled up in a bridge and then dies after he gets hit by a couple of rockets.
Of course, by the time we see Godzilla get taken down like a little bitch, we’ve spent the whole movie watching him RUN AWAY and HIDE from tanks and helicopters. Tanks and helicopters that destroy New York City, while Godzilla sprints to safety, rarely brushing against buildings and causing minimal damage in the process. It’s like making a Superman movie where he has no powers and robs banks. Or making James Bond a sober virgin pacifist. If you’re going to take away everything people love about a character, why are you making a movie about that character?
At the top of this thing I noted that there are some surprising similarities between Godzilla and The Phantom Menace. One of the big ones is that both movies have been lambasted by fans and critics for well over a decade now. This really is the lowest-hanging fruit that doesn’t have Adam Sandler in the cast or Twilight Saga in the title, and I really tried to go into this latest viewing with as open a mind as possible. Even in my most hysterical fanboy days, I considered Godzilla an okay monster movie that stars a creature that simply isn’t Godzilla. He’s been nicknamed “G.I.N.O.” (“Godzilla In Name Only”) by fans and “Zilla” by Toho themselves, because according to them he took the “God out of Godzilla.” Can’t say I disagree with that.
Toho was so pissed about this that they turned around and cranked out Godzilla 2000 the following year, and it actually had a theatrical release in the U.S.
But Toho had only begun dumping on Emmerich and Devlin’s faux Godzilla. A couple years after Godzilla 2000 Toho released the fantastic (and ridiculously titled) Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. An early scene in a military academy has two students discussing a recent monster sighting in NYC. One student asks the other if it was Godzilla. The other cadet replies, “that’s what all the American experts claim, but our guys here have doubts.” And that’s really more of a friendly, clever jab compared to what goes down in Godzilla FInal Wars.
Zilla, now a truly separate monster, makes his first and last appearance alongside Toho’s classically-styled Godzilla. Considering that Japanese films have much smaller budgets than their Hollywood counterparts, it’s not surprising that Zilla looks worse here than he did in ’98. That said I wouldn’t be surprised if this was also due to Japanese studios having less experience with CGI. Or it might just be intentionally crappier looking as another fuck you to Emmerich and Devlin. Ultimately it doesn’t matter much, because classic old-school Godzilla whips Zilla’s ass in less than a minute. It’s brutal and hilarious. If you haven’t seen it before, you gotta check it out. Don’t mind the Sum 41 song that begs you to “supersize our tragedy” during the scene. Final Wars is a weird movie.
Long before Ferris Bueller and Puffy and Roland Emmerich had anything to do with Godzilla, several different players in Hollywood were trying to launch their silver-screen vision of the world’s biggest mon-star. In the early 80’s Fred Dekker (the man that brought us the bitchin’ cult classic Monster Squad) wrote a full script for Godzilla 3D. The script had some positive buzz, but no studio bit, and the rights eventually lapsed in 1983. I’ll just go out and say it, it is fucking bogus that we got Emmerich and Devlin’s Crapzilla instead of the one penned by Fred “Wolfman’s got nards!” Dekker.
In 1992, TriStar Pictures picked up the rights to Godzilla, planning a trilogy of films. Jan de Bont, the action-meister that directed Speed and was cinematographer on Die Hard was all geared up for monster mashing. The writing team behind Little Monsters, Aladdin, and later Men in Black cooked up a script were Godzilla would fight an alien beast called the Gryphon. Their script would have changed Godzilla’s origin from nuclear mutation to an ancient weapon created by the Atlanteans. I’m definitely not onboard with changing Godzilla’s backstory so drastically, but I find that new origin story fascinating, mostly because the terrific Gamera trilogy that came out in the 90s stole it and gave it to Gamera verbatim.
This early 90s Godzilla got so far along that monster maestro Stan Winston was called in to start designing creatures for the film. If you didn’t click the link, Stan and his team were the bad-asses that brought astonishing creatures to life for Alien, Predator, Terminator, Jurassic Park, John Carpenter’s The Thing, and a ton more. Easily the best monster shop in Hollywood, with a strong emphasis on incredible practical effects. Here’s a full maquette of their Godzilla:
And there’s a big old maquette of the Gryphon too.
So screenwriters with a knack for writing fun monster/fantasy movies were going to work with a top-notch action director and the best monster team in Hollywood for Godzilla vs. Gryphon. Unfortunately De Bont bailed when he couldn’t get his requested budget approved by TriStar, and the project fell apart shortly after that. So we got Emmerichzilla instead. Here’s what bummed me out: reportedly De Bont wanted a budget of 100-120 mil. Emmerich and Devlin got a budget of 130 mil.
Shit, I promised in the intro to talk about the Taco Bell dog, didn’t I? I don’t know man, I was a kid when it came out and thought it was funny since kids think dumb stuff is funny. But it was probably racist? Or maybe it wasn’t? I don’t even know anymore. The dog was small and Godzilla is big. And I like tacos. So it all worked out.
Somehow Godzilla is both better and worse than I remembered. It’s still a complete failure at portraying Godzilla the character, and it’s stuffed with cringeworthy “jokes” and unrelatable, unlikable human characters, with whole action setpieces stolen from Jurassic Park. But it’s also a pretty hilarious 90s time capsule, and the movie’s badness is at least sometimes entertaining, and there are even moments where it comes close to being a genuinely decent monster movie. Early scenes do a pretty great job of making the monster seem menacing. Giant clawmarks in the side of a beached ship and Godzilla’s grand entrance in NYC are effective and fun. Broderick shares an uneasy close encounter with the monster that actually manages to create a brief sense of awe and wonder. The movie also has a cool, surprisingly international vibe, with Broderick coming from his field research in Chernobyl, the French secret service always shadowing (or one step ahead of) the US military, and Godzilla attacking Japanese ships in the South Pacific before making landfall in Jamaica. Though I would love to know how he got from the South Pacific to the Carribbean undetected. Did he swim around the entire American continent at like the speed of sound, or did no one notice the 200 ft. fall iguana cruising through the Panama Canal? There’s a deleted scene I want.
In the wake of 1998’s attempt at an American Godzilla film, the real heroes here are Toho and Legendary. Toho for blasting out not one, not two, but SIX actual Godzilla movies to cleanse our giant monster palates, and Legendary for making Godzilla ’14 and showing the world that Hollywood is capable of making an actual Godzilla movie, and a pretty damn good one at that. The combined efforts of those two studios have thankfully removed nearly all of my butthurt about Godzilla.