It should have been awesome. Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich had created movies like Independence Day, which had showed us destruction on a massive scale. How much more difficult could it be to make a good Godzilla film, which would just need the destruction scenes from the duo's previous film, only attributed to a gigantic lizard with atomic breath, rather than aliens?
Apparently quite difficult. 1998 Godzilla is not a remake, it is a reimagining of the Godzilla idea. It looks at Godzilla as a 'realistic' perspective, that of an actual creature, rather than a metaphor. And this is only part of the film's problem.
There are two things you need to know about Godzilla. One, Godzilla is an unstoppable force of nature. It comes and goes like a tornado or a hurricane, and the best you can do is hunker down and wait for it to pass. The 1998 Godzilla film does not understand this. Like other American films, such as King Kong, Q the Winged Serpent, even Cloverfield and Pacific Rim, there is one solution to a monster: firepower. This means that the delivery of the firepower, once the monster is discovered, must be delayed until the end of the film. Because if the solution is so simple, why wouldn't it be deployed as soon as the monster is discovered?
This leads to many of the story problems in 1998 Godzilla. Since the military becomes involved at an early stage, there must be some sort of plot armor that Godzilla has which prevents it. And there is, but it requires some severe contortions of believability to function. The monster vanishing in the middle fo New York City was plausible in Beast from, 20,000 Fathoms, after all, phones were few and far between, all of Earth's satellites were natural, and the rhedosaurus is less then three stories tall. Godzilla is a monstrous creature sixty meters tall, which should be easy to spot from any observing helicopter hovering over the city. Therefore two things interfere with the military's ability to locate and detroy Godzilla: Godzilla can tunnel, and their own incompetence.
The tunnelling is laughable. Gigantic Godzilla digs its way through the warren of tunnels below New York, but later in the film, it can't reach our protagonists when they hide in the 34th street tunnel.
The military incompetence displayed in Godzilla is radically different from what is shown in Japanese Godzilla films. Yes, the military is ineffectual, but they are not blunderers who destroy the land around them. Here, the majority of the building-smashing is done not by Godzilla, but by the military firing missiles and guns. Which is unsatisfying. We can watch the military destroy buildings watching any one of a hundred military films. But there are precious few giant monster films. Why not let the titular star of the film to the fun stuff?
Further, and this stands out in stark contrast to 2014 Godzilla, soldiers are the only people killed. And they are not mourned. The USS Anchorage is hit with torpedoes and sunk. This is never mentioned again. There is no emotional depth to these deaths, they are just there as a way to convey that something has gone wrong, but soldiers are not treated like people who have lives and families and hopes. They're just there to get killed in order to raise the stakes. And I find that irritating and irresponsible, considering how often ideas from films can work their way into the public consciousness. This is one of the reasons I was not as irritated by the way the military was handled in Godzilla 2014. They had been treated so shabbily in this and many other films that I was willing to see them get some props.
The second important thing sbout Godzilla is that he has an atomic heat ray. While this is present in the film, it's weak, only used twice. You can see the fire under his tongue once, so it's not that Godzilla breaths on something and makes a fireball. It really has that heat breath. But it's much more akin to Gamera's fireball than Godzilla's heat ray, at least partially because Americans are very funny about radiation. At any rate, I can understand the film makers not emphasizing it. 1954 Godzilla did not display his atomic heat ray until attacked during its second landing in Tokyo. Godzilla 1985 did not show the ability until after it had consumed a reactor core. Roland and Emmerlich have said they were going to wait until the second film, in effect giving Godzilla junior a power-up. So I'm Ok with that.
Some things the film attempts to get right, but often ther significance is lost because the film makers don't put any emotional weight behind the scenes. The danger of being a fisherman, the footprint. The characters are from the Godzilla molds, the scientist and reporter, and the scientist's girlfriend. But it's the nineties. Doesn't the scientist's girlfriend deserve to be someone in her own right? In an imitation of one of the most powerful scenes in the original, the French run a scintillation detector over a shipwreck survivor. But it doesn't hold the same cold horror that the act held when they were running them over Tokyo's shell-shocked children in a hospital. And that's something endemic in the film. Moments don't mean anything. They convey no emotional weight. Roland And Emmerlich say that are cerators of 'popcorn' films in the featurette on the disk. Which means they don't have to work hard on their plots. They just maneuver things until they link up, and off they go. Less work on their part.
Godzilla is not on screen much, which means that we spend the rest of the timer with the human characters, and despite being such a large cast, they are by and large unsypmathetic. Matthew Broderick is so affably everyman that it's difficult for me to sympathize with or respect him as a scientist. I don't buy him as an authority. The reporters are either Charlie Caiman, unsympathetic, or Audrey Timmons, spinelessly put-upon. Hank Azaria is wasted on Victor Palotti, whose one function is to get footage that is taken away. Only Philippe Roaché, the French Secret Service man, seems competent or has any agency. Everyont else reacts. Philippe takes initiative and accomplishes tasks.
The entire Mayor Ebert mess just makes the scriptwriters look petty. The characters aren't interesting, and as the real Ebert said, why not have them get chomped or squished by the monster if the point is filmic revenge? Whenever they show up, I'm pulled out of the film thinking about the real Siskel and Ebert.
I find the lack of consistency in the film irritating. Godzilla's mighty tread causes cars to jump, but it can walk right past Caiman without rocking the building? This comes up later in the next New York Monster film, Cloverfield. The creature thunders as it walks, unless it's off screen, in which case it can be quiet as a mouse. Which isn't that unusual, since tanks can perform the same trick. When Nick is trying to call the military, all the phone circuits are jammed. Fifteen minutes later, Philippe is able to call him without a problem from a pay phone.
The film seems determined to set up 'funny' moments, such as Godzilla sneaking by Charlie Caiman when he's asking for a bigger story, or lifting the truck with the guy who doesn't know what's going on because he has his earphones on. Or Victor finally gets the videotape to go into the camera in time to just miss being crushed by Godzilla. Ho ho.
And there's pure nonsense in the script. If Tatapolis thinks Godzilla is male, why is he even buying home pregnancy tests? Home pregnancy tests don't even work on dogs, let along lizards. The top secret tape of the Japanese man is cut like a movie, in fact the very same shots from the film. Couldn't they afford one uncut take?
I don't mind the redesigned look of Godzilla. It's different, and yet has many of the hallmarks of Godzilla. Larger arms than a T-Rex, bipedal ambulation, three rows of spines down its back. The CG could be better, had it been done by Industrial Light and Magic, rather than Centropolis Effects (which closed its doors in 2002). Small details, like the choice of CG company, can make a big difference.
More than any other Godzilla film, and possibly more than any other film I've reviewed, this film is a conglomeration of scenes from other films. Three stand out: Jurassic Park, Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and Q the Winged Serpent.
First up, Jurassic Park. The baby Godzillas act a lot like the raptors, Godzilla chases a taxi in a similar fashion to the T-rex chasing the SUV in Jurassic Park, and Godzilla's rampage bears a striking resemblance to the one from The Lost World: Jurassic Park II. It's a pity that Roland and Emmerich didn't take Speilberg's sense of seriousness along with the homages.
The homages to Beast from 20,000 Fathoms are fairly obvious. Like the Rhedosaurus, Godzilla comes to New York via the fishing docks. Both creatures arrive in New York in order to breed. Both get lost in New York's vast cityscape, although this is much more believable in Beast. Both creatures cannot be taken down by conventional military; the Rhedosaurus because it carries a virtulent disease, Godzilla because the military is incompletent. Both films also include the Flatiron building, although Godzilla blows it up.
Finally, there's a fair amount of Q the Winged Serpent. Both creatures lay eggs, where the Rhedosaurus never managed to do so, and in both, one hatches at the end of the film. Both monsters are brought down by conventional weapons, although the Winged Serpent is killed merely by gunfire, where Godzilla sucks up eight missiles. In an interesting paralell with Beast the signature building, the Chrysler building, is blown up by the military in Godzilla, where it served as a refuge for the Winged Serpent. I wonder if Roland and Emmerich watched these films, identified buildings in them, and said "let's blow them up."
Godzilla 1998 was not a failure at the box office. It made close to four hundred million dollars, more than half of that in foreign markets. Not bad for a hundred and thirty million dollar film. However, the film demanded a larger take from the theaters themselves than any previous film. So the theater owners felt like they had been sold a bill of goods, but had to show it anyway. Despite being shown on more than three thousand screens for a full minth, the box office take plummeted. From $55,726,951 the first weekend to less than half of that, $18,020,444 the second week, and then $9,712,119, and finally $6,202,337, all while showing at the same 3,310 screens.
Ultimately, Godzilla doesn't take itself seriously, doesn't have a lot of dignity. It's an excuse for the writers, directors, and producers to have a laugh, and explore some of the monster films they liked. And it's this split nature of the film, half-joke, half serious, that makes it emotionally unavailable. If it had been one thing consistently, and of course I favor the serious, it might have been a better film. Godzilla causes destruction on a massive scale, but he doesn't actually kill people who aren't military. How can a giant lizard be a disaster if no one ever gets hurt? The Godzilla Juniors kill four people on-screen. Godzilla doesn't kill anyone directly. Because if people die, then it's awkward to make jokes, either in the script or visually.
It's not a great film. But it exists and it was seen by enough people that it cannot be ignored in a serious discussion discussion of the Godzilla franchise. David Kalat is very perceptive when he writes that it united the fans and the non-fans. People wanted to know what the hell was wrong with the film, and they turned to fans, Godezuski and Kalat himself, to understand why the 1998 Godzilla wasn't Godzilla. And it galvanized the Godzilla community into realizing what Godzilla really is, by providing a negative example of what it isn't.
Next up, American Godzilla 2014.