GODZILLA (1998) Retrospective
Since at least two of you asked for it!
GODZILLA (1998) has been discussed and dissected and unpackaged and packed again and re-unpackaged and just about everything else that can be said about it.
But…screw it, I’m feeling smarmy.
G'98, as I’ve said before, is competently made. It has some excitement, some neat effects, and a handful of amusing…well, not “characters.” Lines. It has some amusing lines. But even with all of this Hollywood money behind it, and despite how high profile the whole pile of nonsense is, the entire production is slathered in a conspicuous layer of mean-spirited animosity towards not only the franchise its allegedly rebooting, but the audience as well.
Ok, let’s get this out of the way - I, as well as many a fellow Godzilla fan, had a similar reaction to this movie that a lot of moviegoers had to THE PHANTOM MENACE in 1999: the initial response was one of reserved enthusiasm. “Oh wow, I’ve been waiting for a big-budget American Godzilla movie for so long!” was the rallying cry. And we were not going to let ourselves be disappointed. But it was there: that clawing doubt in the back of your head. It’s a form of denial, practically. One grown from hope and optimism and sheer bloody block-headed unwillingness to be disappointed after one of the admittedly greatest marketing campaigns of all time. But as talk spread, and opinions formed, most of us fell in line with an equal number of fans who came out of the theater with a blood-blinded hate in their eyes.
It’s not Godzilla. It wasn’t Godzilla. It’s never going to be Godzilla.
All of the fancy effects in Hollywood couldn’t hide the fact that the filmmakers had no intention of creating a Godzilla film.
But I digress. Good points! Good points, good points…um…
Okay so overall, it’s a lavish production. The money is definitely all over the screen. Impressive sets and location shooting, not to mention a plethora of miniature work. The CGI is decent enough for the most part, though sadly lagging somewhat behind JURASSIC PARK (1993) with its clever and conservative CG, and only a few steps ahead of REPTILIAN (2001).
As for the monster itself, yes, I think most will agree that it’s an cool design. It’s got lots of little details and an elegant, powerful shape. The box-like head and dragon like neck add to a very distinct silhouette. Patrick Tatopoulous is on his A-game with this design.
Honestly? It could pass as a Godzilla. And it did, in my opinion, not long after. The animated GODZILLA: THE SERIES, which follows the events of the film, does its damnedest to honor the legacy of the series while also sticking well to the new “rules” established by the film. I find it to be one of the best reinterpretations of the Godzilla concept to date, and proves that the design CAN work, depending on how much of a purist you are.
The cast is…well, it’s not an untalented bunch. And there are attempts made to make them likable. Matthew Broderick fits the awkward nerd scientist profile well enough, and he’s endearing enough. Jean Reno gets a little too much lip service towards being “the only good thing in the movie,” but while he’s not exactly stand-out, he does have some of the funnier moments. Hank Azaria is at his best when hitting his comedic timing just so, and that’s all that can really be said for the cast.
The trouble with these “funnier moments” is that this is how the entire cast is written almost constantly. There’s little in the way of weight or gravitas to what’s happening. Now a monster movie can be light hearted, ala PACIFIC RIM (2013), but the characters are all so damn flippant all the time to the point where the film feels like it’s a parody, but a parody that, rather than finding its humor in awkward situations or by being referential to its source material, it simply tries to continuously hammer jokes (the SAME jokes, many a time) at the audience just in case they become bored by the events of the film.
This is one of the core problems that branches out to affect the characters and the tone overall. The women in the movie seem to be making constant reference to the incredible sexual magnetism of Broderick (clearly I’m missing something), and then there’s the shrill, obnoxious, totally unlikeable like the general, the paleontologist, the TV anchor, Animal’s wife, and God help us, Maria Pitillo. She’s not unwatchably bad but ugh a big load of eeeeeuuugghhh, especially that weird crying scene.
Again, nobody seems to be taking any of this seriously, and that would be fine if it was actually FUNNY. But it’s so constant and so aggressively low-brow and then downright mean (HAHAHA ROGER EBERT IS FAT AND HE DIDNT LIKE OUR MOVIES SO POO ON HIM) that it becomes positively exhausting. Oh and, yes Roland. We get it. THEY’RE FRENCH.
Then there’s the tone. As I said, comedy is the name of the game. Weird, forced comedy. But the movie begins with so much foreboding menace, with “Gojira” slowly making its way towards Manhattan, and in a really impressive scene makes landfall (again, amidst all this weird comedy). Then, when his babies are destroyed (we’ll get to that) and once more when he’s gunned down on the bridge, Zilla is presented as aggressively sympathetic. But the rest of the film wants nothing to do with this hoo-man emotion you call SYMPATHY, you feckless dogs. Zilla is an enemy first and…nothing else. There’s never any question of the moral implications of the creature’s presence, and Zilla didn’t really seem to kill anyone (except when the babies started eating people), and just caused a ton of property damage. On top of that, Zilla only really gets to fight back maybe twice to prove its menace, and even then it’s just this apparently terrible army we keep throwing at it. Zilla spends so much time on the run that we never really get the chance to be scared of him or even get any real catharsis out of the action.
The babies are a combination of two things: a second-act twist, and a desire to capitalize on JURASSIC PARK. And that’s it. I like the suits though.
And that leads us to another of the big problems here: the film’s lack of commitment. It seems intentionally bending over backwards to make the titular monster LESS impressive. The word for the day is “realism,” but when you throw science out the window in the brazenly psychotic manner that this film does, “realism” never enters the equation.
What this is a series of half-measures to try and water down the inherent awesomeness of a giant monster with “realism” as a smokescreen.
Look it’s not a poorly structured movie, and the script isn’t bad either. And it moves at a good clip. But the main problem people seem to have with it is that it fails as a Godzilla movie. Granted, some defend the movie as being “fine in its own right.” Arguments akin to “you should take the movie in its own context” and “don’t judge it alongside the rest of the franchise” get trotted out.
The inherent trouble with his assertion is that it assumes that movies exist in a vacuum. ANY movie is the greatest movie ever if you have nothing to compare it to. G'98 lost the right to be free of comparisons to other films the instant it was titled “Godzilla.” It’s also well documented that Devlin and Emmerich were openly contemptuous of the classic films in the franchise and had no desire to create anything like them. To them, Godzilla is a disposable b-movie-monster that happened to have more than one film made by a bunch of untalented, ignorant foreigners and the films are singularly remembered for their kitsch value. Tragically, this perspective is shared by more audience members than I’d care to admit.
It never occurred to these two that Godzilla may have been a series that was important to people, and that if it was nothing more than a big lizard, then it wouldn’t have lasted as long as it has, and that we’d probably be watching Gorgo 7 and Reptilicus XXI by now. And therein lies G'98’s greatest flaw.
If you like the movie, there’s nothing wrong with that. Lots of people like lots of movies and not everyone understands why. Maybe this was the first monster movie you ever saw, maybe this is nostalgic for you. Maybe you just enjoy the effects or maybe you love Jean Reno that damn much.
Just try to keep in mind, when Godzilla fans say they don’t like this movie, that’s pretty much why.