Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Series Report Card: Godzilla (1998)

23. Godzilla

Godzilla’s status as an iconic pop culture figure has a long reach. He’s beloved all over the world, sometimes to the point that I wonder if Americans don’t love him more then the Japanese. So, because Hollywood is always looking for a recognizable brand name, an American “Godzilla” film had been considered for years. In the early eighties, horror-sequel-workhorse Steve Miner and Film Thoughts favorite Fred Dekker nearly made a 3-D movie with a stop-motion Godzilla. In 1993, after “Jurassic Park” made dinosaurs huge business again, TriStar immediately scooped up the rights to the character. “Speed” director Jan deBont was going to make a film where a Stan Winston-designed Godzilla would have battled a giant griffin. However, deBant’s proposed film cost too much money, loosing him the job. TriStar then handed Godzilla over to Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, right off mega-hit “Independence Day,” who got the job because they promised to make the film quickly and cheaply.

The film’s advertisement campaign is probably better remembered today then the actual movie. “Godzilla” was too big to fail. The studio carpet-bombed every city and TV screen with ads. The exhausting ad campaign, boasting “Size Does Matter” and featuring everyone from the Taco Bell dog to the big ball in Time’s Square, made the movie a huge hit. Even the soundtrack, with Puff Daddy warbling over a Led Zeppelin riff and a bloodless Bowie cover, was enormous. Despite making over 400 million worldwide, few people liked the movie, Godzilla fans least of all. Emmerich’s “Godzilla” has long been the whipping boy of the fandom, widely loathed for years. Separated a decade-and-a-half from the original release, now the question can be asked: Does the TriStar “Godzilla" succeed in any way?

Paying homage to the original, the film opens with a Japanese fishing boat being attacked by some huge, reptilian creature. When giant footprints are found in Jamaica, biologist and worm-specialist Nick Tatopoulos is recruited by the military to investigate. Tatopoulos quickly comes to the conclusion that a giant animal, mutated by nuclear testing in French Polynesia, is responsible. Turns out he’s right when the monster, dubbed “Gojira” by the only-surviving Japanese fisherman, rampages through New York City. However, that’s only the beginning as Nick, his estranged reporter girlfriend, and her cameraman sidekick soon discover that Godzilla is pregnant and has picked the Big Apple as the perfect nesting ground for its brood.

For all the things “Godzilla” has been criticized for over the years, nothing is more controversial then its titular monster. After getting one look at the creature, hardcore G-fans dubbed it “GINO:” “Godzilla in Name Only.” It’s not an unfair label. The film’s lean, spindly reptile barely resembles the classic monster. It’s greenish, sure, and has long spines on its back. That’s about it. Instead, the monster looks like an uninspired combination of various dinosaurs. This Godzilla doesn’t charge the military forces head on, instead spending most of the picture fleeing from helicopters. It gobbles piles of tuna, instead of raiding nuclear power plants. He doesn’t breathe atomic fire, a late-film super-burp being a poor substitute. Most damningly, this Godzilla isn’t a sleeping dinosaur mutated by the atom bomb into an unstoppable force of destruction. Instead, he’s a super-sized iguana and swiftly killed by missiles. Not experimental, super-strong missiles. Just regular, mundane missiles. It’s no wonder that fans rejected the monster. Even Toho, years later, would declare the creature unworthy of the title of “Godzilla,” officially dubbing the monster Zilla. As in, not a god, just a big lizard.

So “Godzilla” isn’t much of a Godzilla film. Can the picture be appreciated on its own merits, separate from the Japanese franchise that inspired it? That depends on your tolerance for brain-dead action movies. The defining characteristic of Emmerich and Devlin’s “Godzilla” is its overwhelming dumbness. The script has little respect for the ’54 original’s stark horrors. Instead, the film more-or-less regurgitates the clichés of the disaster movie genre, ignoring everything that made the original special.

American blockbusters are frequently criticized for their ferociously pro-military attitudes, some Hollywood movies playing like feature length recruitment videos. “Godzilla” features the military prominently but could never be mistaken for propaganda. The army in this movie is dumb. Astonishingly, staggeringly dumb. They successfully lure the monster out with a payload of tuna. Their missiles miss the creature, instead destroying the Flatiron Building. Helicopters chase after the fleeing Godzilla, their machine guns tearing through the walls of surrounding buildings. The air force can’t hit the giant monster, their missiles instead hitting the Chrysler building. The destruction of these New York landmarks are shrugged off, the military simply sighing in embarrassment. Yet the biggest indignity belongs to the Navy. Two submarines attempt to corner the monster in the Hudson Bay. Somehow, in a sequence that makes little sense, one sub aims its torpedoes at Godzilla but instead hit another submarine. A multimillion dollar submarine, not to mention countless lives, destroyed by friendly fire. The commanding officers only give it a passing mention.

Ultimately, it seems the military is responsible for more destruction then Godzilla is. For a giant monster, the creature rather skillfully navigates the city. It runs between the buildings, only occasionally scuffing the structures with its head or tail. The movie’s most infamous moment of stupidity comes when Godzilla leaps through the Pam Am building. Despite blowing a huge hole through the building, it continues to stand. Maybe in a pre-9/11 world, audiences were more willing to accept this, that skyscrapers could survive such damage. Seemingly no lives are lost in the destruction, nobody killed. After Godzilla’s first rampage, people are still gathering in diners and businesses. The news reports constantly. Everyone spends more time complaining about the traffic then the actual monster. Godzilla is less a force of nature then a minor inconvenience.

The script’s stupidity isn’t confined to its treatment of the military or the city destruction. Every character is either a thin stereotypes, deeply unlikable, or both. The man in control of the military, Kevin Dunn’s Colonel Hicks, is your typical clueless authority figure. When the heroes realizes Godzilla is pregnant and has already laid eggs somewhere in the city, he ignores them, willfully ignorant of the proof. The city’s mayor, patterned after Roger Ebert in the shallowest of jabs, isn’t concerned about the destruction the monster causes. Instead, he threats constantly about the effect this will have on his reelection campaign. Bafflingly, the film provides much time to Maria Pitillo’s Audrey. Audrey is a struggling reporter, held back by her sexiest, egomaniac boss, another pathetic cliché. When the story should be focusing on the monster’s rampage, it instead turns to Audrey’s struggle for journalistic recognition. In the course of the story, she betrays Nick’s trust, leaking crucial information to the public. Despite proving she can’t be trusted, the hero still falls in love with her, the two ending the film in each other arms. Audrey’s sidekick, Animal, is an incredibly broad New Yawk stereotype. He’s nearly killed by Godzilla but never seems worried, slinging pithy one-liners even when on the edge of death.

The movie’s weakest character work belongs to its treatment of the French. Aware that the French government is partially responsible for the monster’s creation, secret agents are sent to investigate. Though you’d think it would be easier for them to work with the U.S. government, the Frenchmen act in secret. The agents spend a lot of time hanging out in an apartment, watching television and complaining about American coffee. When they finally do something, they pretend to be Americans by chewing gum and talking like Elvis, a deeply stupid joke. Another weak joke is that each of the French soldier’s names is some variation on “Jean.” For an elite squadron of warriors, they are all easily dispatched by Godzilla’s offsprings.

“Godzilla” is also bankrupt on a sub-textually level. America’s nuclear experiments aren’t responsible for Godzilla’s creation. Instead, the blame is shifted to another country. The atomic bomb is repeatedly referenced in the film. Yet the monster’s radioactivity is never treated as problematic. The monster is never compared to the bomb’s massive destructive power. The film has nothing to say about the bomb, warfare, or anything of that nature. This “Godzilla” is simply a facile monster movie, as brainless as its characters.

That’s not even the worse part. “Godzilla” is also a rather poorly constructed screenplay. Audrey is an important character yet never interacts with the rest of the cast until an hour in. It’s only by coincident that she and her cameraman wind up in Madison Square Garden with Nick and the French commandos. That’s sloppy writing. Moreover, the film has an incredibly awkward structure. Godzilla attacks New York City and is downed in the water by the submarines. The focus then shifts to finding the eggs. Nick and the others discover hundreds of eggs inside Madison Square Garden. Despite the eggs hatching around them, none of the characters attempt to flee until much later. Suddenly, “Godzilla” becomes the shrillest “Jurassic Park” rip-off you’ve ever seen. The group is stalked by the newborn mutant iguanas. Their shadows are cast ominously on the walls behind them, blatantly mimicking the raptor attacks in “Park.” For newborns, the baby Zillas are spry, ignoring the piles of fish around them in order to chase the soldiers. After the babies are exploded, the original Godzilla reawakens without explanation, having borrowed under the Garden when no one was looking, I guess. Now “Godzilla” lurches into a belabored third act, the cast trying to escape the pissed-off monster. By constantly shifting its focus, the film leaves the audiences’ unsatisfied and confused.

The cast is problematic though it’s not like they were given much to work with. Matthew Broderick is an astonishingly bland leading man. Like everything else in the movie, he never seems concerned by what’s around him. Even after discovering that the monster is pregnant, making the situation much worse, he has time for banter with Pitillo. Broderick isn’t bad though, simply incredibly uninspired. He’s neither irritating nor exceptional. He’s just… There. Pitillo, who has few notable credits before this and even fewer after, is similarly uninspired. Her character is so unlikable that, even if the actress had an ounce of charisma, I don’t think she could salvage it. Veteran character actors like Jean Reno, Hank Azaria, Michael Lerner, and Harry Shearer each play their thin, stereotypical characters to the best of their abilities. It’s not their fault, Lerner and Shearer sometimes coming dangerously close to being entertaining. The script just gives them so little to work with.

The mood that truly defines this “Godzilla” is boredom. It’s amazing how uninteresting this movie is. With such an uninspired script, the special effects are the only thing keeping it going. Are those at least good? The CGI was, at the time, cutting edge. Even today, they hold up decently. Godzilla looks convincing enough when running through the city. There’s no weight or grit to the design but, by 1998’s standards, it’s not bad. Much worse are the Baby Godzillas. They have to interact directly with the human cast, bringing their fakeness into a harsher light. I’ll give credit where credit is due, however. When practical effects are used, they are perfectly serviceable. Effects supervisor Patrick Tatopulous might not be Stan Winston or Rick Baker but the guy knows his stuff. The designs are uninspired but the puppets and models move realistically.

Even if the destruction is incredibly soft and the script is full of lame jokes, “Godzilla” is still a monster movie. What distracts the most from this tone is David Arnold’s whimsical score. The film’s ambitions are obviously Spielberg-like, owning a massive amount to “Jurassic Park.” Arnold’s score is similarly indebted to John Williams. However, the sweeping, airy themes badly contrasts with scenes of the monster walking through the city. What exactly was the score’s goal? “Godzilla” never feels like an inspiring film full of awe nor was it intended to. The music appears to be written for a different movie.

“Godzilla” isn’t a film in need of a reprisal. It is truly not very good. The film is hackwork of the highest order and accomplishes something even the weakest of the Toho efforts didn’t: It bores me. The greatest legacy of 1998’s “Godzilla” wasn’t a stream of successful sequels, as originally planned. The film inspired a Saturday morning cartoon show that featured a fire-breathing Godzilla that fought other monsters and had better-then-average writing. Yet even that isn’t the best thing to come of this misbegotten blockbuster. Instead, the film inspired new interest in Godzilla. Many of the classic films were reissued on VHS, some available in the U.S. for the first time. As forgettable as this film is, it’s probably responsible for a whole generation of G-Fans. In a strange way, that almost validates the whole noisy, senseless, affair. Almost. [Grade: D+]

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