Neither Big Nor Bold
Giant monsters have existed in cinema as long as any other classic creature of movie monster. In the same span of time that Universal began creating their Monsters, RKO put out their giant monster classic King Kong. It was a revolutionary movie, a true mastery of the form, and it created not only a singular movie that was hard to top (Son of Kong certainly wasn’t able to) but a franchise that has lived on ever since. But Kong wasn’t the only giant creature to come along. Arguably Toho’s massive monster, the one and only Godzilla, surpassed (in sheer number of films, as well as popularity) Kong and became the biggest, baddest kaiju on the block.
From 1954 onwards, Godzilla has been featured in 38 films. Of those films, 33 were made in Japan, and while not all of those films were instant classics or even massive hits, they’ve built the legacy of Godzilla up and made him the monster he is today. Five of the films were made in the U.S. and while four of the recent movies made by Legendary Pictures (as part of the MonsterVerse) have been embraced by fans, there is one odd duck out: 1998’s Godzilla. This film was the first attempt at making a Godzilla movie in the U.S. and, well, the results were anything but good.
Full disclosure, when I was a teenager I didn’t hate the 1998 Godzilla. I didn’t really watch kaiju films then (and, admittedly, don’t now either), but I thought the 1998 film was fun, if dumb. It had a giant monster, it had destruction, it had people running around. It was an absolute Box Office failure, making only $379 against a budget of $150 Mil (probably breaking even, but not being the smash hit TriStar films expected), but teenage me didn’t really care that much. I didn’t really understand the negative buzz around the film because all I really saw was that it was made by director Roland Emmerich, who had made Independence Day, and measured against that film this giant monster movie seemed decent enough.
Having gone back and watched Independence Day a whole go, I have to admit that the film is flawed. It had very fun moments, mostly powered by Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith (an unlikely duo that just works), but the film is long, a bit sloggy in places, and spends a lot of time talking when it really needs to be getting to the action and the fireworks. There’s plenty of action in that film, so it doesn’t drag the movie down, but it’s pretty clear that ID4 could easily have gone off the rails if the balance of the elements wasn’t right. Godzilla doesn’t have the elements balanced properly. Emmerich made the same kind of film, with the people of a city banding together to take on a massive threat to their way of like, while things blow up real good, but nothing quite works here and, upon rewatch, it’s pretty clear why everyone else hated this movie: it sucks.
The film focuses on Dr. Nick Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), a biologist working for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission studying earthworms around the site of Chernobyl. The U.S. military has him reassigned, though, when a new creature is discovered that is giving off heavy signs of nuclear radiation. The other scientists called in think that the creature might be an apatosaurus that has somehow lived, hidden, until very recently. Nick, though, surmises that the creature is actually a new species, something that has grown to epic size due to the exposure from nuclear weapons tests. It’s new, it’s hungry, and it’s headed for New York City.
This creature, dubbed “Gojira” by the Japanese fishman that saw the beast (and lived to tell the tale), and “Godzilla” by an idiot reporter, does indeed make landfall in NYC and immediately goes about causing carnage and destruction. But then it disappears, and no one knows why. No one but Nick. Again, our hero suspects it hasn’t left the city, hasn’t gone back to the water, but is instead under the city, in the tunnels, building a nest. Testing its urine (yes, this is a plot point), Nick realizes the beast is pregnant and can reproduce asexually. That means there could be dozens, or more, eggs in the city. When the Army stops listening to him, Nick is scooped up by a group of French agents, led by Philippe Roaché (Jean Reno), who believe him and are motivated to find the eggs. It’s a race against time to find the nest and destroy the eggs before this species becomes the dominant creature on the planet.
Let's be honest, this isn’t a Godzilla movie. Yes, it has a giant monster named “Godzilla”, but the fact is that it doesn’t have the city destruction, strange and goofy creatures, or real political message riding underneath to even feel like a proper Godzilla movie. It’s a film curiously focused on the human characters but largely disinterested in the monsters. This, of course, is the kind of movie Emmerich made, disaster movies focused on the humans quipped and running around. He wasn’t the kind of writer to invest in the monster; he wanted the destruction without worrying about what emotions the disaster was feeling about itself.
Godzilla is a character in his movies. As much as he’s a force of nature he also became something more, a villain or hero that the films focused on. Godzilla ‘98 doesn’t do that for its monster. Its version of Big G is just a giant lizard, something like a komodo dragon that got huge and then ran around. Calling this thing “Godzilla” ignores what that monster is all about. It’s like the creator was ashamed of Godzilla and, instead, just wanted to use the monster as an excuse to make whatever other kind of movie he preferred instead. I can see why people hate this Godzilla.
Emmerich wanted to make his usual movie but, in comparison to ID4, he didn’t have the strong cast of actors he needed to make this film work. Broderick was great in Ferris Beuhler’s Day Off. He’s solid in Project X. I know people loved him in the Broadway version of The Producers. But frankly he stinks here. He’s a nebbish litt;le dweeb, as written in the story, and it makes you wonder how people thought he was an A-list star for a while. The real movie magic of Hollywood isn’t making a giant CGI Godzilla, it’s somehow turning Matthew Broderick into Ferris Beuhler. He doesn’t have any of that charisma, charm, or wit here at all.
Not that the rest of the cast is any better. Maria Pitillo plays Audrey Timmonds, Nick’s one and future love interest, but there’s no real character to this character. She wants to be a journalist, and that’s all her motivation, but Timmonds is awkward and barely able to keep her character together. We’re supposed to root for her, even in the moments where she kind of screws over Nick, and we never do. Even when she gets her big break, and finally gets on air, she’s awful. And there’s no chemistry between her and Broderick (which is also his fault), rendering our central duo empty.
We also have Hank Azaria who is playing, I guess, Hank Azaria. He’s another actor that can turn in good work but he’s utterly wasted here. His guy, “Animal” Palotti, is the cameraman at the studio where Audrey works, and all he wants is to get video of the big beast. That’s it. He doesn’t have some large arc, or something more he’s striving for. He literally just wants to get video. And he’s in every scene, over and over, barely making quips or justifying his own existence. Like everyone else in this film he doesn’t work.
Which, speaking of things that don’t work: this film is really big on the sexual harassment. Audrey is invited to dinner by her boss, Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer), multiple times and he makes the quid pro quo of the relationship overt. “If you want a promotion you know what you have to do: go to dinner with me.” He does it in the middle of an office, where others can hear. He should have been fired but there’s absolutely no come-uppance for up at all. Similarly there’s a scientist that works with Nick, Dr. Elsie Chapman (Vicki Lewis), and she’s technically his boss. She also sexually harasses him, making overt comments about his looks, asking if he has anyone. It’s pretty gross, especially when all this comes in the first act of the movie. Her only come-uppance: she kisses some other underling, who is into it, and then regrets it. Oh darn.
Really, no one paying for their actions is a big part of the movie. The mayor, Ebert (Michael Lerner), wants to use the attack of the giant creature, and the successful destruction of it, as a platform to run again. It’s constant him trying to use the situation for his own advantage and undercut the military. The only bad thing that happens to him is he pisses off his assistant, Gene (Lorry Goldman), such that the assistant leaves at the end of the movie. And, yes, these two are a bad parody of Siskel and Ebert that Emmerich put in because those two movie reviewers hated all his films. It’s shitty characters with shitty behind-the-scenes motivations to a double pile of shit.
The biggest flaw of the film, though, is that there just isn’t enough Godzilla. We get the attack at the start of the second act, and then Godzilla disappears for most of the film, right up until the climax with its babies and then the big dino themself. The rest of the time we’re forced to hang out with shitty characters while they flail around explaining the whole movie to us. Instead of all this talking, and discussing what to do, and then failing to do anything useful, we should have just had Godzilla attacking NYC over and over again until there was rubble, and then the military should have killed it. That’s the Godzilla movie people wanted, not this mess.
But, of course, that level of destruction would have cost a lot of money to produce in a film that mixed in a lot of CGI with its practical effects. It says something, though, that the CGHI action we got just doesn’t look that great. When Toho is making better looking monster effects with five bucks and a dude in a rubber monster suit, you know your film has gone off the rails. Godzilla is an expensive boondoggle of a film that fails to deliver good characters, a good monster, or good looking action. Emmerich wanted to make his kind of movie instead of a Godzilla movie and he failed at doing both. People hate this movie, and rightly so. It’s boring, it's slow, and it’s a complete waste of time. Skip it and go watch any other film in the entire franchise instead.