Don't Hate Me: Why I Love "Godzilla" (1998)
In 1993, Steven Spielberg opened the gates of Jurassic Park, effectively creating a craze about everything dinosaur-related as well as revolutionizing cinema due to its innovative special effects. Once again, lizard-looking monsters were believably ruling the earth! Forget about men in rubber suits, those CGI creatures looked and felt real. Naturally, studios were looking for a project that would give them the same kind of succe$$. For a few years, the idea of adapting Godzilla for the Amecian public had been talked about around Hollywood but Spielberg's film helped to substantially raise interest in the idea (the rights were actually acquired by TriStar Pictures in 1992).
Meanwhile, Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich unleashed the crowd-pleasing $75,000,000 alien invasion film Independance Day (1996) upon the world, which grossed over $800,000,000 worldwide and is now considered a 90's classic. The team was naturally offered to helm the american version of Godzilla and what they ultimately delivered remains controversial to say the least. Budgeted at $130,000,000, the film performed below expectations with only $379,000,000 around the world and garnering mediocre reviews. Time didn't improve the film's reputation either as most Godzilla fans consider it not even a proper Godzilla film and the release of the 2014 reboot made the 1998 version pale in comparison. Despite the bad reviews that were sometimes justified (the film is far from perfect), I prefer the 1998 film over the reboot and I revisit it often. Why? Read further!
It's (silly) fun!
Much like Independence Day, Godzilla is a check-your-brain-at-the-door popcorn picture, meant to be enjoyed for what it is, a dumb monster movie. The characters are pretty one-dimensional and some of the dialogue is laughable. A few jokes are quite funny, such as the Siskel & Ebert parody (Mayor Ebert in the film) and Jean Reno's attempts at looking american. Otherwise, the humor in the film is clearly a copy-paste of Independence Day's best moments (luckily minus the over-the-top patriotism). On this aspect, I can enjoy Godzilla as a so-bad-it's-good kind of film. However, the reason why people watch it is for its massive star, Mr. G himself. If size does matter (the film's tagline), then the movie really delivers. The buildup to Godzilla's first appearance is very well-done and had me on the edge of my seat. When Zilla is finally unleashed in NY, the film keeps its promise as it is filled with epic scenes of him destroying stuff and fighting the army, which is what we can expect from that kind of picture (and is probably why the film still appeals to the 5 year-old in me). I know fans were displeased by the fact that he never actually fights another monster like in the Japanese series but I think the action sequences more than make up for it.
I always thought the film was a thrill ride and I enjoy all of Zilla's action-packed appearances, even if some are pretty ridiculous. For instance, there is a scene in which the army tries to attract Zilla with a ton of fish. It works and then the monster appears, even posing for a picture (!?). The military is also actually causing more damage to the city than Godzilla itself. Plenty of New York's landmarks get blown-up in spectacular fashion, such as the Chrysler building and the Madison Square Garden. In a post 9-11 world, the lighthearted and family-friendly tone of the film prevents its violent destruction sequences from appearing unpleasant or disrespectful. Finally, there is no deep philosophical message in the 1998 version of Godzilla (like in the 1954 original or the darker 2014 reboot) but I think it remains very enjoyable on a pure entertainment value. A true 90's blockbuster like they don't make them anymore!
The Simpsons Connection
One look at the names on the poster might make you wonder if you are about to watch a comedy or a live-action Simpsons movie. Why? First of all, the film stars Matthew Broderick, whose most famous role was in 1984's Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which became an unexpected hit responsible for Broderick being typecasted in comedic roles for pretty much the rest of his career. In Godzilla, he plays Dr. Nick Tatopoulos (named after the creature designer of the film), a physically demanding role that should be played seriously. Nonetheless, I thought he acted as if he was in a comedy for much of the film's runtime due to his funny dialogue and often goofy reactions to what happens around him. That said, was he miscast or is it the opposite, a rare case of inspired casting? I'm in the latter camp, as he brings comedic relief and I don't think he overacts. I could still believe in him as a scientist. The same couldn't be said about his love interest in the film, Audrey, portrayed by Maria Pitillo. She is very cute but can't act! She is truly horrible here and deserved her Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actress. It seems like the film ended her career as I never saw her again...
The main cast is completed by Jean Reno, who was then the go-to-guy when a badass european action man was needed, due to his impressive performance in Luc Besson's Leon (1993). He cemented his reputation to american audiences with a great role in Mission : Impossible (1996) opposite Tom Cruise before starring as french secret agent Philippe Roche in Godzilla. Here he brings much of his usual charm and I was happy to discover that he has great comedic timing. I think he steals every scene he is in but my favorite occurs when he tries to look american by impersonating Elvis Presley. Despite repeated viewings, it makes me laugh every time! He is great as the mysterious action hero and kicks ass, especially in the final Madison Square Garden sequence. Reno would keep appearing in numerous films both in France and the US and remains one of the most well-known European actors.
Bart Simpson, Moe and Kent Brockman all appear in Godzilla. You don't believe me? Just close your eyes and listen. For a weird reason, the producers decided to cast Nancy Cartwright, Hank Azaria & Harry Shearer together in the same movie, which has nothing to do with that famous TV show. Both Azaria and Shearer have proeminent roles here and the latter even portrays a TV presenter, just like his character in The Simpsons. This was quite distracting but apart from that, it didn't annoy me much. I guess the team behind the film were just massive Simpsons fans... The next time the three would appear together in a film would be in 2007 in... The Simpsons Movie.
It's an (almost) original story!
That's almost completely true and explains why so many hate the film. I say almost because I think some ideas are lifted directly from Jurassic Park and its sequel The Lost World, whether its regarding the characters (such as the scientist protagonist) or some action sequences. For instance, the idea of Godzilla giving birth to hundreds of babies is only there to 1) recreate on a larger scale the raptors-in-the-kitchen sequence from JP (here in Madison Square Garden) and 2) set up a sequel. The original story was conceived by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio in 1994 and was reportedly much closer to the source material, even featuring a battle against two giant monsters. Emmerich & Devlin then became involved and decided to make the film their own, discarding some of Godzilla's most important elements (according to fans) such as his "atomic ray", the epic duels agains other kaiju monsters and most of all, his invincibility. However, they kept the fact that he was born due to nuclear radiation after toying with the idea of making him an alien (which sounds awful).
Despite all that, I still think its refreshing to see an original story adapted with some creativity, especially when we take a look at Hollywood nowadays, which is all about sequels and unnecessary remakes. I'm not saying the film is a milestone in cinematic history but at least the writers had the balls to try something different with the source material (which itself had been milked to death in Japan). Anyway, I always thought the idea of seeing two giant monsters fight like in the original japanese films was completely silly and I wouldn't want to see that movie (I'll talk about the 2014 film further down). I guess you could say I'm not a true Godzilla fan then...
I mentioned earlier that the ending of the film paved the way for a sequel, which was effectively planned. It would have featured the surviving baby from the Madison Square Garden bombing fighting a giant insect in Sydney but it never happened due to lack of enthusiasm. However, an animated series based on the film was produced and ran for 2 seasons from 1998 to 2000. Ironically, it was very well received by Godzilla fans and I think it shows the direction the movie franchise would have taken had it materialized.
Deeper Underground by Jamiroquai
It sounds great!
One aspect on which I think we can all unanimously agree is that Godzilla sounds great. And by that I don't mean the monster himself (who does sound awesome like in the Japanese films) but the soundtrack of the movie. Devlin & Emmerich hired David Arnold to compose the original score following their successful collaboration on Independence Day in 1996. At the time, Arnold was the official composer for the James Bond franchise, which says a lot about the man's abilities. He delivers the goods here with an appropriately bombastic score and an epic and menacing theme for Zilla himself. Some of Independence Day's patriotic motifs can be found to represent the army and there is even a suitably romantic theme for Nick and Audrey. Overall, the score successfully echoes the work of John Williams and I can't think of any better music to fit the film. By comparison, the music for the 2014 remake by Alexandre Desplat is bland and just forgettable. Sadly, only two shory cues from Arnold's work were initially available on the commercial album released to promote the film, with the rest of the CD containing various rock and pop songs from or inspired by the film, a typical late '90s marketing gimmick.
The soundtrack, released as Godzilla : The Album, was very successful commercially, reaching No. 2 on the U.S. Hot 200 and getting a platinum certification. The most famous songs are without doubt Puff Daddy & Jimmy Page's Come With Me, The Wallflowers' cover of Bowie's Heroes and Jamiroquai's Deeper Underground, a personal favorite. All three had accompanying music videos featuring Godzilla even if the song themselves barely appear in the film. David Arnold's complete score would finally be officially released as a limited edition 2 CD-set in 2007 by La-La-Land Records. You can listen to a suite from his work down here :
Soundtrack Suite by David Arnold
Watch it !
Following the film's moderately successful theatrical run and the cancellation of the planned sequels, the idea of an american Godzilla series slowly disappeared from the minds in Hollywood. To ensure that people knew that the creature featured in the 1998 movie wasn't the real Godzilla, when Toho reclaimed the rights to the character in 2003, they immediately had it exploded into atomic dust by the real Godzilla in Godzilla : Final Wars. When interviewed in 2014, Dean Devlin had this to say about his experience on the film :
"There are 2 flaws, for me, that really hurt the film. And both of those flaws I am responsible for. The first is we did not commit to anthropomorphizing Godzilla - meaning we did not decide if he was a heroic character, or a villainous character. We made the intellectual decision to have him be neither and just simply an animal trying to survive. This was a big mistake. The second mistake was deciding to exposit the characters' background in the middle of the film rather than in the first act (where we always do). At the time we told the audience who these characters were, they had already made their minds up about them and we could not change that perception. These were 2 serious mistakes in the writing of the film, and I take full responsibility."
The idea of making a 3D version emerged in the mid-2000's but that was also shelved indefinitely. Finally, in 2010 Legendary Pictures announced that a new version would be released. The resulting film, directed by Gareth Edwards, was well-received by critics and successful at the box-office. Fun fact, when taking inflation into account, the 1998 film made more money! While I can see the film's qualities (truly great performances and superb special effects) it's serious tone and creature battles failed to impress me. I still prefer the 1998 version. To me, it will always be brainless fun. And sometimes, that's all we need.