Sometimes Size Matters, but Not Always: 'Godzilla' (1998) Retrospective
Taking the 'God' out of Godzilla
Godzilla is not just a Japanese icon, but one well known throughout the world. When it was announced that America would make their own Godzilla film, it was a major deal. I still remember the New Year’s Eve ad on TV that showed Godzilla’s tail during the Ball Drop. The first actual teaser showed Godzilla’s foot step on a dinosaur’s skeleton, which made people scratch their heads. When the actual film was released, critics and fans didn’t take too kindly to the American version of their favorite Japanese dinosaur. But was it as bad as what they said it was? From 1998 comes the American version of Godzilla, which was directed by Roland Emmerich.
The film’s plot revolves around a gigantic mutated iguana dubbed by the media as Godzilla. You didn’t misread that, Godzilla is now an iguana instead of a dinosaur. Worm biologist Dr. Nick Tatopoulos is called in to help study the creature. As Godzilla causes shenanigans in New York City, Nick must work with his allies, including his ex-girlfriend, and the army to help stop the giant lizard.
The film’s opening credits show an iguana exposed to radiation from French nuclear bomb testing. Afterwards we see a Japanese fishing boat ripped to shreds by gigantic claws. One of the survivors is asked what he saw. The survivor repeatedly says Gojira.
While studying earthworms, Dr. Nick Tatopoulous, played by Matthew Broderick, is asked by the U.S. State Department to investigate traces of an unidentified creature. He goes to a tropical region where the Japanese fishing boat washed ashore and finds not just the claw marks, but huge footprints and skin samples. From the samples he learns that the creature is a mutated iguana.
A fisherman in New York City cast out and catches the giant iguana, which comes out the ocean and stomps through the streets. Afterwards, the city is evacuated so the military and Nick can study and find a way to deal with the creature. Getting caught up in the mayhem is Nick’s ex-girlfriend Audrey, played by Maria Pitillo, and her cameraman Animal, played by Hank Azaria of The Simpsons fame. They’re after a story and see the iguana situation as their big break.
The military attempts to use fish to bait the iguana out in the open so they can exterminate it, but it ends with the iguana destroying their helicopters and escaping. Nick obtains a sample of the creature’s blood and learns that not only is it male and capable of reproducing asexually but is apparently pregnant. Later the military attempts again to bait and attack the iguana, which ends with submarines blasting it in the Hudson River.
Aubrey finds a tape in Nick’s possession which shows the original interview with the Japanese fisherman who was interrogated earlier. She takes the tape and gives it to a news outlet. They misinterpret the name Gojira and call the creature Godzilla. Due to losing the tape Nick is fired from the assignment. He rejects Aubrey after learning that she took the tape to further her career. Nick soon meets an insurance salesman named Philippe, played by Jean Reno. Philippe is actually a French Secret Service Agent who interrogated the Japanese fisherman.
Philippe tells Nick about the French testing that mutated the iguana into Godzilla and want to keep that information classified. He gets Nick to help him look for a nest Godzilla created in the city so that they can destroy it before more Godzillas appear. They, along with Aubrey and Animal discover a huge nest of giant eggs in Madison Square Garden which soon hatches into baby Godzillas. Their hatching leads into the film’s climax.
Nick himself is a lighthearted lovable person. He is known to the military officers as the worm guy. He’s always attempting to find ways to settle conflict peacefully, such as studying Godzilla and find a way to get rid of him without harming him. A common running gag is that everyone mispronounces his last name. Nick is a likable, if somewhat bland protagonist. To be fair many of the characters are bland to make room for the titular character, though this probably wasn’t done on purpose.
Aubrey was just selfish and unlikable. She stole the tape of classified information from Nick to further her own goal and didn’t even consider the consequences of her actions. Eventually she redeems herself in the climax, but she’s still unlikable. Aubrey’s cameraman Animal was just sort of there as a comic relief character.
Philippe is probably the most interesting human character. He is a rather enigmatic individual who just appears. Eventually his motives and connection to Godzilla are revealed and he’s always relaxed no matter how dire the situation seems.
There are other minor characters spread throughout. Also from The Simpsons is Nancy Cartwright cameoing as a secretary, and Harry Shearer as News Anchor Charles Caiman. Mayor Ebert, played by Michael Lerner, and Gene, played by Lorry Goldman, are spoofs of real-life film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.
Of course you can’t talk about a Godzilla film without talking about the titular character. Godzilla in this film is similar to the Japanese one in the sense that they’re both giant lizard-like creatures. Outside of that they’re completely different. No longer a dinosaur, Godzilla is an iguana. While he’s still gigantic he’s nowhere as large as his Japanese counterpart, nor is he as durable since a single hit from a submarine’s torpedo can knock him unconscious. The Japanese version brushes off missiles. Another trait of the Japanese Godzilla is his trademark atomic breath. This Godzilla doesn’t have atomic breath, however sometimes it roars near cars with so much force that it causes them to explode and simulate fire breathing.
So the film developers decided to take a more animalistic approach to Godzilla, but is it really a bad thing? According to the fans it is since them taking away from Godzilla’s abilities took the God out of Godzilla. Actually this Godzilla would go on to appear in the film Godzilla Final Wars, but renamed Zilla. While this change was rather bizarre, I didn’t mind Godzilla behaving more like an animal, which is what he is anyway. Unlike the Japanese Godzilla, this one is faster and can jump very high. He also has stealth abilities, such as sneaking up on military helicopters. While the Japanese version is often referred to as male, its gender is ambiguous, here they clearly state Godzilla is a male who can reproduce asexually.
Another difference is their behavior. While the Japanese Godzilla goes out of his way to destroy Tokyo and other Japanese cities, this Godzilla, while still destructive, doesn’t purposely go out his way to ruin New York City. Actually the military causes more destruction than Godzilla. They attempt to shoot at him which results in them damaging buildings and even destroy their own submarine. But to this film’s credit, this is the first Godzilla film to actually show him swimming and eating.
Later, the film’s focus shifts to Godzilla’s children. Godzilla having children isn’t new since the Japanese one had two different sons, Minilla and Godzilla Junior. Here Godzilla has lots of children. Honestly the film could have done without them, especially since they felt like the raptors from Jurassic Park. As such, the film suddenly shifts to a Jurassic Park-esque experience with the main characters running from them.
Music-wise, the only song I can recall is the cover version of David Bowie’s Heroes by The Wallflowers. The other songs are just forgettable rock songs.
Overall, while I enjoyed the film, as a Godzilla fan I don’t recommend Godzilla 1998. There were just too many changes to the titular character. This film has very little to do with the original source material, Godzilla’s more traditional attributes in Japan were exchanged for a more animalistic Godzilla, which took away from what made him a beloved icon. The four leading characters could have had more development, or at least been given qualities to make them more likable.
TriStar, the studio behind the film wanted to take Godzilla in a new direction, and this is proof that reboots aren’t always the best thing. Many don’t even consider this a true Godzilla film. TriStar originally planned a sequel for the film, but due to the backlash it was abandoned. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t a continuation of the film. Shortly after the film’s debut an animated series aired on Fox Kids, which served as a sequel to the film. It was much better accepted due to Godzilla having his traditional abilities, such as his atomic breath. As for the series’ prequel, it’s a decent popcorn flick but nothing spectacular.
Original film trailer
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