Toho’s famous atomic beast, and easily the most recognisable kaiju in the entire world, Gojira first emerged from the waters of outside of Japan to wreck the city of Tokyo on November 3rd, 1954. To celebrate “Godzilla Day” this month, I’ll be dedicating very Saturday in November to looking back at the undisputed King of the Monsters’ many reboots.
Released: 20 May 1998
Director: Roland Emmerich
Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Budget: $130 to 150 million
Stars: Matthew Broderick, Maria Pitillo, Jean Reno, Hank Azaria, and Kevin Dunn
When a gigantic, mutated iguana dubbed “Godzilla” suddenly comes ashore and rampages through New York City, the United States military finds their conventional weapon ineffective against the creature’s size and speed. Doctor Niko “Nick” Tatopoulos (Broderick) is brought on to try and understand Godzilla’s biology and nature in order to destroy it and ends up uncovering a conspiracy involving French nuclear tests and the monster’s true reason for arriving in the Big Apple: to birth its young.
Ever since the release of the original Godzilla/Gojira (Honda, 1954), American filmmakers and studios have strived to translated the character for Western audiences; the original Japanese film received an international release as Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (Morse and Honda, 1956) and included a number of additional scenes and edits, with most revolving around actor Raymond Burr, who was inserted into the film. The sequel was completely rebranded as Gigantis: The Fire Monster (Oda, 1959) and Toho’s kaiju movies were consistently dubbed into English over their many decades of release, ensuring that a version of the atomic monster was as accessible to worldwide audiences, however awkwardly these dubs may have been. American film producer and distributor Henry G. Saperstein had attempted to get a fully American Godzilla production off the ground since the early-to-mid nineties, but the concept and its many pitches were repeatedly turned down by the likes of Sony Pictures and Columbia Pictures. Producer Cary Woods was finally able to get the project off the ground by pitching it directly to Sony Picture’s then-CEO and chairman, Peter Gruber, who was excited by the project and managed to purchase the rights from Toho.
Toho were extremely protective of their property, however, and provided the filmmakers with a memo that detailed how the character should look and act in the film. After a number of rejected scripts, the studio settled on a pitch by up-and-coming filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, hot off the success of Independence Day (Emmerich, 1996), who threw out the previous scripts and commissioned Patrick Tatopoulos to dramatically redesign Godzilla as a far more nimble and agile creature. Toho were stunned by the redesign but powerless to change it, though they eventually distanced themselves from the project entirely, and the creature was brought to life using cutting-edge CGI and a number of animatronics. Godzilla was bolstered by an aggressive marketing campaign that kept the creature’s full design obscured and resulted in toy manufacturers Treadmasters going out of business following the film’s scathing critical reception. Regardless, Godzilla’s $379 million box office made it a financial success and led to a short-lived animated spin-off, but plans for two follow-ups were shelved due to how badly the film was received; Toho were so underwhelmed by the film (which they felt took the “God” out of “Godzilla”) that they began production of a new series of Japanese-produced Godzilla films, and it would be some sixteen years before an American film studio would revisit the franchise.
It’s easy to forget now but Godzilla was a huge deal back in the day; the marketing was absolutely everywhere, from billboards to toys and merchandise, to a bevvy of trailers, all of which only showed glimpses and size comparisons of various parts of the creature. Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin were the hottest of hot shits after Independence Day and big-budget disaster movies were all the rage [https://www.denofgeek.com/movies/how-independence-day-defined-modern-summer-movies/] in Hollywood, so anticipation was really high for their next effort. For a Godzilla fan such as myself, this was the first chance I would ever get to see a Godzilla movie on the big screen, and I vividly remember being taken to see it by my dad when it came out all those years ago. As a kid, I remember being bowled over by it and wowed by the destruction, special effects, and the sheer size and awe of the creature, but it’s safe to say that, very much like Independence Day, a lot of the glamour surrounding Godzilla died off really quickly. Now, it’s regularly aired on television to the point of oversaturation, its flaws are well documented, and it’s since been surpassed by bigger, better, and more fitting versions of the character but I still get a pang of nostalgia any time I watch it, see some of the old marketing crop up on social media, or whenever Puff Daddy and Jimmy Page’s “Come with Me” appears on the radio.
After a quick open credits sequence that hints towards the movie’s revised origin for the titular monster, we’re then introduced to easily the worst part of this, and any movie that he stars in: Matthew Broderick. I’m sorry to say that I’m not a fan of this guy; the only films of his I can even remotely stand to watch are this one and The Cable Guy (Stiller, 1996) and even then I’m more interested in the giant monster and Jim Carrey, respectively. Here, Broderick plays Dr. Niko Tatopoulos (named after the man who redesigned Godzilla for the movie, and subjected to a pretty lame running joke where no-one can pronounce his name properly so everyone just calls him “Nick” or “The Worm Guy”), a scientist working for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) who is busy research the affects of radiation from the Chernobyl disaster on local wildlife, specifically worms, when he is suddenly whisked away to give his expert opinion on a gigantic, radioactive footprints and a wrecked sea vessel in Panama. While his new boss, Doctor Elsie Chapman (Vicki Lewis) believes that culprit to be a dinosaur that somehow escaped extinction, Nick provides the more credible explanation that the attack was caused by a creature mutated by radiation, and proves to be correct when the Big-G itself makes landfall in New York City. Nick has a tenuous relationship with the military and governmental officials he finds himself surrounded by; while Ellie clearly has the hots for him (for whatever reason) and Sergeant O’Neal (Doug Savant) is friendly enough to him, Colonel Hicks (Dunn) is far more abrasive and has little time for wild theories; he just wants to cut to the chase and find out the best way to track and destroy the creature as quickly and efficiently as possible, which is decidedly at odds with Nick’s more awestruck reaction to the creature and his scientific curiosity.
Nick and the military follow Godzilla to New York City, which reunites him with his ex-girlfriend Audrey Timmonds (Pitillo), a beautiful young woman with aspirations of being a fully-fledged reporter but who is stuck doing menial work for her lecherous boss, anchor-man Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer). Although Nick never forget Audrey (he still has photos of her and the two of them together in his car, which isn’t creepy or obsessive at all…), their reunion is a little awkward as they broke up when Nick proposed to her and she got cold feet. Just as they begin to rekindle their friendship, and express a continued mutual attraction to each other, Audrey screws it all up by swiping a confidential videotape that reveals Godzilla’s origins and preparing a report on the creature, and Nick’s theories that it is nesting in the city, to try and launch her career as a reporter only to be screwed over herself when Caiman steals her report and misidentifies the creature as “Godzilla” instead of “Gojira”. From there, Audrey conducts her own investigation into Nick’s theories and, like him, ends up constantly at ground zero when the creature and its young rampage through the city. The two are joined by Audrey’s her friend and cameraman, Victor “Animal” Palotti (Azaria), who largely acts as the film’s comic relief. Of the three main characters, Animal is probably the most likeable and interesting to watch thanks to being both something of a snarky jokester and a bit of a cynical Brooklyn native who finds himself recording evidence of the story of the century by association.
The rest of the film’s characters are made up of the standard, no-nonsense military types and thinly veiled parodies of real-world film critics, but easily the best human character in the film is Philippe Roaché (Reno). An agent of the French secret service, Philippe is conducting his own investigation into Godzilla; having been charged with destroying all evidence of his government’s involvement in the creature’s creation, including the creature itself and its young, Philippe takes a special interest in Nick and the ongoing military operation to track and destroy Godzilla, and is the only one wiling to entertain Nick’s theory about the creature having nested in the city. If you actually stop and think about it, it’s quite odd that Hicks and the other governmental officials don’t believe Nick’s theory considering he’s been right about every single other thing he’s said about the creature up until that point, but I guess it’s necessary to introduce some drama in the muddle of the film and get Nick teamed up with the more efficient and interesting French spies. This leads to some of the film’s more amusing and entertaining moments, such as their continual dissatisfaction with American coffee and snacks, them all chewing gum to “look more American”, and Philippe even impersonating Elvis Presley to convince the Americans that he’s one of them. While Hicks and the United States military are satisfied to believe that they’ve ended Godzilla’s threat, Philippe leads his men to Madison Square Garden to find and destroy the creature’s nest, which results in his men suffering the highest, most tangible body count in the entire film as they’re torn apart by the baby ‘Zillas. Still, Philippe remains an instrumental and pivotal character in the film since he’s the only one who takes Nick seriously outside of his friends, and Reno’s stoic charisma and undeniable screen presence easily allow him to steal every scene he’s in and be the undisputed highlight of the human cast, especially compared to the bland and awkward Nick.
Very much like the original Godzilla, it takes some time before we actually seethe titular monster in full view; its emergence from the ocean comes at around twenty-five minutes into the film and is easily one of the best and most memorable shots of the entire film as it slices up through the water and lumbers its way into the city, crushing cars and people alike and raining debris down on the streets. Even here, we don’t really get a good look at the creature as its framed mainly from the legs and ankles down and we get brief glimpses of its jaw and head, all of which really helps to create a sense of mystery and fear surrounding the creature. In the first of many borrowings from Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1993), the creature’s approach is heralded by a series of rumblings and shaking buildings, and the entire city is thrown into chaos as it stomps through downtown Manhattan before promptly disappearing. This is a recurring element in the film; despite being a good ninety-meters tall and causing a great deal of destruction in its wake, Godzilla is extremely difficult for the military to track and easily evades their attempts to track it by returning to the ocean and burrowing deep into the vast New York underground. This leads to a shot that should have been one of the most chilling in the movie but ends up being one of the most aged CGI shots in the film as Godzilla’s eye dominates one of its tunnels, and way too much of the film’s runtime is devoted to trying to figure out and draw out the creature and then contending with its young. When the creature does appear, it’s always at night and in the rain (which theoretically helps mask some of the CGI effects but ends up making the film appear very dreary and bleak as it’s constantly raining all the time), but it definitely makes an impression to see this mammoth, dinosaur-like creature standing in Central Park or weaving between the skyscrapers of the city, easily evading the military’s weapons with its agility and sheer mass.
The movie wastes no time in altering the origins of the iconic kaiju; in this version of the story, Godzilla is a normal, everyday iguana that was horrifically mutated by radioactive fallout from military nuclear tests in French Polynesia. I actually don’t really mind this change all that much; it’s not a million miles away from Godzilla’s actual origin (which varies, but is generally that of a new species of dinosaur that is supercharged by nuclear radiation) and brings the story a little closer to then-modern day. Obviously, it diminishes a lot of the horror of the original Godzilla in that the creature is no longer the embodiment of nature’s wrath or a physical manifestation of the nuclear terror that gripped Japan after the Second World War, but I think altering the story somewhat is probably necessary if you’re going to shift Godzilla’s target from Japan to America. However, thinking about it now, they probably could have retained the original story and had Godzilla target America as recompense for their actions during the war, similar to how the character would later be a vengeful force of the unjustly killed in Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (Kaneko, 2001). Still, the creature remains very much a symbol of the dangers of nuclear power and mankind’s tendencies towards recklessly endangering others and nature, though it does make you wonder why only one iguana was mutated in such a way when we clearly see an entire nest near the set of the nuclear tests.
The film does circle back around to the original movie, and the creature’s origins in Japan, by having it attack a Japanese boat out at sea, the sole survivor being traumatised by the experience and dubbing the creature responsible “Gojira”, and Godzilla laying waste to a village in Panama, which is all very similar to events seen in the original movie. Godzilla’s motivations for coming to New York couldn’t be further from the original monster’s, as it arrives not to unleash the fury of nature upon humanity or teach us the error of our violent ways, but to establish a nest within the city. Consequently, Godzilla doesn’t really go on a rampage in the same way as its predecessors; it only rages through the city after being attacked by the military while trying to have its fill of fish, and is far more concerned with gathering food for its young then destroying iconic landmarks. Indeed, as Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) states, the military causes more damage to the city than the creature as its easily able to slip past their missiles and high-powered artillery using its speed and agility; while the cluttered city doesn’t really give the creature a chance to reach its top speed, it allows Godzilla to nimbly hop onto and through buildings in a way its predecessors (and successors) never could. Its sheer size and mass also make it heavily hesitant to artillery, but its far from the invulnerable, unquenchable force of nature as the traditional Godzilla; the main issue the military have in trying to harm it is that it’s too fast and aggressive for them to get a good shot at with their more powerful weapons, and it favours an intense blast of air that becomes highly combustible rather than the iconic atomic breath, but it’s still a very formidable creature that easily overwhelms the U.S. military since they’re just not equipped to handle it.
Eventually, however, the military are able to draw the creature out with “a lot of fish”; although the same trick doesn’t work twice, it is enough to force Godzilla into the ocean, where it is seemingly killed by torpedoes fired from a submarine. From there, Nick and his friends join forces with Philippe and the French secret service to destroy the nest, with the film blatantly ripping off the Velociraptors from Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (Spielberg, 1997) in the depiction of the young ‘Zillas. These snapping, vicious little creatures are about the size of an average man and “born pregnant” and hungry, but are largely hit in miss in terms of their effects and their threat; sometimes they’re fully CGI creatures, other times they’re traditional animatronics, and sometimes they’ll leap at and chew the faces off the French but other times they’ll back away from falling lights to avoid hurting the main cast. This sequence gives the characters an additional threat that they can actually overcome, but does kind of drag the movie out a bit; I feel like it might’ve been better to simply have the nest and many five mini ‘Zillas running around rather than a whole mess of them, but they do serve one key purpose. Up until that point, there’s been a sense of awe and even beauty around Godzilla; it’s not presented as malevolent or aggressive in the slightest and is instead simply an animal looking to lay its eggs that only acts aggressively when provoked. However, when its young are killed, Godzilla becomes a vengeful and enraged creature as it relentlessly chases after the ones responsible (Nick, Animal, Audrey, and Philippe) in the lead-up to the finale.
For the most part, the film’s special effects and CGI hold up pretty well; Godzilla and its young can appear very weightless and fake at times thanks to some dodgy lighting effects, but when the creature is shot correctly, it remains an impressive and detailed digital creature. A few choice miniatures, physical sets, and animatronics help to lend a tangible threat to the creature and its destruction, and it’s clear that the most time, effort, and money went into the full body shots of the massive kaiju. Unfortunately for this version of Godzilla, the adaptation process has robbed the creature of many of its abilities, ferocity, and threat; though gigantic and formidable, it’s still just a mindless creature with simple urges (feeding, sleeping, and protecting its young), and its threat to the city and its inhabitants is generally framed as being incidental to its size and nature. Godzilla’s true threat lies in its ability to reproduce asexually; though it’s the only one of its kind, it can lay a vast amount of eggs, which hatch very quickly, and each of its offspring has the potential to grow just as big and produce just as many eggs, potentially meaning that Godzilla could supplant the human race as the dominant species on the planet. This is an interesting addition to the Godzilla lore, but one that somehow isn’t as impressive or as fearsome as Godzilla’s general depiction as the embodiment of nuclear fears. Upon discovering its young have been bombed to death by a massive air strike, Godzilla flies into a rage and chases as Nick and the others (who are, somehow, able to out-run the creature in a taxi despite the terrible weather and the destruction littering the streets…) and ends up getting tangled up in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. This finally gives the military a clear and open target to aim at and, after being assaulted by a bombardment of missiles from a few fighter jets, Godzilla finally goes down for the count. While it’s an anticlimactic and disappointing end to the traditionally indestructible creature, it’s a surprisingly distressing moment as the once mighty creature’s heartbeat slowly dies away in a scene very reminiscent of King Kong (Guillermin, 1976). Also like in that film, Nick is the only one to feel remorse at Godzilla’s death, as everyone else bursts into cheers of applause, but the film ends with the revelation that at least one of the creature’s eggs survived, and this ‘Zilla would go on to be the more heroic version of the character seen in the animated series.
It’s not hard to see why so many bemoan Godzilla, especially the die-hard fans of the character and its franchise. Realistically, the film would work just as well without the Godzilla name attached to it since so much about the monster has been changed that the filmmakers could have simply said any remaining similarities were a homage to Toho’s famous kaiju. The problem is that Godzilla really is so much more than just a mindless animal rampaging through a city; it’s supposed to be this metaphorical, elemental force of nature that exists to remind us of our failings and/or to defend the Earth from increasingly ludicrous and monstrous threat. Reducing it down to an irradiated and enlarged iguana that’s just trying to lay eggs is quite the betrayal of the core aspects of the character, and it also doesn’t help that it’s simply Godzilla against the largely ineffectual military rather than facing off against another monster. While this isn’t necessary a required element of a Godzilla film, as we’ve seen throughout this month, it is one of the main appeals of the franchise and was another serious miss-step on the filmmakers’ part. Still, as a disaster movie about a giant lizard trashing parts of New York, it works pretty well; the level of destruction is nowhere near that seen in Independence Day, though, and the attempt to introduce the secondary threat of Godzilla’s young succeeded only in unnecessarily prolonging the film’s runtime. I do have a little affection for this film, though, despite my dislike of Matthew Broderick and many of the changes made to the titular monster; I actually quite like the more versatile and agile design of the creature, and the film definitely excels whenever Godzilla or Jean Reno are onscreen, but it remains a startling underwhelming disaster film that’s way too reliant on special effects and oddball humour. Obviously, you’re going to need a lot of special effects to bring Godzilla to life but you really need to make damn sure that the rest of the film can support those effects, and the creature within it, and the sad truth is that this could have been any threat, monster, alien, or otherwise, stomping through the city and very little about it would be different except that Godzilla fans wouldn’t have had to see the famous monster butchered by studio meddling.
Could Be Better
So…do you have any fond memories or positive things to say about Godzilla? Were you disappointed by Godzilla’s redesign or were there elements of it that you enjoyed? Are you a fan of Matthew Broderick (and, if so, why?) and which of the film’s characters was your favourite? What did you think to the changes made to Godzilla’s origin and motivations, and the incorporation of its young? Were you disappointed by how easily Godzilla was taken down? Did you ever watched the cartoon that spun out from this film and would have liked to see a sequel? What’s your favourite Godzilla movie and why? How did you celebrate Godzilla Day this year? Whatever your thoughts on Godzilla, or Godzilla in general, feel free to sign up and leave a comment below, or let me know on my social media, and check back in next Saturday for more Godzilla content!