Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Godzilla (1998)

Hype is a dangerous thing for a movie. It can be your best friend--since obviously nobody cares about your movie if they haven't heard about it--but it can also be your worst enemy. Couple hype with anticipation and you have even more potential for something to blow up in your face.

An American Godzilla movie was in the works since at least the 1980s, when Friday The 13th: Part 2 director Steve Miner and Monster Squad screenwriter Fred Dekker tried to make "Godzilla 3-D", with creature design by dinosaur illustrator William Stout. Godzilla would have destroyed San Francisco after its offspring was killed by a Soviet sub, before finally being killed on Alcatraz with cadmium missiles, due to cadmium's ability to shut down nuclear fission. Godzilla would have been brought to life with stop-motion animation. But the studio eventually decided that spending so much on a production of a "kid's movie" would be a waste of resources and the project was scrapped.


The cadmium missiles idea would actually be used by Toho themselves when they gave up on an American remake and decided to reboot the franchise themselves in 1984.

About a decade later, Tri-Star secured the rights to Godzilla and began working on a film with a script by Pirates of the Caribbean's dream team, Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio, to be directed by Speed's Jan De Bont. The film would have seen Godzilla re-imagined as a protector of the Earth created by aliens (!) and hidden in the arctic, to be awakened when a shape-shifting alien monster known as the Gryphon arrives on Earth. The creatures were originally designed by comic artist Ricardo Delgado, but later refined by Stan Winston--the man who brought us more amazing movie monsters than I can even list here.


The film was slated for a 1994 release, but it eventually was scrapped when De Bont demanded more of a budget than Tri-Star wanted to give him and he left the project. However, Tri-Star had spent too much time on the project to just give it up, so they began to seek out another creative team. They settled on producer / screenwriter Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich and creature designer Patrick Tatopoulos, fresh off the success of Independence Day. The duo had shown they had what it takes to deliver a world destroying action film that could rake in the box office.

Godzilla fans were excited by the news, especially after a teaser trailer that played before Men in Black in 1997. Less exciting was the news that the film would only feature Godzilla and that the new Godzilla design would not be shown until the film was released. In fact, the studio spent millions to keep the design secret. Those millions were promptly wasted because the studio had forgotten that the Internet now existed.


That image was the first sign of panic. Some fans dismissed it as a fake, and indeed the filmmakers themselves claimed that the leaked designs--including prototypes of merchandise--were fakes sent out to determine which manufacturers could be trusted. But many fans weren't so sure. The creature certainly looked like something Tatopoulos might design.

Then script details began to emerge, apparently from an early draft: Godzilla in this film would be a mutated iguana of some kind, created by French nuclear testing in French Polynesia. The creature attacks New York because it wants to lay eggs in Madison Square Garden. It can burrow, it runs away at great speed when confronted by the military, exhales strongly instead of breathing nuclear flame, and after a climax where it chases a taxi cab all over New York on all fours, it is killed by six missiles after tangling in the George Washington Bridge.

Some fans were weirdly upset by the burrowing and running on all fours thing, as opposed to the fact that the film's creature sounded nothing like Godzilla. But it turns out that fans shouldn't have worried:

Godzilla in this film chases a cab on his hind legs, gets tangled up in the Brooklyn Bridge, and gets killed by twelve missiles. See? Totally different.

The film opens simultaneously on a promising note and with a good sense of the idiocy to come. The credits roll over sepia footage of what is supposed to be lizards in the French Polynesia islands before the French nuclear tests begin--even though every explosion shown is recognizable stock footage from American nuclear tests. The promising note is that David Arnold's score gives a great sense of menace to the proceedings. The idiocy sets in because absolutely zero lizards shown in the credits sequence are from French Polynesia. You have Galapagos marine iguanas, Komodo dragons, Chinese water dragons, spiny iguanas, bearded dragons, and--lastly--a green iguana hanging out next to some dinosaur eggs. Clearly the green iguana is supposed to have laid said dinosaur eggs pre-nuclear test, and after the test only one egg remains to hatch...

Cut to the present, as a Japanese fishing boat (supposedly the Kobayashi Maru in a weird little fan joke that is never made clear in the film's dialogue) is making its way through the storm. In a typical Hollywood twist, the supposedly Japanese vessel is staffed by actors who are simply Asian. One of the crew is Al Leong, for fuck's sake! The vessel is suddenly attacked by a large creature--its claws tearing through the hull and its tail smashing the bridge.

Meanwhile, in Chernobyl, Dr. Niko "Nick" Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick) of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is studying the increase in earth worm growth as a result of the radiation. He is suddenly taken away by helicopter, as he has been reassigned. Meanwhile, Phillippe Roache (Jean Reno), a French secret agent visits the sole survivor of the fishing boat, an old man who can only repeat, "Gojira...Gojira...Gojira."

In Panama, Nick meets up with Colonel Hicks (Kevin Dunn), Dr. Elsie Chapman (Vicki Lewis), and Dr. Mendel Craven (Malcolm Danare)--who it turns out are investigating the tracks of some strange radioactive creature. Whatever it is, it's big and it likes to attack fishing boats. Dr. Chapman, in between awkwardly flirting with Nick and ignoring the advances of Dr. Craven, suggests it's an Allosaurus from the Cretaceous period, but Nick shoots that down because it's too big to be a dinosaur. (He doesn't also point out that she's a shit paleontologist if she thinks Allosaurus lived in the Cretaceous--but then, we'll later see he's a far worse biologist)

Meanwhile, the creature sinks three fishing boats off the coast of New England. In New York we are introduced to (ugh) our heroine, Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), an insufferable wannabe reporter and Nick's ex whom he hasn't seen in eight years but never got over. She works for slimy news anchor Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer), but her married coworkers Lucy (Arabella Field) and Victor "Animal" Palotti (Hank Azaria) think her problem is she's too nice. The audience thinks it's more that she's insufferable. She sees Nick in a report on the mysterious shipwrecks and almost immediately begins to think that maybe she now has an angle to exploit.

She has no idea. The mysterious and barely glimpsed creature makes landfall in New York, where it attacks a fish market and interrupts a campaign speech by Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) and his assistant Gene (Lorry Goldman)--yes really. After the creature rampages past the diner Audrey, Lucy, and Animal are in, Animal pursues it with the intent to film it. He barely gets two seconds of footage before the creature almost steps on him. And then the creature somehow disappears, which the seemingly incompetent Sergeant O'Neal (Doug Savant) is forced to report to Col. Hicks. Where the creature has gone is anybody's guess, but it turns out to be that the creature burrowed underground--using the subway tunnels that it is way too big to fit through.

Unbeknownst to the military, Phillippe is monitoring them to see what their plans are. He and his team--all named Jean Something because they're French, you see--have already figured out that the creature is a result of French nuclear testing and thus view its destruction as their mission.

At Nick's suggestion, the military lays out a huge pile of fish. The creature arrives as expected and, after a brief weird moment where it gets up close and personal with Nick, the military attempts to kill it with missiles and machine gun fire--and they somehow miss it, destroying the Flatiron Building instead. The creature flees, using its gale-force breath to cause an explosion to destroy the pursuing ground vehicles. Apache helicopters take up the pursuit at that point. Unfortunately, their heatseeking missiles (!) can't lock onto the beast because it's somehow colder than the buildings around it (!) and the Chrysler Building gets beheaded. Man, New York needs to stop storing unlicensed nuclear reactors in its skyscrapers.

Pictured: The rare lizard that can be colder than a skyscraper and not be comatose.
The beast somehow outruns the choppers, who are now shooting at it with side-mounted machine gun turrets instead of the rotating chin turret on actual Apaches. The creature circles back and destroys the choppers pursuing it--which we are apparently supposed to cheer for. Maybe because anybody too stupid to just fly up out of reach of the giant lizard deserves to die.

Nick, acting on a hunch that makes no sense, takes a sample of lizard blood and buys up several pregnancy tests. He runs into Audrey and just lets her into his tent, with no regard to the fact that she broke his heart eight years ago--and, oh yeah, he has a top secret tape about the creature's rampage in his tent. Anyways, Nick somehow makes the blood sample usable for a human pregnancy test and determines that the radioactive lizard is pregnant, through asexual means.

Now, despite the fact that this creature is now pregnant, Nick continues to refer to it as a "he." In fact, Nick refers to it as, "A very unusual he!" Yeah, unusual in that it is not biologically possible for a male creature to be pregnant. Your lizard is either a hermaphrodite or a parthenogenic female. There is literally no reason to pretend that your monster is a male and gravid (the correct term for a pregnant egg-layer), except the most ridiculously stupid one: Godzilla is, by and large, considered to be male by the fandom and the general public.

That's right, Devlin and Emmerich had no problem removing everything that made Godzilla, well, Godzilla--his dinosaur origins, his radioactive flame breath, his invulnerability to conventional weapons--but apparently at the last minute they said, "We better keep him a male, or the fans will be furious!"

Well, Audrey steals the top secret tape and uses it to put together her own piece on "Gojira", only for Caiman to overhear it and re-edit the piece to be his before it airs. Caiman mispronounces the creature's name as "Godzilla", even thought that makes no sense given the old man enunciated the word the way an English speaker would instead of its true sound, which is similar to "Godzilla." Also, Gojira became Godzilla thanks to the fact that the Romanization of Japanese was not standardized in the 1950s--so even though an American Men's Magazine in 1954 wrote an article about a new Japanese monster movie called "Gojira", in 1956 the name was translated into English as "Godzilla" for Godzilla, King of The Monsters! Since Caiman is hearing the word and not reading it translated, it would take a hell of a lot of effort for him to bungle it that badly.

Oh, what am I saying, that's not even the dumbest thing in this sequence. See, Nick is informing the brass that Godzilla is about to lay eggs when the report comes on. Since Nick is credited by name, the military kicks him off the project--and then decide to ignore his warning about the eggs. Why? Because I guess they decide he was just making it up for the press's benefit.

Nick gets more or less kidnapped by Phillippe on his way out, as Phillippe believes his story. Nick and Phillippe's team prepare to follow the tunnels Godzilla has dug in search of her (up yours, fanboys!) nest, with Audrey and Animal in secret pursuit, Meanwhile, another attempt at ambushing Godzilla results in the creature fleeing into the Hudson, where three submarines are waiting for her. She manages to destroy one sub by luruing its own torpedoes back around into it, before she attempts to burrow back into the city. Two other torpedoes impact next to her and the navy declares her dead, even though she is clearly just stunned. Though why the torpedoes didn't kill her is anybody's guess, given she's now vulnerable to conventional weapons.

Nick and Phillippe find Godzilla's nest in Madison Square Garden, which is full of man-sized eggs that look like they should be disgorging facehuggers. How Godzilla found room for the hundreds of eggs in her belly, much less how she laid them all inside the building, is not explained. It doesn't matter, as the eggs promptly hatch and since Nick, Phillippe, Audrey, and Animal all smell like the fish clogging the arena and tunnels--the Baby Godzillas think that they're lunch.

Totally not raptors, guys. Totally.
The Baby Godzillas, which are so shamelessly ripped off of Jurassic Park's raptors that they might as well have that old "JP" trademark stenciled on their legs like all the Kenner toys did, quickly devour Philippe's team--proving themselves oddly invulnerable to machine gun fire, given that it was earlier capable of injuring their mother. The heroes manage to broadcast footage of the hundreds of Baby Godzillas, so Hicks is able to order an airstrike on their position. They barely make it out before the arena is blown up and the day is saved from--

Goddamn it.
Godzilla reappears, seeming way more concerned over the fate of her babies than lizards usually are, and then somehow makes the connection between her dead babies and the puny humans in front of her. And thus begins the interminable taxi cab chase, after Phillippe hotwires a cab to help them flee and Godzilla proves incapable of catching a damn car, even though she was earlier snatching helicopters with ease.

Finally, the beast is lured onto the Brooklyn Bridge, where she stupidly gets herself tangled in the suspension cables.

"Well, this is a fine mess I find myself in!"
The F-18s that blew up Madison Square Garden hit her with 6 missiles, circle around and hit her with 6 more on the other side. Godzilla falls, the sound of her heartbeat slowing fading away before the light in her eye goes out in a bit shamelessly ripped off from King Kong (1976). You'd think, when remaking a property in a way that nobody who loves the original will like, you would try to avoid reminding people of another remake that did the same Goddamn thing--not actively rip it off!

"Nobody cry when Jaws die, everybody cry when they see this piece of shit!"
Godzilla dies, Nick and Audrey stupidly reunite, Phillippe wanders off into the rain like the only good character in the film should--and the film ends with a single, unhatched egg disgorging a Baby Godzilla to threaten a sequel that won't be coming. Unless you count the cartoon spinoff series, which was way more awesome than the film that inspired it.

In 1998, I was but a lad of 14. I had been a Godzilla fan since I was 8 and I followed the news of Tri-Star's Godzilla obsessively. Year after year, I had seen the supposed release dates come and go--but 1998 had arrived and this film was being hyped out the wazoo. A New Year's Eve commercial declared 1998 "The Year of Godzilla"; signs everywhere boasted about the size of the creature, including its unfortunate double entendre tagline; and Trendmasters, the source for Godzilla toys for an American kid in the 1990s, was announced to be doing the toys for the film. But most fans online had heard the rumors about the film. They knew it had the potential to not resemble their beloved creature at all.

I was optimistic. I was such an optimist, in fact, that when I saw early leaked materials confirming the designs that had leaked were accurate, I still didn't care. And then I saw the film.

And then I saw it again, and again, and again.

You see, I loved it at the time. I was so excited to see a film called Godzilla in the theater that it apparently didn't matter to me that the creature in the film acted nothing like my beloved Godzilla and, in fact, was the star of an ersatz remake of The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. It didn't matter that the script was terrible, Matthew Broderick put in the kind of lifeless performance that only Thora Birch in Dungeons & Dragons could top, or that Maria Pitillo makes you long for the thespian fortitude of Jessica Alba.

It was Godzilla! And if I didn't love it and see it repeatedly, it would fail and Hollywood would never touch the property again! Good Lord, I even defended this film!

Well, it didn't actually fail but it was so poorly received it got considered a failure, and Tri-Star mothballed the property except for distributing the Toho films that were to follow in an attempt to clear the air of this film--and even then, they only gave Godzilla 2000 a theatrical release. Barely.

So, if I loved the film, why am I so hard on it now? Because the more I watched it, the more I began to no longer be able to ignore its faults. The more it became a chore to sit through--until, finally, one day I put it into the VCR (ah, the dark days before DVD) and before I hit the halfway mark, I realized I couldn't finish it.

So how did this film go so wrong? For starters, the worst thing you can do for a film based on a popular franchise is hire someone to make it who is not a fan of it. Rarely, such a film does end up being financially successful--as in the case of the J.J. Abrams Star Trek films--but usually the contempt for the material is such that it drives even the general public away.

Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich have revealed, in the intervening years, that they didn't even want the project. In fact, according to Emmerich, rather than declining the offer in the first place, they wrote the film as it stands in the hopes of Toho refusing to agree to let it go forward and them being fired from the film. Instead, Toho approved it--apparently thinking that these two yahoos knew what the American public wanted out of a Godzilla movie better than they did--and they were more or less stuck.

The contempt for the source shows through. Independence Day may not be a great film, but it has a great cast and they put in enjoyable performances, all of them. Come to this film, and that isn't the case at all. Independence Day also sees several major cities reduced to rubble, yet when the duo were given the reigns to a franchise about a giant monster that levels cities, they made the military do more damage than Godzilla--and even then, it adds up to no more than ten buildings destroyed. To further add insult to injury, every Roland Emmerich film since has basically destroyed the whole world, while this film can't even destroy New York.

The most bizarre thing about it all is at some point they seemed to realize that fans were gonna loathe this version. Unfortunately, they realized it after the film was almost finished. That is the only way I can explain why Godzilla "breathes fire" in two scenes. You see, the creature uses her breath weapon three times, and one time it is clear that it is just a gale-force blast of air. However, the other two times the breath causes cars to explode and then apparently the breath ignites. But the effect was plainly added at the last minute, and indeed, it is not mentioned in the novelization--which is usually based on the shooting script.

It's also important to consider that, when doing a Godzilla film, you need to have a clear idea of what kind of monster Godzilla is going to be in your film. Is he a villain, out to destroy and kill who must be stopped? Is he an anti-hero? Or is he a straight up savior of the Earth? This film has no clue what its Godzilla is. She destroys things in her path out of hunger--which, ironically was originally the motivation for Godzilla attacking Tokyo in the 1954 film at the script stage, before he became a walking nuclear bomb--and she is seeking to lay eggs that will mean the end of all human life as they feed and breed. She is, therefore, the villain who must be stopped. She is said to be "just an animal", which seems to be why the film feels we should have sympathy for her. All well and good, since even the original Godzilla evoked pity as the Oxygen Destroyer killed him rather than elation, but the film goes too far when it seems to expect us to cheer when Godzilla destroys helicopters and evades the military. We should not be cheering for the creature that could end the world.

Then again, it never seems remotely like the Godzilla species will end the world. The mother is put down with conventional weapons once a clear shot is provided. Her young? The velociraptors in Jurassic Park were given moments of clumsiness, but these Baby Zillas are foiled by a boot to the face, falling chandeliers, and gumballs. Not to mention, despite being referred to as "born pregnant" like Tribbles, they are less intelligent than those ambulatory furballs--they are somehow incapable of leaving Madison Square Garden despite their mother leaving a gaping hole in the floor filled with fish to lure them out.

If those lizards are capable of replacing humanity as the dominant species, as Broderick's character suggests, then we deserve it.

Simply put, this film is a disaster. It starts off almost promising, but even its beginning shows signs of the disappointment to come. Oftentimes, fans will say, "If it was just called something other than Godzilla, it'd be a fun movie." That's a bold-faced lie. This movie is flat-out terrible.

Beyond the way it ignores everything about the character that made it Godzilla, the film is a shambles. I've already harped on the acting and the script, but I need to beat up on the script a bit more anyway because it is one of the biggest problems. For one thing, it's horribly paced. Someone should have told the filmmakers that the scene of the T-Rex chasing a jeep in Jurassic Park was thrilling because it only lasted a short while and didn't make the T-Rex look like an incompetent buffoon. This Godzilla can't even kill our "heroes" when the taxi is inside her mouth!

The film always requires huge leaps of logic by the characters, such as Nick deciding to test and see if a creature he believes to be male is pregnant for no apparent reason, while also being completely immune to any form of logic. This film wants us to accept Godzilla as an animal instead of a monster, but then has her doing impossible things--like burrowing underground without being detected (despite the huge seismic activity it would cause) or escaping heatseeking missiles (which the military wouldn't even be using on an animal) because she is colder than concrete and steel buildings. At night. In torrential rain.

The film is also full of awful running jokes--the least annoying being people's bizarre inability to pronounce "Tatopoulos", as my first name is even easier to pronounce and I still get it mangled constantly--and, worse, most of them are incredibly petty swipes at its critics. The Mayor Ebert and his assistant Gene is the worst kind of swipe, as it's petty and it doesn't pay off. The late Roger Ebert himself expressed disappointment that the character was never killed by Godzilla. Then there's the fact that one scene bizarrely focuses on a guy before Godzilla drops a boat on his car--and apparently the man in the car was cast because of his resemblance to J.D. Lees of G-Fan magazine, who had been openly critical of the project.

What, are Devlin & Emmerich twelve?

The film's effects are a mixed bag. Some of the CGI holds up really well today and there is, actually, a nice bit of practical effects usage as well. Yet for every shot that works, you have Godzilla's tail vanishing out of sight, as if the animators got tired of animating it, and a shot of Godzilla's eye that would have been more convincing if it was hand drawn. Not to mention that the creature's size varies wildly from scene to scene--in one she is crawling through a subway tunnel she has slightly enlarged with plenty of room, yet she can later barely fit her head through another tunnel that is the same size to get at the heroes.

The Baby Godzillas fare even worse. The practical effects deliver creatures not much more convincing than something from Carnosaur and the CGI versions plainly don't mesh with the real environment they're composited into.

The only thing I can say in the film's defense is that Jean Reno is amazing, David Arnold's score is great, and I like the creature design.


In execution, the beast is terrible. In design, however, she is magnificent. And, indeed, in early concept art used to convince Toho of the film's promise, she's even using the trademark flame breath.


A shame, then, that the only place the creature would actually be allowed to be Godzilla was in the cartoon spin-off, made by people who actually understand the character. Seriously, check that cartoon out.

Well, the cartoon and in the pinball machine for the film, apparently.

I want to see that movie!
Thankfully, it looks like Hollywood has corrected its mistake with the new American Godzilla. Tomorrow night I shall be finding out for myself, but as of this writing all I have to go on is the incredibly promising previews that have been offered to fans and positive early buzz.

Either way, it won't have to work hard to do better than this film.

UPDATE, June 1st, 2015: For a more in-depth look at the history of this production, from the original Godzilla vs. Gryphon concept to Devlin & Emmerich being hired, check out the amazing multi-part article, "Godzilla Unmade" at SciFi Japan.

There you will see exclusive concept sketches and maquettes of Godzilla and The Gryphon. You'll also be furious that it would have been a much better Godzilla film than this one, and that it has a much better-written female lead than the otherwise superior 2014 film.

It's a truly fascinating story, too.


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