Director: Roland Emmerich
Monster movies have been around almost as long as cinema has existed. However, the genre didn't really venture into the realm of sci-fi until World War II ended and the Cold War began, when filmmakers saw the potential in monsters created by nuclear weapons. Of all of the giant monsters spawned in that era, one emerged from the depths of Tokyo Bay to become one of the most beloved monsters in movie history: Godzilla. Born in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki's destruction during World War II, and fueled by the fear of America's hydrogen bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean, Godzilla (née Gojira) has spawned almost thirty sequels, several video games, and dozens of similar movie monsters since his 1954 debut. Forty-six years after being unleashed by Ishirô Honda and Toho Company, Godzilla was given a complete American makeover by Columbia Pictures and the producers of Independence Day. Gone were the veiled social commentaries of the early Godzilla movies. What resulted was a run-of-the-mill "let's destroy a major city" popcorn movie that became what many consider the biggest cinematic disappointment of 1998.
Following a series of French atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific, a massive creature begins to cut a path across the South Pacific and is spotted passing eastward through the Panama Canal. The U.S. State Department is called in, and they enlist nuclear biologist Niko Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick) and a team of scientists to help them figure out what they have on their hands. Tatopoulos is kinda like what Matt Broderick's character from War Games would be like if he was an adult and really liked lizards. So now you know the character.
Anyway, by simply judging by the location of the first sighting and correlating it with his study of larger-than-normal earthworms at Chernobyl, Tatopoulos determines that they're up against a gigantic lizard mutated by fallout from the bomb tests. The next day, Godzilla hits New York City like a freight train. Looking like the bastard child of a komodo dragon and a Tyrannosaurus Rex, he comes ashore and decides to go sightseeing. He's what you'd call the proverbial bull in a china shop. Thanks to Godzilla and the general ineffectiveness of the military, half of Manhattan ends up as a big pile of rubble. And guess what, folks? That isn't the worst of it.
Through some insane stroke of genius, Tatopoulos discovers Godzilla is (get this) pregnant. He's kinda like one of those Tribbles from Star Trek, only a zillion times bigger and more reptilian. Tatopoulos tries to tell the military that they'll probably have to deal with the pregnancy too, but since the military is ran by trained helper monkeys (isn't that always the case in movies like this?), Tatopoulos teams with a team of shady French secret service agents led by the even shadier Phillippe Roaché (Jean Reno) and starts hunting for Godzilla's nest. He ends up getting a little help from his former girlfriend and aspiring television reporter Audrey (Marie Pitillo), and her cameraman, stereotypical Brooklyn resident Animal (Hank Azaria). After delving through the sewers, the crew happens to stumble upon a massive batch of man-sized eggs in Madison Square Garden. And just their luck, the eggs start hatching. After all of the French guys but Phillippe are wiped out, the climactic finale sees the four remaining survivors trying to escape not only the wrath of Godzilla, but two hundred pissed-off baby Godzillas as well.
Well, there's good and there's bad about Godzilla. The Godzilla here is similar yet far removed from his Japanese cousin. Sure, he's a huge lizard. Sure, he's got those funny-looking dorsal fins on his back. Sure, he crushes a major metropolitan area. But two things separate them. One is the fire breath. One of Godzilla's trademarks is his atomic fire breath, and this movie lacks that. I mean, you've got a 200-foot-tall mutant lizard terrorizing Manhattan, so it's not like the movie would be too unrealistic if he breathed fire. The fire breath was loosely inspired by the burning of Tokyo during World War II, and outside of his trademark roar and his dorsal fins, it's his most recognizable feature. Godzilla missing his fire breath is like Superman without the ability to fly, or Wolverine not having his claws. The other big difference, the most important one, is how Godzilla is portrayed. In Japan, Godzilla is portrayed as an unstoppable force of nature. He serves as an allegory for the horrors wrought upon Japan during World War II, and the most diehard fans have come to think of him as Japan's god of destruction. However, our Godzilla really doesn't serve as any kind of allegory. He's just a big reptile that squashes stuff. The Toho brains have even taken to referring to the American Godzilla as just plain "Zilla." Why? With Godzilla's reputation as the god of destruction, they felt Columbia Pictures having him be just another monster took the "god" out of "Godzilla." It's like the producers took the plot from The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, added the T-Rex and raptors from Jurassic Park, and slapped the "Godzilla" name on it. While the American monster definitely has a similar look to the Japanese one, it's definitely not the same monster.
The movie itself won't go down in the annals of cinematic achievement. The script by Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin won't be considered a paragon of Western literature by any means, especially with those out-of-place parodies of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, and none of the actors deserved any awards (though I did like Matt Broderick, even if he's not up to the War Games/Ferris Bueller level here). But who cares about that? It's a monster movie! You don't go see a movie like this for well-crafted plots or Oscar-caliber performances. You see them for wanton acts of carnage and destruction. At least, that's what I do, anyway. The CGI effects actually aren't too bad. They could have gone the route of the Japanese movies and used a guy in an ugly rubber suit, but the larger budget and better technology was used to Zilla's benefit. If Zilla's anything, he's definitely better looking than the other Godzilla. The action on-screen is rarely boring, and the work of Emmerich's direction and Ueli Steiger's cinematography makes the movie look great. When combined with David Arnold's score and the occasional song, the movie is actually rather well-made. What I didn't like was the upset reaction of the critics and fans. The movie was just supposed to be a big, wild, fun action ride, and that's what it is. A big, wild, fun action ride. Sure, the criticism isn't entirely unmerited, since the movie promised a lot and was just mediocre at best, but all the vitriol and hatred from Godzilla's bashers is a little exaggerated.
Despite the rather "blah" response from moviegoers, Godzilla came awfully close to being everything I could have expected. Yeah, there was the whole lack of fire-breath thing, and the fact that Zilla doesn't quite fill the huge shoes of his Japanese counterpart, but I didn't think it was completely awful. It's kinda hard to lump it in with the Toho movies (despite the name and occasional similarity), so if you look at it as a movie featuring a huge dinosaur monster instead of Godzilla, you'll be okay. Complaints or not, I'll give Godzilla three stars for being entertaining.
Final Rating: ***