It should have been such slam dunk. A home run. A touchdown. It should have all been so easy for Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the masterminds behind the humongous summer blockbuster that was Independence Day (1994). Sure, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel may have slated their Alien blast-em-up, but what did they know? Those critics may have been at the height of their powers, but that didn’t stop their Hawkish Extra-Terrestrial juggernaut raking in box-office gross by the truckload. Their next endeavour should have been a shoe-in. Said endeavour was a co-production between Centropolis Entertainment, Fried Films, Independent pictures and set up through TriStar Pictures. A film that was said to be decades in the making. An American Godzilla.
The original Godzilla was created in 1954. Directed by Ishiro Honda and produced by Toho, it is perhaps one of the most noticeable “Kaiju” films. The term meaning “strange beast” in Japanese. Gojira (transliterated into Godzilla) was an early response to how well American monster features performed in Japan. Much like many of the American B-movies and creature features, Gorjira was set against the backdrop of the nuclear age. In the original film, the titanic beast was awakened from its deep slumber due to nuclear weapons. Godzilla himself became a metaphor for nuclear weapons with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Lucky Dragon 5 incident still residing in the minds of Japanese. Despite the outrageous premise of Godzilla, it is one that seeped in a quiet sadness and with profound melancholy. It’s a film that was created to provide an element of reflection for its viewers as well as spectacle.
Producer Dean Devlin and Director Roland Emmerich seemed less about subtext, but all about spectacle. They had formed a partnership since the 1980’s but it was the early 90’s where their releases of Universal Soldier (1992), Stargate (1994) and Independence Day (1996) put them on the map. Both Stargate and Universal Soldier managed to create relatively successful franchises, but it was the release of Independence Day that really made a mark. An overstuffed, sometimes politically dubious blockbuster, it was one that delivers due its eye-popping effects work and highly spirited cast. The idiocy of a Macbook uploading a virus to an alien spaceship is generally defeated to the sheer spectacle of the piece. The destruction seen within the film not only rivalled previous summer’s Jurassic Park (1993) in scale but due to the subject matter, such set pieces (the obliteration of famous national landmarks) was rarely seen in the same way, after 9/11. Although nowadays Hollywood have somewhat gotten over it. The main thing is, when these guys decided to go big, they really went big and when they did, people came to watch.
The idea of making an American reimagining of Godzilla is not that bad idea in theory. America’s hubris and ego make the nation a prime target for the material. Hollywood’s financial clout would ensure that the whole “man in a suit” aspect would be a thing of the past. Big is better right? And nothing is bigger than Hollywood in their eyes. However, as the legendary screenwriter, William Goldman said: “In Hollywood, nobody knows anything. What should have been an ace in the hole, became folly. Godzilla ’98 may have taken years to get into production, but the outcome feels like a rush job. It’s hopelessly unfocused in its design, logistically incompetent and constantly feels like it’s ripping off better blockbusters, namely Jurassic Park (1993).
There’s an inherent cynicism that runs throughout the film which does nothing but frustrate. This is not just found in the decision to play jarring musical choices from the film’s synergy riddled soundtrack at inopportune moments (Puff Daddy? Jamiroquai?). The decision to make Godzilla more of an animal over a more mythic beast means the film subjects the viewer to countless needs to explain itself by a dead-eyed Matthew Broderick who “hilariously” has his name mispronounced at every occasion. Hell, he’s not even the right type of scientist for the role! He is “amusingly” dismissed as “the worm guy”. How droll. Every minute of this two-hour movie is felt as needless subplots, and bland interactions are used to try to hide the fact that the film’s monster can’t be constantly on screen as it’s digitally created.
The film is then loaded with dumb logic. A monster so large that it shakes the ground when it walks (imitating the quivering glass a la Jurassic Park), can easily hide in one of New York’s most popular stadiums. The towering hulk can lose the military in a city of over seven million. When characters are informed of this, one can sense the facepalming. Then again this is a film in which despite Godzilla being so large he shakes the ground, he can walk past an oblivious Harry Shearer only a few feet away. All for yet another dumb joke. I’m all for laughs, but far too much of Godzilla will forego sensible narrative logic for a cheap gag which more than likely falls flat.
Godzilla frails around in other ways. The set pieces are uninspiring, with Godzilla himself lacking in excitement when on the screen. It mimics sequences from Jurassic Park but lacks Spielberg’s ability to craft dramatic tension. This is a film in which “things just happen” with little regard to making the action work organically. It’s a marked difference from Independence Day whose action sequences still hold a discernible amount of thrill. Godzilla would rather take pot shots at Siskel and Ebert by making them ludicrous side characters as opposed to filling its set pieces with anything noteworthy. What’s also noticeable is the film’s cast who are either hung out to dry or simply there to pick up the cheque. Broderick gives the type of spiritless performance which suggests he took the money and run while character actors such as Harry Shearer, Kevin Dunn and Hank Azaria clearly deserve better. The most unfortunate victim of the film is Maria Pitillo. An actress with Meg Ryan-lite looks who big break is marred by flat performance. Her career ground to a halt after Godzilla, but I’m willing to suggest that it’s not entirely her fault. Godzilla is rushed in so many areas, one feels that Pitillo was never given the time to tune a performance which is badly pitched.
But Godzilla plays constantly like an out of tune piano. More interested in having Jean Reno bicker about bad coffee than making sure the dubiously cockamamie reason for his being in the film is worthwhile. The beauty of the original Godzilla often lies in Japan’s willingness to self-reflect. It is a film which is as sad as it is humble. Godzilla ’98 decides the best thing to do is to blame everything on the Reno and the French. It’s a film which misunderstands the point of the original feature and instead of having its American look inside themselves, it has “the worm guy” explain everything in spite of the fact that he’s completely out of his jurisdiction. But at least the film has half of the cast of The Simpsons making glorified cameos.
This reimagining of Godzilla does nothing in commenting on the hubris of America, but it does highlight the ego of its creators, who were clearly smarting from Siskel and Ebert’s comments on their review show, which attacked Independence Day for its silliness. Devlin and Emmerich decide to get back at their critics by getting Lorry Goldman and Micheal Lerner as parody versions of the duo with “Ebert” as Mayor of New York. As if the commercial success of their previous endeavour wasn’t good enough.
It’s things like this that makes Godzilla annoying. More so than a dog outrunning an explosion or a PC interacting seamlessly with Alien tech. As stupid as some of Independence Day is, at least it’s not as wrapped up with going after needless distractions. It’s a dumb blockbuster, but one that never feels as cynical as Godzilla, a film that seems to do everything to remind you that it’s a product of its time. A rushed, botch job which has little to say about itself then, and even less now. Stick to the 1954 film.