The same colleague who continues to push his misguided, positive Man of Steel feelings on me is currently trying to pique my interest for Gareth Edward’s upcoming Godzilla film. As much as I want to believe Edwards can pull off a film that adequately honours the 1954 Japanese original, I just can’t trust it. Now I can tell what some of you are thinking and I get it: none of the many films starring this reptilian nightmare can really be classed as “good”. There are issues with continuity, the portrayal of the monster, and the basic filming techniques to be found in pretty much all of them. However, there is something about Ishirō Honda’s original that just works so well. Yeah, it might not even be on a par with the 1933 King Kong in terms of quality but fuck it: he’s a goddamn giant lizard monster. Of course, I’ve been burned by heightened anticipation in the past so I’m trying to calm myself down a little. What better way to do this than by rewatching the Matthew Broderick centred travesty from 1998?
Roland Emmerich’s 1998 film Godzilla is dark. Now, by dark I don’t mean like a Christopher Nolan film: I mean it’s fucking hard to see anything. Before New York is cursed with a rampaging monster, it is haunted by torrential rain and gloomy skies. The awful weather should tell you everything you need to know about Emmerich’s visual offerings. I mean it doesn’t scream of a director being confident in his title character when he purposefully creates a situation in which it is almost impossible to see the fucker. Compare it, for example, with Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park released five years earlier: Spielberg takes his audience and slaps them repeatedly in the face with his well-lit and well designed dinosaurs. Now there’s a director who trusts his end product.
I could almost forgive Emmerich’s shadowy setting if he were doing something groundbreaking with the rest of the film. However, his script, co-written with producer Dean Devlin, is an insipid reworking of a concept that is more familiar to us than the faces of our family. I guess I can understand him not trying to reinvent the wheels in terms of the structure: it’s a tried and tested formula and Godzilla has a lot of loyal fans out there. Imagine how much more pissed off they’d have been if Emmerich had ignored the vital moments of the ritual: mysterious blips on radar; wrecked ships; traumatised survivor: and hapless fisherman celebrating a “monster bite”. In between the awful scientist and news station exposition, the director creates a fairly decent sense of foreboding and, once the monster arrives in New York, there are some pretty good special effects on display. There is just the right amount of tension and more than enough destruction for anyone’s inner 12 year old to enjoy.
And there it is: the place where I run out of polite things to say about this film. As for the rest, it’s a fucking sham. There are times when the filmmakers seem unsure about whether they are making a film or a video game and it ends up looking trashy and cheap. Take the scene where a military plane is pursuing the creature: Emmerich is clearly attempting to emulate a classic videogame style but, rather than immersing the audience in the chase (which I imagine was his justification) it just looks shit. There is no real sense that this film knows what it’s trying to do. Is it a comedy, an action film, a romance? Who fucking knows.
The plot (don’t worry I understand the ridiculousness of criticising plot in a mutant lizard film) is just a confused, bloated and self-indulgent mess that I can only imagine Emmerich and Devlin knocked up the night before filming was due to start. We have the basic ‘Godzilla comes to New York and destroys some shit’ plot but the producers clearly saw that this wouldn’t create a very substantial film. The action is dragged out thanks to the ever changing size of the title creature who can magically fit into subway tunnels one minute and can’t enter the Park Avenue tunnel the next. This ability to shrink to whatever fucking size he needs means that Godzilla is constantly able to hide from his pursuers. (Handy considering he is the first incarnation of the creature that can be harmed by human weaponry.) Here’s a quick piece of advice to any bloodthirsty Kaiju out there: go to New York because apparently it’s such a huge place that the army will never be able to fucking find you.
Wishing to drag the action out further, our heroes discover that Godzilla is a proud father. This new plot twist has the overall feel of the writers sensing the lack of a follow-up and hastily gluing the script for the potential sequel onto the first one. It’s totally unnecessary and only damages the potential for success. It’s over two hours long for fuck’s sake. I very nearly fell asleep throughout the final parts of the film and I can’t help thinking that, had I only allowed myself to succumb to exhaustion, it probably would have improved my final opinion of the piece. If you’ve got a shitty story adding an even shitter second story on top it is never going to end well.
Guiding us through these bloated plot-twists is a cast of utterly uninspiring, stock characters. I mean, aside from the French guy (Jean Reno) who I was ambivalent towards, there wasn’t a single fucking character in this entire film that I hoped would survive. The oddball cast is headed by 80s darling Matthew Broderick as a scientist who had been working with radioactive, mutant worms in Chernobyl. Unfortunately, Dr Niko Tatopoulos has no real personality and, despite several women salivating at the very sight of him, looks so much like a 12 year old that it’s difficult to take anything he says seriously. There are moments when Tatopoulos attempts to hold down the necessary pro-Godzilla argument but, once he finds himself in danger, is more than happy to ignore his inner thoughts and watch the fucker get blown to pieces. He’s hardly the inspiring and charismatic hero that a good Kaiju film needs.
But wait, who needs the weird worm guy when you have a mysterious Frenchman bemoaning the state of American coffee? To say that Jean Reno is the shining star amongst the rest of the cast really isn’t much of a compliment but he certainly doesn’t seem as constrained by the same bout of self-delusion that infected the rest of the cast. He embraces the farce and makes it work to his advantage. However, intelligence agent Roché is as underdeveloped as the rest of the cast and only serves to offer up the necessary one-liners and gun-fire. Really there is never a moment when you have a sense that any of the characters are there except to provide witty or shrewd observations about the action that is unfolding before their eyes: adding nothing to the drama or emotion but the obligatory action movie dialogue.
Emmerich and Devlin famously named two of the characters after legendary film writing duo Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in response to negative reviews of their previous films: the useless but opportunistic mayor Ebert and his advisor Gene. In terms of sticking it to their critics it’s hardly a cutting assault. The characters make it through the film without a scratch for fuck’s sake. If you’re going to make a big deal about getting back at someone then the least you can do is have a giant reptile eat them. I mean if Emmerich can’t get a quest for personal vengeance to work for him how the hell was he ever going to deal with Godzilla himself?
Over the years a few different techniques have been utilised to bring Godzilla to the big screen. He was traditionally portrayed by an actor wearing a latex costume (aka suitmation) but has also been depicted using animatronics, stop-motion animation and CGI. Whilst it may not seem that way looking back now in 2014, the period that Godzilla was released was a pretty exciting time for computer-generated effects. The film was released only 3 years before Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring was released and 4 years before the, it was impressive at the time, Spider-Man was released. It was a good time for special effects is what I’m getting at here.
This nugget of film history serves to remind us all just how spectacular this film could have been. Unfortunately, by the time eventually Emmerich and Devlin became involved with the project they were just too keen to put their own stamp onto everything that had already been planned. They scrapped the original idea to develop a version of Godzilla that remained faithful to the original design and instead okayed a completely new and, if I may be so bold, disgraceful design. The Godzilla on screen wasn’t the upright reptilian sea monster that we were so used to attacking well-known landmarks but the creepy, giant result of a sexy t-rex and iguana union. Let’s be honest, it was fucking awful. So awful that Toho, the Japanese film company that owns him, has officially renamed the monster to Zilla in an attempt to cut any ties with the classic.
I say, if it’s good enough for the Japanese then I’m more than happy to forget that this joke was ever compared to the unstoppable legend.