Bad Example: Godzilla (1998)

by Jay Stringer

Okay, the creature features continue!

Episode 25 of the podcast will be out soon, with the guys discussing Jurassic Park. What better lead in to dinosaurs than to talk about the biggest beastie of the all; the big G himself.

You know that voice you get in your head after a movie you have been looking forward to turns out to be bad? It is the voice that convinces you it was decent, that focuses on the positives and starts making excuses for the weak bits. Some of you may have had that voice in your head at the end of Watchmen. I did not, I was too busy swearing and arguing with people. But way back in 1998 I had that voice in my head after I watched the American version of GODZILLA. The voice was so strong that I went to see the movie another three times, and it also convinced me that I needed to spend all of my savings on a huge statue of the new Godzilla, presumably so that I could kneel before it and offer up gifts.

I was working in a shop at the time, one of those really cool ones that sell pretty much anything that geeks are into. The Boss and I had been hyping ourselves into oblivion for months, and we got early peeks at the secret design because of a toy fair, which only made us more excited.

This was going to be the best thing ever. Not just good, you see. No. It was going to be

And it wasn’t. The end.

There we go folks, quick article this week, huh?

Okay, only joking. Thing is, even after we watched it (many times) and knew in our hearts that it wasn’t very good, we still managed to convince ourselves and others that there was merit in the film. So I am going to twist things round this week and start of with what was good about the movie. Then I will tell you why it sucks.

Godzilla means different things to different people. To my uncle it meant strange comedic films with kung-fu monsters and alien invasions. To some it means toys and games. I am an 80’s kid, so to me it originally meant a Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

The one version that was farthest from public consciousness by the time of the Hollywood film was the very first one. A dark, shadowy monster. Unrelenting and destructive. A merciless force that attacked mainland Japan with no warning and left carnage in its wake. Whether you watch the original or the American cut with Raymond Burr edited in, it’s clear that Gojira was not the hero of the film and we are meant to route for his destruction.

The history lesson of course is that the film was made under the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A generation of filmmakers sought a way to give form to the new fears, and created a giant creature that breathed atomic fire on anything in its path. By modern standards it is a highly flawed film, but it is also very effective. It is never in doubt about the story which is being told.

So when Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich decided to look back toward this version of the character, they were perhaps already alienating two generations of the fanbase, but they almost pulled it off.

In many ways the first half of the movie plays out very much as a slick and expensive update of the original. The build-up is very good. I still enjoy this section of the film, the path of destruction as some unidentified creature makes its away across the ocean toward New York.

Once Godzilla arrives at the Big Apple the film starts to lose its way, but it also still has a number of good moments. None of the creatures rampage have the visceral impact of Cloverfield, but I still enjoy a lot of it. The chase scenes with the helicopters, as well as Mathew Broderick’s attempts to solve the mystery, are simple and effective.

Another area where I seem to disagree with popular opinion is in the design of the creature itself. I loved it in 1998, and I still like it now. Is it better or more iconic than the original? No, not really. It didn’t need to be. Making a new film set in 90’s America does not mean that the original Japanese films ceased to exist, the original G-man design was still safe and sound on peoples DVD shelves. What we had with the new one was something that worked for a modern film. Jurassic Park had upped the stakes. It was no longer enough to put a man in a rubber suit; Godzilla needed to look somehow like it could actually exist, as if there was a science behind the whole thing. Patrick Tatopoulus pulled that off very well. The new creature was clearly inspired by the original, and if you squinted you could see the family resemblance, but it also looked new.

If the film had found its voice and its focus, and stuck to the original story, I think we would will be remembering a very different, very effective film. Creature appears in the ocean, creature attacks New York, famous landmarks go boom, military act crazy, an environmental message is rammed home, and the creature is destroyed by the same technology that created it. At its heart, all it needed to be was a 95-minute film adaptation of Pandora’s box with a big angry beastie. It should have been as simple, and as fun, as that.

But, and it is a big but, the film was made by idiots.

That can be my only understanding of what went wrong. How else could someone sit and watch a dark and effective 1950’s horror movie, and lift all of the elements that made it work, and then also decide to add in an extra act with hundreds of baby godzillas and then segue into a remake of King Kong?

And where did that last twenty minutes come from, seriously? First they introduce the idea that Godzilla has hundreds of eggs. Then we see those eggs hatch into cute and awkward babies. And THEN we get to see the ‘good guys’ kill all of the babies while the distraught parent watches. Yes. That is what the original film lacked; a totally mind blowing act of stupidity. I know why they did this, it was to make us care about the creature. The filmmakers wanted us to be sad when he died, just as we were when Kong took that doomed plunge. But that single narrative decision shows that the filmmakers did not understand the story they were telling.

King Kong was a modern Beauty and the Beast, one with a genuine cynical message; the beast cannot turn into prince charming in the real world, he just dies as an outsider. A heart-wrenching story. But Godzilla is neither beauty nor the beast, he’s a warning. He is the image of everything that is wrong with the modern world, and his death should be either the wake up call to us to try and change, or the chance to show that we are doomed.

To make it clear how good this film could have been if the people in charge had understood it, let us throw out the names of two other Hollywood remakes of 1950’s monster movies; Alien and The Thing. Just makes it seem even more of a waste, right?

Add into the mix a love story between two annoying characters with no chemistry, a relationship that adds nothing to the plot, and half the cast of The Simpsons.

Something else that sits uneasily with me is the very nature of the creature. The original film of course was made under a very particular shadow. Never explicitly stated, it is nevertheless clear that the military attack on Japan ushered in the age of the Japanese Monster movie. So it seems a little bit revisionist for the American remake to blame….somebody else. Hey, France. Let’s blame France. They talk funny.

So the French are responsible for the monster but it attacks New York? Where is the dramatic story in that? Would it not have been far more interesting if the creature’s origin was still the same as the original, if it was a disaster fifty years in the making? If the creature had been spawned by one of those two bombs, then its rampage through New York would have been far more poignant. The characters standing over its dead body at the end of the film would have been asking some deep questions of themselves and our generation. That would have been some damn brave social commentary, right there.

This is a damn frustrating film. There is a moment, a brief moment, when it gets it. It almost made a fun and modern version of Godzilla for a western audience. Sadly, this section of the film was a total fluke, as the people in charge clearly did not understand the story they had their hands on.

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