Review:
GODZILLA (1998)

(2.5/5)
Author: Patrick Galvan
Published:
September 28, 2014
Note: review may contain spoilers


The 1998 American reimagining of the Godzilla character—the first of two, as of 2014—has never exactly gotten on my good side, but at the same time, I must admit I've never regarded this film with as much animosity as the majority of the Godzilla fan community. Yes, I fully admit that the movie more or less disregards everything we have come to love and adore about the original Japanese creation—in other words, it's not particularly interested in what has allowed the character to endure for six decades—but when viewing Roland Emmerich's film on its own and setting aside comparisons, it's not the utter abomination a great many people claim it to be. And, in segments, it is an exciting and efficient cinematic experience. Yes, there's a lot of stuff in here that simply does not work, but there is some good material, apart from the special effects, as well. I cannot endorse it, nor can I completely condemn it.

Emmerich's film starts with tremendous promise, beginning with a boffo sequence in which French Polynesia is swept over by atomic explosions. Jump forward several decades: a Japanese fishing trawler (in a nice homage) is attacked by a sea monster. The movie continues to build up suspense nicely by showing us the aftermath of the creature's steadily increasing appearances (the trawler washed up on a beach; gigantic footprints trailing across the landscape) before the beast ultimately arrives in Manhattan. It is eventually discovered that the animal, dubbed Godzilla by the press after a mispronunciation of its Japanese name, traveled to New York to lay eggs. While the military struggles to take down the new threat, a small group of people enter Madison Square Garden in hopes of destroying its nest.

On the terms of a traditional monster movie, it all sounds good. And for about fifty minutes, GODZILLA is rather enjoyable. Emmerich does a wonderful job building up the monster's ultimate appearance, showing us bits and pieces without presenting a total reveal until much later—instead, he emphasizes the consequences of what would happen if something so huge would appear in the civilized world. (My favorite scene in the whole picture is when a fisherman has his fishing pole yanked from his hands and the dock starts exploding behind him as the sea monster makes landfall.) And then, when Godzilla finally shows up for all to see (and by "all," I mean the audience) and is subsequently attacked by the military, the director of the wonderfully festive Independence Day doesn't fail to deliver. The creature strolls curiously over Manhattan streets in search of food, the camera marveling at him from a low angle, and there is a nice sense of majesty. Granted, I would have preferred this sequence to be set in broad daylight without a nonstop torrent of rain pouring over the camera, but it does work well enough the first time around. The initial attack sequence is also well-staged, as a fleet of helicopters pursue their target through a maze of skyscrapers. There is a nice bit of popcorn movie fun when the monster manages to outsmart its assailants, and the movie seems to be on its way to a great middle.

And then, with a suddenly lethargic atmosphere, it all goes downhill.

The core problems begin with the characters. Now, in full honesty, Emmerich and his co-screenwriter, Dean Devlin, are due some credit; we cannot claim they didn't at least attempt to give the humans in this film some dimension and personality; we cannot fault them for wanting to give the flesh-and-blood people a place in the story and let them have center-stage at times; that has been a trademark for a good many of the classic Japanese movies. Unfortunately, this GODZILLA allows almost its entire second and third act to become devoted to a group of characters who are, frankly, really hard to gravitate towards. When a movie becomes partly dominated by its human characters and those human characters are not very interesting or likable, it becomes very hard to stay involved. Matthew Broderick is a talented actor and is perfectly acceptable in sections of the movie (mostly at the beginning, as he's deducing the creature and the results of its attacks), but he's eventually asked to act out some truly ludicrous scenes of bliss that resonate with no emotional impact. As his love interest, Maria Pitilla is absolutely unbearable; her dialogue delivery ("It's Gojira, you moron!") often borders on cringe-worthy; and when she's asked to show emotion, it becomes hard to believe this performance wasn't a deliberate self-parody. Barely more tolerable, Hank Azaria, as the movie-world's New Yorker stereotype, plays a character the audience wants to see crushed or devoured about ten minutes after his intro, and we feel somewhat cheated when he's still alive and well at the end. I felt very much the same about Arabella Field as his wife. There are some good performances, however. Kevin Dunn, one of America's most underrated actors, is absolutely marvelous as the colonel charged with killing Godzilla. Now the role is nothing new (the movie-world's profanity-spitting military stereotype), but he brings so much gusto and verve to his performance that he does stand out in a positive way. It's a solid performance. Jean Reno scores a few genuine laughs as a wisecracking French agent wanting to destroy the creature's nest. Doug Savant and Vicki Lewis are also enjoyable in small roles that I wish had been expanded. (Personally, I felt Broderick had more chemistry in one scene with Lewis than he did with all his scenes with Pitilla.)

Also not in service of the film are some genuinely bewildering plot elements. Granted, watertight plots and surefire plausibility are not exactly super-common in movies about giant monsters, but some of what happens here is borderline-inexcusable. Let's begin with Godzilla's remarkable ability to vanish into thin air. On several occasions, this enormous creature, sixty meters in height, manages to disappear in such a manner that the military cannot track him down. And this is an ironic folly, seeing as how the filmmakers go to such great lengths to show us the physical consequences of this thing's presence. Whenever he shows up anywhere in the city, buildings are gouged; each footstep leaves a gaping hole in the pavement—a path of destruction, you would think, would be incredibly easy for the military to trace. And then there's the sheer stupidity of utilizing this disappearing act in one of the world's biggest metropolises. Even if, I ended up asking as my attention slackened from boredom, the military were so incompetent as to lose track of an animal as tall as a high rise, surely there would be one or two (or several dozen) state troopers, newscasters, and regular civilians who could tell you, at any given moment, where he's at. For a movie that supposedly wants to be the 'most realistic, most plausible' Godzilla ever, it sure seems unconscious about the parameters of movie-sense believability.

Not to mention everything involving the creature's spawn (it's no plot spoiler that the eggs hatch) makes for one incredibly dull climax. Instead of producing thrills, Emmerich and Devlin proceed to make lifeless, resolutely not-exciting lifts from Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Jurassic Park. One would think that a similar-but-not-identical premise (pack-hunting bipedal reptiles chasing people through a building) would have left enough room for Emmerich and Devlin to be clever and shrewd. However, save for one funny moment of an elevator turning up on the wrong floor, this sequence feels like a direct and thoughtless lift from a superior director's films—and, for the most part, it is. The monsters casting shadows on the walls as they come around the corner; the beasties figuring out how to open doors and nudging them open with their snouts; a man looking through a window only to come face-to-face with a snarling critter; the camera quickly tracking in upon a screaming man as he meets his doom—it all seems terribly familiar, reminding us only of how much better Spielberg did it. In Jurassic Park and The Lost World, shots like these were gripping; here, it just feels obligatory and lazy.

Mixed with one of the dreariest, least-involving love stories in cinema history, the middle section of GODZILLA is truly ponderous, and it seems to go on forever. There is one lengthy action piece involving a submarine chase in the Hudson River that is entertaining, but it's not enough to make up for the detritus surrounding it.

But how about the eponymous monster himself? How does this reimagining hold up? Well, bearing mind that this is a completely different creature with an entirely different personae (and no metaphorical attachments), it is hardly a lackluster creation, and I'm not talking strictly about the special effects. I personally like the idea of a giant animal, born and trapped in a world it does not understand, simply trying to work out a method of survival and ensuring the continuation of its own species. And although it was undoubtedly inspired by the opening material from Jurassic Park, the sense of majesty and wonder (which would be intrinsic if something this huge did appear in the world) is a commendable effort. Save for a handful of moments, Godzilla doesn't make any explicit motives to do harm to anyone, and when that beautifully executed death scene arrives, there is some sympathy to be found. (That's right, I'm defending the creature's death scene. I remind you: I'm reviewing GODZILLA predominately as its own movie.) Personally, I think the denouement is both brilliant and brilliantly done. The monster has been lured into trapping itself in the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge, and it is mercilessly shot down without being given the chance to defend itself. In this scene, Emmerich coordinates his camera magnificently, the downpour of rain—for the first time in nearly two and a half hours—actually seems to lend a purpose (adding a sense of sorrow), and I would be lying if I said I didn't feel somewhat sorry for the creature. It's a suitably tragic fate.

Speaking of the rain, I want to address something about the special effects that did bug me. Now they are excellent (and in a post-Jurassic Park Hollywood film, I expect no less). But I must quibble with how Emmerich and Devlin filmed (or, I should say, inserted) the special effects. If this monster is supposed to be an object of wonder and majesty and empathy, what's with all of the rain? What's with all of the darkness? Why give your star his full-fledged appearances only at night, with fog and rain and tons of foreground objects constantly obscuring his body? Why not, if you feel like following Spielberg's example, put him out there, in the open, under a sunny sky, and let us marvel at him? I know the rain, darkness, etc. helps guise faults in the special effects, but if the filmmakers were truly confident in their creation and their intentions, they would realize that personae and presence can easily make up for lapses in production.

The orchestral score by David Arnold is, in a word, magnificent. I can still hum the segment cued when we see the monster's dorsal spines rising over a New York roadway. The ending piece that plays as the creature is slain (where the choir is used to its utmost potential), is one of the most haunting and beautiful pieces of film music I've heard in a long, long while. Arnold's score is so strong and so powerful that it is somewhat disheartening for me, as someone who passionately loves film music and has bought the scores to several otherwise lackluster movies, that it wasn't put to use in a better film.

For my closing paragraph, I'll let the fan-oriented disappointment come out. I too share the fan community's dismay, though to a lesser degree, that Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin didn't upgrade and transition the Godzilla character—and what makes him so iconic—for their reimagining. Instead of making another monster-on-the-loose fable, they had a chance to introduce the character and his metaphorical roots for a new generation and a wider audience. There's no metaphor here, nothing deep to contemplate. (The only thing original about the use of the atomic bomb in this film is how they guise prepping the international market: the bomb is blamed on France, so a Frenchman wants to make up for his country's mistake, giving the filmmakers a creative excuse to put Jean Reno in the movie and guarantee box office receipts in Europe.) Making popcorn movies does the world no intrinsic harm, but surely it would benefit Emmerich and Devlin as artists to occasionally put some genuine thought and meaning behind the destruction as well—and give the audience something unexpected, which is a genuine rarity in American movies these days. And that is probably the biggest mistake when adapting a character with such a rich and complex allegorical history. The 1998 reimagining of Godzilla is both a disappointment and, more importantly, a missed opportunity.