With an all-new Godzilla now in our living rooms, now’s a fantastic chance for a look back at the creature’s history. Ever since he first waded out of the Pacific Ocean in 1954, the beast has undergone a fascinating transformation from scary symbol of nuclear devastation to camp monster-bashing hero. From deathly serious to loveably entertaining; from Timothy Dalton to Roger Moore.
Unfortunately, the entire gamut of Godzilla’s existence is not on video on-demand in the UK. You can, however, rent the 1954 original on BFI Player. The only other one that’s available? Roland Emmerich’s 1998 remake. The Moonraker of Godzilla’s Roger Moore oeuvre.
“Size does matter,” the film’s tagline declares, proud that its incarnation of Godzilla was 10 metres higher than Ishiro Honda’s original. Both are tadpoles compared to the beast towering over San Francisco in Gareth Edwards’ 2014 version. But that’s not where Emmerich gets it wrong.
Rewind 60 years and the original monster wasn’t just a monster. It was a walking nightmare – with feet the size of a truck. Flattening buildings less than a decade after the atomic bomb did the same, he was a radioactive reminder of the trauma and destruction, both a cathartic release and a pacifist warning.
Emmerich tries to laden his Godzilla with the same themes, beginning his opening credits with the French national anthem and a string of nuclear tests on the islands of Polynesia. He even shows us lizard eggs, one of which gets mutated into a giant – much like the tub of worms being studied by Matthew Broderick’s scientist in Chernobyl. That’s where we go next: yes, Chernobyl. Broderick drives onto the site while singing in the rain. The song? Singin’ in the Rain.
That’s par for the course for this unsubtle blockbuster. Edwards’ new Godzilla is bigger, but the movie itself is restrained, taking its time to reveal the titular guy’s name, let alone what he looks like. Emmerich, on the other hand, spills the radioactive beans within the first 10 minutes.
A sub is attacked in the opening scene, leading to the questioning of the survivor. “What did you see?” asks Jean Reno, playing a French person who looks like Jean Reno. “Gojira,” comes the reply. 20 minutes later and he’s already stomping onto the streets of New York.
Zoom out to reveal: GIANT FOOTPRINT THE SIZE OF ROLAND EMMERICH’S PENIS.
That rush to destroy buildings is trashy fun in terms of sheer scale – and better than some of the more dubious 1970s Honda flicks – but without any substance to back Emmerich’s monster up, the result is CGI chaos and little more. The in-your-face approach extends to the broadly-drawn caricatures in the supporting cast, which is actually made up of some surprisingly decent co-stars, including The Simpsons’ Harry Shearer and Nancy Cartwright. Mario Patillo gives good token female as love interest Audrey, who’s struggling to get ahead in the cutthroat world of news journalism – don’t expect a lesson in sexist politics – and Hank Azaria is fun as a news cameraman who follows her and Broderick around. Perhaps the most interesting thing about either, though, is that we never see the found footage Hank records; a sign of just how much Hollywood has changed in the last 16 years.
Godzilla feels very much like a product of the 1990s, from its love of Simpsons voice talent to having a lead dorky scientist similar to the one made so popular by Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day two years before. The biggest misstep in the wholly unoriginal script, though, is the introduction of baby Godzillas. They are revealed in a 20-minute set piece mostly designed to add a sense of contrived threat. Coincidentally, the film is 20 minutes too long. The creatures looked like Jurassic Park raptors. They behaved liked Jurassic Park raptors. They even sounded like Jurassic Park raptors. It’s hard to know where they got the idea from.
“We’re looking at the dawn of a new species. The first of its kind,” says Broderick halfway through, in a respectful scientist voice. But while Godzilla has always been associated with birthing new kaiju with colourful designs or cultural significance, Emmerich’s beast feels like something else entirely.
Why? Because it means nothing. There are hints of a mother trying to raise her children in a foreign city and the French trying to undo the catastrophic consequences of nuclear bombing, but they are buried beneath the exploding rubble and lazy national stereotypes. For the most part, Godzilla is simply a bad guy trashing the place. The nearest it gets to characterisation is that his face looks a bit like Val Kilmer.
It’s telling that in the canon of Gojira, Toho (who own the rights to the franchise) refer to Emmerich’s monster as “Zilla”, rather than the full name. Edwards’ creature, on the other hand, carries a sense of Honda’s nuclear concerns in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, but is also treated with the reverence befitting a powerful force of nature, who is almost ambivalent to humans and their puny buildings – a God to 1998’s other two syllables.
“We need… bigger guns,” says a soldier as Emmerich’s Zilla tears apart another building. The movie is so busy trying to make a nod to Jaws, though, that it forgets the most important thing Spielberg’s movie taught us: less is more. Godzilla may have grown since the 1950s, but what the 1998 remake failed to realise is what Honda and Edwards both understand: it’s not the size that matters. It’s how you use it.
Gojira (1954) is available to watch online in the UK on BFI Player+.
Watch Godzilla 2014 online
Watch Godzilla (1998) online