Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Pitillo, Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer
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Much of what’s wrong with 1998’s Godzilla can be gleaned from its tagline. Starting with a teaser that debuted in cinemas towards the end of 1997, the marketing trumpeted “SIZE DOES MATTER” all over its admittedly clever disguise of the titular monster in any of the trailers. Unfortunately, while Roland Emmerich’s 139-minute Hollywood remake has plenty of size, it has very little idea what to do with it.
It was quite a coup for TriStar Pictures to secure the rights to make an Americanised reimagining of Japanese distributor Toho’s long-running monster franchise, and fresh off the back of Independence Day, Emmerich must have seemed like a good choice to bring the city-whomping lizard to blockbuster audiences.
But in a model that Michael Bay would later use more noisily in his Transformers movies, 1998’s Godzilla focuses more on the ground level, with a variety of human characters hogging all the screen-time while the title character is conspicuous by his absence. At the forefront is Dr. Nick Tatopoulous (Matthew Broderick), an expert on the effects of radiation on wildlife, who is brought in by the US Army to investigate a trail of destruction that leads all the way from the South Pacific Ocean to the island of Manhattan.
Toho’s agreement with Sony/TriStar included a four-page list of physical requirements for the character. The company followed these rules, but evidently, there were eventualities that the Japanese studio didn’t consider, such as portraying him as a big animal with no real agency, who inexplicably disappears every once in a while. (Toho loved the portrayal so much that they re-christened him as merely “Zilla” and brought him back to immediately and unceremoniously kill him off in the 50th anniversary film, Godzilla: Final Wars.)
While his origin as an irradiated animal is preserved, the film has none of the 1954 original’s interest in saying anything about humanity’s misuse of nuclear power. Instead, Emmerich hybridises the character with the coyness of the film’s own trailers and the reproductive fiasco that was a plot point in Jurassic Park.
The film’s sense of humour is fatally misplaced throughout. Although it’s initially quite funny – and pointedly satirical, when the army accidentally blows up the Chrysler Building instead of the monster – the recurring gag soon segues into an excuse for more Emmerich-brand destruction porn, dragged out over a punishingly paced disaster movie that’s more interested in the journalistic ambitions of Nick’s ex, the nice-but-utterly-self-absorbed Audrey (Maria Pitillo).
By contrast, Broderick is clearly being directed to essay Jeff Goldblum’s off-hand manner (the infamous remark about “a lot of fish” feels like a direct take-off of his line about triceratops dung), but in this movie, he’s not even Manhattan’s number one Dr. Ian Malcolm tribute act. For this movie, that falls to a post-Leon Jean Reno, clearly enjoying himself as a French intelligence agent who’s been following the big lizard, because reasons.
Most bizarrely, Emmerich styles the snivelling mayor and his lackey after film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who didn’t get on with his previous directorial efforts. Predictably, this didn’t win them over, and it’s not funny for anyone else either. At least there’s a generous helping of Simpsons voice actors on-screen, with Harry Shearer doing a live-action Kent Brockman and Hank Azaria neatly parlaying what could have been a comic relief sideshow into one of the movie’s best characters. Watch out for the cameo by Nancy Cartwright, too.
Godzilla was a relatively early casualty of Sony’s more recently documented practice of over-spending on films, based on deliberately over-inflated projections. It was no flop, but it didn’t do well enough for the planned sequels to materialise, and instead, we got an animated series that pitted Godzilla against other monsters. (Eventually, that approach came back around in Gareth Edwards’ remake, kicking off Warner Bros’ current Monsterverse.)
The 1998 film is a true popcorn movie, because it’s all noise and no taste. It’s an international branding exercise, packed with too many characters and not enough interest. It seems to go on endlessly – by the time it pitches out of its extended set piece inside a ruined Madison Square Garden, you get worried it might just run forever, but then it still manages to have a perfunctory sixth or seventh act. It pre-empts the style that characterised the Bay-formers movies, but in the context of its release, it plays like Jurassic Park for dummies.
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