If you approach life with the general philosophy that any Godzilla movie is a good Godzilla movie, there’s only one film to really challenge such an assumption: 1998’s Godzilla, TriStar’s much-maligned, Hollywood-financed foray into the classic kaiju‘s mythology. The film was director Roland Emmerich’s follow-up to his seminal 1990s disaster-piece Independence Day and arrived at the end of a very long, very arduous development process by many creative teams who mostly agreed on one thing: The Japanese version of Godzilla simply wouldn’t appeal to American audiences, and by changing everything about the character, they’d arrive at something better.
In the 25 years since — which include a new trilogy of Hollywood movies featuring a more lore-accurate Godzilla and another half-dozen Toho-produced adventures — it’s pretty clear their instincts were entirely wrong. Most fans still rag on this project as the nadir for the character on the silver screen. The new American films continue to grapple with the legacy of the choices made by Emmerich and company. Zilla, as the monster featured in this Godzilla has come to be called in Toho licensing, has gone on to feature in a reasonably successful cartoon in which his invulnerability, atomic breath and innate heroism were restored. Otherwise, Zilla only ever appears in comics and films as a submissive foe for classic versions of Godzilla to trample over for fan service. Culturally, its failure is total.
When I revisited the film a few years ago during the development of my original Are You There, Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan series of essays, I ranked it at the bottom of the entire series of three-dozen features. Revisiting it this year, I actually ended up moving it up a few spots — toward the middle of the bottom, above such languid turds as Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus and the entire trilogy of animated bores released by Netflix in the last few years. Say what you will — and there’s a lot to say — but Emmerich’s amoral instinct for large-scale destruction means that however dumb his take on Godzilla gets, it’s at least never boring.
And it does get dumb. Very dumb. But to my surprise, it doesn’t start that way.
The film opens with what has now become the quintessential opening to all American takes on the character — opening credits overlaying flashes of H-bomb footage and secret documents, implying an untold consequence of the late 20th-century atomic age and nuclear testing. There’s even a proto-Monarch of sorts (the clandestine paramilitary organization in newer films that allow humans a reason to interact with kaiju), although in this film, it’s just the French Secret Service.
After the opening, we’re introduced to the helping heap of human characters who see their lives torn apart by the arrival of Godzilla. Matthew Broderick stars as Dr. Niko “Nick” Tatopoulos, a nuclear biologist and expert in irradiated animal habitats. His knowledge makes him indispensable to the American and French forces alike. Maria Pitillo stars as his ex-girlfriend, Audrey, an aspiring reporter in New York City whose connection to Nick gives her access to scoops. Their narratives weave together throughout Godzilla’s rampage, and they each bring with them their own supporting casts, including turns by Kevin Dunn as a colonel, Harry Shearer as a cameraman, and Michael Lerner as Mayor Ebert, an overt parody of film critic Roger Ebert, with whom Emmerich had beef at the time.
It’s a fun cast that nobody would ever call “stacked,” but they’re adequate to keep the story moving. For the first hour or so, it does: Godzilla approaches and eventually attacks New York City, weaving in and out of the building’s concrete canyons in a way not really depicted in the franchises’ other films. This Godzilla moves like a large, irradiated iguana, built for speed rather than destructive might. He lacks fire breath or invulnerability. Most problematically, he lacks personality as well. That isn’t a problem when it’s just Emmerich doing his destructive dances but really hampers everything that happens in the back half.
Traditionally, Godzilla appeared as an allegory for the nuclear destruction wrought on Japan at the end of the second World War. The original 1954 film ended with Dr Serizawa developing an even stronger weapon to kill Godzilla and dying to prevent it from being used in war by anyone. Subsequent appearances diluted the metaphor but successfully transitioned the famous monster into a variety of roles — villain, hero, anti-hero or even a symbol of entirely different thematic concerns. As of 1998, Toho Studios’ version of the character had died “permanently” in 1995’s Godzilla vs. Destoroyah in an anti-nuclear weapons story that nearly turns Tokyo into Chernobyl due to mankind’s thoughtlessness. Even in his most shallow classic incarnations, the King of Monsters serves a role in the story, both abstract and physical.
The problem with Emmerich’s Godzilla is that once the first attack concludes, he and Dean Devlin, his creative partner at the time, never crack what the rest of the story is actually supposed to be about, resulting in a flailing action movie that starts repeating itself while introducing new, unwanted and contradictory elements. The 23-minute sequence under Madison Square Garden featuring miniature Godzillas is the most difficult to square with the film’s insistence that audiences sympathize with Godzilla as a simple trapped animal; if it’s truly going to continue reproducing, there’s no choice but to exterminate it, sad as that might be. There’s no reckoning with mankind’s responsibility for the mess they’re in, either. It becomes a lot of whiz-bang special effects fun without anything grounding it (Not to mention the fact that the entire sequence is just a riff on the actually scary velociraptor content in Jurassic Park just a few years earlier.)
Fans have always complained that Godzilla isn’t a “real” Godzilla movie because the character is so different than the traditional approach. That’s a pretty fair complaint, and I pretty much agree. That said, Emmerich is good at what he does, and the first half is a really entertaining film that hits most of the necessary first-act beats for a kaiju movie. I love the insistence that New York is trapped in an endless rainstorm, a nice atmospheric touch that I’m sure did double duty as a way to save on visual effects if they could just render their version of Big G in a hazy, half-lit environment. The Mayor Ebert stuff is shameless and silly. I don’t actually dislike Broderick as Dr. Nick, either. He brings an everyman feel to the role that feels in keeping with traditional Godzilla storytelling. In fact, the bare bones of the human relationships are pretty square with classic Showa-era archetypes: the scientist, the military, the journalist. All roles are needed to provide plot-propelling perspectives in a genre story. I don’t mind them at all here.
It’s simply that the film loses any steam halfway through and never recovers. I’ve seen some critics hypothesize that the lack of an American trauma meant filmmakers had nothing to pull from for their version of Godzilla; I think that’s a fair take, although it’s not like 2014’s Godzilla nailed its allegory, either. Had the 1998 version arrived three years later, I’m sure Emmerich would’ve mined the events of 9/11 for some fertile storytelling. But then again, we got plenty of that from Michael Bay’s Transformers films, which are as close as we’ve ever gotten to a truly spectacular post-9/11 kaiju picture (I guess Cloverfield counts, too, but it’s not nearly angry enough to be the best of them, at least to me.)
Can you imagine how magnificently stupid a Michael Bay-directed Godzilla film, would have been? Maybe released in 2008 or so? Can you? Oh god, I need to stop talking. I’m getting flustered.
Look: As someone who subscribes to the notion that there are no bad Godzilla films (OK, besides those anime movies), I still find the best bits of Godzilla to be good enough to make the entire thing worth sitting through every few years. I actually like Zilla’s design, too, and I’m always happy to see him show up. Maybe I’m tasteless, but the truth is: I just really love Godzilla, whatever form he takes.
1998’s Godzilla was released on 4K UHD for the first time a few years ago. This is the same release with the same special features. The only difference is a very spiffy new steelbook, with very gorgeous artwork. It’s not a bad addition to any steelbook collection and a nice way to have the 1998 film stand out in any collection if you haven’t already purchased the film in this format. The high-resolution master looks great (although it does call into stark relief the age of the monster CGI in many sequences), and the aforementioned environmental and weather choices look gorgeous with the proper system. This is fundamentally a disaster movie. Watch it the best way you can.
Special features include the original teaser trailers (great for 1990s nostalgists, I guess), as well as an audio commentary track with the visual effects supervisors, a compilation of Godzilla fight sequences, a music video for the Wallflowers’ unbearable cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” and a behind-the-scenes documentary.