Thursday, May 29, 2014

Review: Godzilla (1998)

Godzilla (1998)

Ah, the 1998 American Godzilla, that famously ill-conceived Roland Emmerich blockbuster with the Puff Daddy theme tune, the merchandising and fast-food tie-ins that were everywhere that spring, the countless allusions to Jurassic Park, and absolutely no substance to back up the hype... or is there? With Legendary Pictures having just taken another crack at making an American adaptation of one of the greatest monster movies of all time (the result having been a very mixed box of fine chocolates and grade-A bullshit), I decided to go back in time to the age of Daria, the unstoppable Chicago Bulls, Lisa Frank trapper keepers, and Alanis Morissette to see if this movie is really as bad as its reputation suggests. Does the 1998 Godzilla film deserve to be remembered as the worst thing to ever happen to the series, worse than Son of Godzilla, even? Or maybe, was it an overlooked gem that we were all too harsh on back in the day-

No, I'm just fuckin' with you. This piece of shit really does suck as much as we all thought it did.

The year is 1998. The anti-nuclear allegory of the original film is updated to a reference to the then-timely issue of continued French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, which sparked protests by Greenpeace in the '90s and which justifies the presence of Jean Reno in this film... and the fact that I (and this film) even needed to explain that illustrates the first thing that this movie got wrong. In 1954, a monster created by a Japanese filmmaker as a metaphor for nuclear weapons needed absolutely no explanation. Even without that film's explicit references to the Bomb and the moral dilemmas surrounding it, the flash of light blinding the fishermen in the opening scene made it very clear just what that movie was really about. Here, however, 'Zilla's (I, like many others, refuse to dignify this film's monster as a God) initial attack on a fishing boat is entirely removed from that context. The fishing boat scene in the original 1954 film was a direct reference to an incident that occurred not long before that film came out and which is still remembered in Japan today, in which Japanese fishermen got radiation sickness as a result of straying too close to an American hydrogen bomb test, provoking anti-nuclear testing outrage throughout Japan. In this film, on the other hand, there is no anchor or resonance for such a scene. Had this film just dropped the original's anti-nuclear weapons allegory entirely, rather than shoehorning it in and attempting to update it, it not only wouldn't feel as dated (does anybody even remember that controversy now?), it wouldn't have called such attention to its superior source material.

And then we get into 'Zilla himself. Personally, I don't care that he doesn't have the "real" Godzilla's fire breath, or that he's smaller and more agile, or that he looks more like a super-sized Tyrannosaurus rex than anything, or that he's essentially a giant mutant iguana instead of a prehistoric creature thought extinct. I can even get past the much-maligned plot point of 'Zilla burrowing under the island of Manhattan to hide from the military; as many plot holes as this creates (surely they could've detected the rumbling of 'Zilla's digging, or noticed that he was wrecking the subways?), it was an interesting, if poorly thought-out, idea on paper. Some changes were going to come with the territory, and a more grounded take on the monster could have worked in the right hands and possibly made the monster even more chilling. After all, look what going "realistic" did for Batman, a superhero who dresses like a bat, has a secret identity as a billionaire playboy, and whose most famous villain is literally a clown. It gave us two-thirds of a great trilogy (and a decent third movie) by Christopher Nolan.

The problem was, in trying to make a more realistic version of Godzilla, they sucked out everything that made the monster so awe-inspiring. Gone is the cavalcade of carnage that accompanies a proper Godzilla rampage. When 'Zilla prowls the streets of Manhattan, we occasionally get to see him smash a building, but otherwise, he leaves surprisingly little mayhem in his wake outside of flattened cars, dropped boats, broken windows and building facades, and a few particular landmarks, with the military arguably doing more damage to the city than he does. More than once, we see people in restaurants, shops, and offices watching 'Zilla stomp his way down the street just outside, people who should be crushed under rubble thanks to the monster knocking the whole block to the ground. More than once, people are able to stand face-to-face with 'Zilla and not get eaten. And ultimately, he's not defeated with an apocalyptic superweapon after conventional weapons fail, but rather, he goes down like a punk-ass bitch, getting caught in the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge where he's shot dead by a trio of fighter jets with about a dozen rockets -- also known as the opening salvo of what the military usually uses to try and kill giant monsters in these sorts of films (emphasis on try). There's a reason why Toho has all but disowned this film and taken to mocking him in their own later Godzilla movies -- 'Zilla is an utter sad sack of a kaiju.

Moreover, while it was to be expected that the monster would be done with CGI instead of a man in a suit, it is inexcusable that 'Zilla looks as cheap as he does here. When you get a good look at him, he looks like something out of a video game from around 2006. Given that Terminator 2: Judgment Day came out seven years prior, and that Star Trek Episode I: The Phantom Menace would raise the bar for all-CGI characters just one year later (even if it was wasted on friggin' Jar-Jar), there was no way that 'Zilla should have looked this bad. Cloverfield, Pacific Rim, and hell, the 2014 Godzilla film all proved that you can make giant monsters using CGI without sacrificing their awe-inspiring presence, something that this film dramatically fails to pull off. It stands in stark contrast to the practical effects and animatronics used for many of the explosions and for the close-ups of the baby 'Zillas (more on them below), which ranged from decent to good and made it that much more puzzling why they thought they could get away with such shoddy CGI work for the big guy.

Finally, the attempt to make 'Zilla more "realistic" clashes with the campy humor that this film is otherwise packed with. 'Zilla's arrival in New York comes in the form of a fisherman whose line gets snagged by the big lizard while some of his buddies look on with amusement, and it only gets worse from there. Noo Yawk stereotypes, French stereotypes, jokes about asexual reproduction (hur hur), one-liners, and cheap jabs at Siskel and Ebert are dropped left and right, as though Roland Emmerich was trying to copy the B-movie-on-steroids feel that he gave to Independence Day. However, it feels forced here, eliciting mild chuckles at best and groans at worst.

It doesn't help that none of the cast here seem to know what they're doing, looking as though they either signed up just for the paycheck or were hired out of central casting to look pretty. Matthew Broderick, as someone who's proven in the past that he can act, falls into the former camp, playing his scientist Nick Tatopoulos (and yes, "jokes" about people mispronouncing his name come thick and quick) as a one-note, second-rate Jeff Goldblum wannabe. The latter category, meanwhile, is owned by Maria Pitillo as aspiring journalist/token love interest Audrey. Pitillo's career quite understandably self-destructed after this film, and it's not hard to see why, as her only two modes of acting in this are "doe-eyed generic cuteness" and "worse line reading than a porn actor". When asked to carry dramatic scenes and deliver exposition, neither Broderick nor Pitillo pull it off, the former coming off as an annoying nerd caricature and the latter coming off as just plain dull. The side characters barely even register, most of them being one-note stereotypes that get annoying fast. Not even Jean Reno can class the film up, partly because he and his fellow French spies are walking, talking French jokes that the movie makes fun of nearly every time they're on screen (despite being among the most competent characters in the film). Say what you will about the 2014 film's lack of convincing human drama, at least it didn't go out of its way into self-parody like this film does.

Now, to be fair, this film does do a few things right. Granted, every single one of those things is lifted from other, better films, but they still work here. Emmerich, for all his problems with story and pacing, still knows how to stage and shoot reasonably exciting action scenes, and even though he's sort of off his game here compared to the heights of disaster porn like Independence Day and 2012, the destruction was admittedly fun to watch. The baby 'Zillas in Madison Square Garden also made for an interesting change of pace, even if all they really did was highlight just how much the filmmakers were ripping off the raptors in Jurassic Park. The shots where several of them are chasing down our heroes are marred by bad CGI and bad attempts at slapstick (one guy slows them down by dumping basketballs and gumballs to get them to slip up -- seriously), but when filmed up close, you could tell that they were using animatronic models for the little lizards, and they actually looked pretty good. So points for effort to the special effects department on that front.

Score: 1 out of 5

Sins that would be barely forgivable in other action/disaster films, like poor acting, plot holes, terrible human drama, and derivative action scenes, become that much more glaring thanks to a boring monster and an overall lack of heart. Pretty much the only good thing to come out of this movie was that it provided Hollywood with a handy guide on how not to do an American version of Godzilla.

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