Sunday, May 18, 2008

Academy of the Underrated: Godzilla (1998)


Ten years ago today (more or less), the American remake of GODZILLA was released, and it is a pivotal moment in my history of defending the unloved. Sure, I never quite viewed it with the passion of an AVENGERS or EXORCIST II, but it was one of the first times I really found myself swimming against popular opinion. Made by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the once-not-hated duo who had just brought out INDEPENDENCE DAY two years prior, the film was intended as the big ticket release for the summer of 1998. It received some of the most hype I’ve ever seen for a film, and in the end was a victim of its own hard sell; the advertising campaign not only gave audiences high expectations, but genuinely misled them as to what to expect. The marketing and PR promised an intense action spectacle that would blow audiences out of their seats, with “Size Does Matter” as the tagline. But GODZILLA, as an actual movie, is a relatively small scale, almost low-key monster mash marked by a lighthearted tone and an affection for the quirky which matches my own tastes well enough. It’s certainly not without flaws, and it isn’t what anyone (least of all Godzilla fans) expected or hoped for, but it has a charm and some genuinely good aspects that I think are worth revisiting.

The film starts when a mysterious creature sinks a Japanese fishing boat and rampages across the Tahitian countryside before anyone can even get a good look at it. Called in to investigate is Dr. Nick Tatopolous (Matthew Broderick), a geeky biologist studying the effects on radiation on Chernobyl earthworms. He works out that the creature is some kind of hybrid of reptile life that lived in the French Polynesian islands where nuclear tests were recently conducted, and just in time for the beast- identified as “Godzilla” through a mistranslation of a Japanese sailor’s muttering- to make landfall in New York, smashing through Manhattan before going into hiding somewhere underground. The military, working with Tatopolous, manages to lure Godzilla out in the open, but the giant reptile/lizard/whatever is fast, agile, and cold blooded enough to evade missile fire (no, that’s not how being cold blooded works, but hush.) And things get more complicated when Tatopolous discovers that the creature is not only hermaphroditic but has managed to impregnate itself. Godzilla is using Manhattan as a nest, and since an ordinary reptile can lay around a dozen eggs or so, all of mankind is pretty much in deep trouble.

TriStar Pictures was trying to make a Godzilla movie as far back as the early 90s, when the effects technology of JURASSIC PARK made the idea appealing. The reason Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio are given partial story credit on this film is that they worked on an earlier version of the project for director Jan De Bont (though that script cast Godzilla as a genetically altered dinosaur created by aliens to defend Earth against an approaching space monster, and was pretty much different in every other way you can think of as well.) That was scuttled due to cost concerns, though the film ended up costing more than it was supposed to anyway. Emmerich and Devlin were brought on board after ID4 hit and decided to make their Godzilla vastly different from the original, in appearance, powers, and behavior.

This made a lot of people very angry. The general consensus of Godzilla fandom is that A) Devlin and Emmerich are horrible, horrible people, owing to their lying about the creature’s appearance to preserve its secrecy and Devlin eventually losing his temper and snapping at fans at the forum for the film’s website (to be fair, I was there and they weren’t exactly being polite, and if the whole thing still existed it would be a fascinating archive of a point when the internet truly began to change the interaction between creators and audiences), and B) the creature is “Godzilla in name only”, often abbreviated as GINO. Unlike the Japanese Godzilla, the AmeriGoji is not a dinosaur, does not breathe fire (though he appears to a couple of times as an homage), and is vulnerable to bullets and missiles and things that his Japanese predecessor tends to shrug off, and so responds to attacks by evading them and even fleeing at high speed. To a kaiju fan this is nothing short of cowardice.

The question of whether this is “truly” Godzilla is one of those contentious fan thingies you’re better off not getting tangled up in, and when I was more a part of that fandom I tried to defend the monster as being close enough, vacillated on this position, and finally stopped caring. Maybe this is because I started looking at superhero comics later, where, for an example, “Hawkman” is both a reincarnation of an Egyptian prince AND a police officer from outer space. A fictional character can be many things at once, and though some interpretations are more radical than others it doesn’t invalidate any of them. Granted, I do think the film reaches a bit too far to distance itself from the original Godzilla and his campy reputation- change is all well and good but a few dollops of the old theme music or even the Blue Oyster Cult song wouldn’t have killed anyone, especially since the final product isn’t going for gritty realism.

All of which is a very roundabout and tedious way of getting to one point I do want to make in this movie’s favor. The monster, Godzilla, Zilla, GINO, Fred, whatever, is awesome. It’s a beautiful design by Patrick Tatopolous (for whom the film’s protagonist is named), mostly iguana-like but incorporating dinosauric and even dragonish elements, and never looking the same from different angles. One of the drawbacks of the film being so poorly received is that we haven’t seen much more of this beastie (especially considering that most of its appearances in the film are at night)- there was a good animated series that made use of the monster, and he also popped up under the name “Zilla” in GODZILLA: FINAL WARS, if only to get trounced by the original Godzilla as a cheap bit of fanservice. A good monster can excuse many sins, and the US Godzilla not only has a neat appearance, but a distinct personality, motivated to protect its offspring and pulling off some canny moves against her attackers.

(At this point I’m going with whatever pronoun feels right at the time.)

As I’ve said above, this is not a terribly serious movie. The whole thing is laced with humor, mostly of a dumb variety, and I don’t mean that as an insult since I can appreciate dumb jokes as much as anyone. Even when it’s not funny it creates a nice atmosphere; one of the major flaws of INDEPENDENCE DAY was that it would get bogged down in maudlin or overly jingoistic moments when a lighter touch was called for. Of course, in all this, there’s less of a genuine sense of danger, and the film’s physics sometimes stretch plausibility even by big action movie standards. That said, while the film’s action setpieces aren’t really nerve-wracking, they are enjoyable and neat lookin’, with some creative use of the environment and New York landmarks.

The film definitely overplays its hand at a few points. Most glaringly, Maria Petillo is dreadfully miscast as Audrey Timmonds, Nick’s ex-girlfriend and an aspiring reporter who steals a few secrets in confidence and then tries to make it up to him by following him on the search for the nest. She’s far too cherubic for her little slide into corruption to be convincing, and her moping when things go awry gets kind of irritating. An extended in-joke with Michael Lerner playing the pompous Mayor Ebert is severely overplayed, though I have noticed on re-watchings that the character is almost allowed to be sympathetic when the military end up trashing more of the city than Godzilla has in their attempts to fight him. (That he’s assisted by a timid balding man named Gene, played by Lorry Goldman, just belabors the gag even further.) Just because the film is free of ID4’s undue gravitas doesn’t mean it doesn’t pander more than it should.

The film also has the feel of a rough draft. The script that Devlin and Emmerich wrote was apparently accepted without many changes, and the studio’s perhaps-misguided decision to keep the creature’s appearance a secret until the day of release meant that there were no test screenings held (and reportedly post-production was rushed to meet that all-important Memorial Day release. Let this be a lesson.) It would be interesting to see what a more rigorous re-editing could do for this film- there are a lot of minor bits that could be trimmed or re-arranged, and far too much time is spent on a JURASSIC PARK-esque sequence where our heroes try to evade the monster’s ravenous offspring inside their nest in Madison Square Garden; we almost forget about the title critter entirely during that twenty minutes or so, and that’s not good.

But there is something else I genuinely like about this film, and that is that it’s full of misfits. You’ve got a geeky protagonist, his standoffish ex, a suicidally brave cameraman (Hank Azaria), and Jean Reno leading a group of French secret service agents in a clean-up job while trying to find a decent cup of coffee without much success. Okay, he’s pretty fucking badass, but he’s still out of his element. Nick’s partners include NEWSRADIO’s Vicki Lewis as a smitten paleontologist (and frankly why he doesn’t go for her I’ll never know.) Sure, these characters are all sitcom-quirky instead of truly weird, but even that is a welcome touch in a movie like this, and it fits the story, since Godzilla herself is a unique creature, a mutant byproduct of our own carelessness and not really to blame for the destruction he causes. I have to give the filmmakers credit for retaining the creature’s nuclear origins (something the Rossio/Elliot script did away with), and for allowing a certain ambiguity to the creature’s role in the story. As a monster it has to be destroyed, but you can’t help but feel sorry. I also feel like I should mention at some point that the film really looks good, with some really lovely shots of a dark and rain swept Manhattan, and David Arnold’s score is quite strong as well.

In many ways, the movie itself is kind of a mutant; not nearly as aggressive or pumped up as a proper summer blockbuster, having its own cadence. Like all mutations it’s got a few excess bits here and there, not everything working, but I think it works. Though the film was technically profitable and most of the reviews were mediocre rather than terrible, the fact that it was a massively overhyped film that failed to meet expectations made it a slow-moving target for anyone wishing to point out the stupidities and excesses of Hollywood and its brainless summer fare, adding a certain vitriol to the film’s reputation that exceeds its actual shortcomings. (The project seems to have become a permanent black mark against Devlin and Emmerich as well, who disbanded as a team some years after and whose every upcoming film now is looked upon with extreme skepticism at best.)

I understand a lot of the points made against this movie, having become intimately familiar with them over the years. To me, it’s a question of whether those flaws outweigh the movie’s strengths, but I still enjoy the film whenever I see it and think it’s got enough to redeem itself on the cosmic scale of film judgment. Though it may be more memorable to some as an ad campaign than a movie, GODZILLA still has a lopsided charm to it, and in the end is fun enough that I can’t condemn it. Ten years and it’s managed to hold up.

Happy Birthday, Zilla. You’ll always be welcome here at the club.

Story by Ted Elliot & Terry Rossio (sort of, see above) and Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich
Screenplay by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich
Directed by Roland Emmerich

Grade: B

Get Godzilla (1998) here, from the image above, or at the sidebar.

1 comment:

Evan Derrick said...

Much like stumbling across someone defending Ishtar or Gigli, seeing your defense of Godzilla here is something I never expected to see, ever. But, seeing as you also went to bat for Speed Racer, a film that needed it, I might have to take a second look at what would have ranked on my Top 10 worst films of all time list.