When it comes to Japanese exports there is no greater example than Godzilla and with over thirty Godzilla films and counting it’s a hard point to argue, but when it comes to Americanizing this iconic monster things haven’t gone all that well. Lately, we’ve been treated to Godzilla in the new Monsterverse that at least tried to capture the spirit of the Japanese creation, with varying degrees of success, but back in 1998 Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the two men behind the disaster epic Independence Day, were given the opportunity to make the first American Godzilla film – not counting Japanese versions that simply had Raymond Burr unceremoniously stuffed in – and to say they completely failed to stick the landing would be the understatement of the century.
When a Japanese fishing vessel is attacked by some enormous creature the United States Government calls in Dr. Niko “Nick” Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick ), an expert in the effects of radiation on biological matter, to investigate and before you can say “Kaiju!” a monstrous lizard is rampaging across the island of Manhattan and it’s up to Nick and friends to not only figure out how to stop Godzilla but also to discover his reason for visiting the Big Apple. Now, that all seems well in good but what follows isn’t really much of a Godzilla movie, sure, there’s a giant city-destroying monster that stems from the testing of atomic bombs yet the creature bears very little resemblance to the Godzilla most of us grew up watching. In fact, the plot of this movie has more in common with the Ray Harryhausen classic The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms which had atomic testing wake up a dinosaur, that then proceeded to Manhattan Island for some late-night dining. It should also be noted that it was Ray Harryhausen’s dinosaur classic that inspired the original Gojira.
Note: The Rhedosaurus in that film was radioactive and was somehow able to wander around New York City without being spotted, which is something the makers of this film clearly took to heart.
But the 1998 Godzilla film wasn’t just a monster movie as it’s also had romantic-comedy elements stuff inside it; while hunting for the creature Nick runs into his old college girlfriend Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), who we learn had a four-year relationship with Nick and then ran off without even a phone call or Dear John letter. Now, eight years later she uses their past connection to steal classified information from Nick, so as to help her land a job as a reporter, which results in him getting fired, and she’s supposed to be our hero’s romantic love interest for this film, seriously? Practically every moment spent with the Audrey character is both painful and unnecessary and I’m left wondering why couldn’t Nick’s paleontologist boss (Vicki Lewis) have been this film’s love interest?
We also get a subplot with a French secret service agent (Jean Reno) who is leading a team that intends to cover up their country’s role in the nuclear testing that created Godzilla – if all else fails blame the French – but that element of bizarreness is overshadowed by the film’s third act when our heroes all converge on Madison Square Garden to discover a nest with over 200 eggs. It’s at this point that the film stops being a Godzilla movie and takes a sharp left turn into Jurassic Park territory with everyone running away from baby Godzillas that were blatant raptor analogs.
• The filmmakers take the brave stance of blaming France’s atomic testing for the creation of Godzilla because we wouldn’t want to give America a black eye, which makes the use of stock footage of American nuclear testing a rather odd choice here.
• The old Chinese survivor reacts to Jean Reno’s lighter by uttering the word “Gojira” which implies that the flame reminded him of the attack, which of course makes no sense as this version of Godzilla doesn’t breathe fire.
• Audrey’s boss holds the promise of promotion via sexual quid pro quo, while Nick’s boss on the Godzilla hunt is your basic “Man Hungry Woman” who constantly flirts with him. Is this a Godzilla movie or study on workplace sexual harassment?
• Nick is mocked for his theory that the creature has been mutated by radiation, but if the task force didn’t already believe this to be the case why did they bring him along in the first place?
• If this was a proper monster movie a character betraying the hero for personal gain would have resulted in some kind of ironic comeuppance, which means this film needed a scene of Audrey being eaten while trying to get footage of Godzilla.
• An Apache helicopter pilot states “He’s right on my tail sir, I don’t think I can shake him” because he, apparently, forgot that helicopters can go up.
• Going by the sheer amount of eggs they find at Madison Square Garden Godzilla’s womb must be part Tardis.
• That Godzilla is eventually killed by the military leaves me wondering if the filmmakers had even seen a Godzilla movie before.
When the film went into pre-production Toho Studios gave the American creators a 75-page dossier of what they could and could not do with Godzilla’s character, which consisted of a few simple rules; Godzilla cannot eat people, only fish, he has to have three rows of dorsal plates and no more or less than three toes on his feet and four fingers on his hands, he cannot be made to look silly and he absolutely cannot die in the movie. Needless to say, none of this was taken to heart by the studio and was blissfully ignored. What we got was a fast-moving iguana that though large was nowhere near the size of the Godzilla we saw in the Toho films, who could be seen towering over skyscrapers in those movies. Worse is that they also removed his ability to breathe atomic fire, instead, his breath simply fans the flames of an existing fire because that makes sense. This begs the question, “If you are going to make so many drastic changes to the character of Godzilla why bother calling the film Godzilla at all?”
On the visual effects side of things you’d expect the guys behind Independence Day would knock that aspect out of the park, and as for the citywide destruction that’s exactly what they do, but when it comes to Godzilla himself things are a little dodgier. As far as late 1990s computer-generated monsters go this one isn’t too bad but as most of the scenes took place at night, and in the rain, you really can’t say just how good the monster looks. Overall, as a Godzilla film this entry is a complete failure but if you considered it a remake of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms then it’s a little more passable, but only a little.
That this film was going to piss off Godzilla fans was a no brainer, and I’m not sure what the studio was even thinking when they went for that particular design, but even if this film had included the true King of the Monsters it still would have had that horrible love story to curdle your soul. This is one Godzilla film that will never be considered canon and is best forgotten by all parties concerned.
Movie Rank - 5.5/10
There is no disputing the fact that this is a terrible Godzilla movie, one that doesn’t remotely deserve the name, but it does have some fun action beats and if you like Matthew Broderick this film may hold some entertainment value for you.