– Summary –
Director : Roland Emmerich
Year Of Release : 1998
Principal Cast : Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Pitillo, Hank Azaria, Kevin Dunn, Michael Lerner, Harry Shearer, Arabella Field, Doug Savant, Vicki Lewis, Lorry Goldman.
Approx Running Time : 139 Minutes
Synopsis: An enormous genetically mutated lizard makes landfall on Manhattan island and proceeds to tear up the city of New York. A gaggle of scientists and plenty of US military show up to try and get rid of it.
What we think : Loud, bombastic, completely inane monster epic from the man who gave us Stargate and ID4, Godzilla is an exercise in tedium and mediocrity. Essentially an effect showcase for the (then) latest computer generated monster, Godzilla stomped into cinemas in a blaze of glory, and pretty quickly became the laughing stock of director Emmerich’s oeuvre – at least until 10,000 BC. A great cast is utterly wasted on this limp, unsubtle genre entry, and even the special effects, hidden by a pall of constant rain, start to look dated.
You’d be forgiven for admitting to enjoying the hype surrounding the late-90’s release of Godzilla, the famous Japanese monster franchise delivered to Western audiences thanks to the prowess of then up-and-coming blockbuster director Roland Emmerich; the prospect of state-of-the-art digital effects delivering the ultimate creature feature (at least since King Kong climbed the World Trade Centre in the 70’s version) to show New York being torn a new one. The trailers, posters, destruction: epic spectacle was the order of the day, and considering the destructive pedigree behind the camera, you’d have expected something pretty cool. Emmerich, having directed Stargate and Independence Day and riding the wave of high expectation his new film would deliver, tried to “bring it” – to use a popular vernacular catch-phrase – to the audience of the day; the result, however, is something of a mixed bag in the end. Godzilla is replete with problems, on all fronts, and yet when it comes to the destruction and carnage, delivers everything a big-budget Hollywood spectacle can.
Nick Tatopolous (Matthew Broderick) is seconded by the US military to New York, to try explaining mysterious event staking place along the Eastern seaboard of the USA. Ships have gone missing, are washed ashore, giant footprints now dot the landscape, and bizarre sightings of a giant lizard, nicknamed “gojira” by Japanese fishermen, now begin to cause alarm amongst those in scientific circles. Sure enough, French nuclear testing in the Pacific has caused a major mutation amongst one of the indigenous lizard population, whereby one of the lizards has grown to enormous proportions. The lizard makes a grand arrival in New York City, stomping its way through Midtown and the financial district, before burrowing underground into the city’s maze of subterranean tunnel systems. With an increasingly harried bureaucracy in charge of an almighty military force within the city, and the giant lizard threatening not to leave the rain-drenched metropolis, Nick and his friends, including ex-girlfriend Audrey (Maria Pitillo), her news cameraman partner Victor (Hank Azaria), and a French secret service agent, Phillipe (Jean Reno) must discover the reason the enormous beast has chosen New York for its lair. Along the way, plenty of building destroying action takes place, as Godzilla stomps and roars his way through the Big Apple.
It’s fair to say that as far as spectacle goes, almost nobody does it
better with as much enthusiasm than Roland Emmerich. One mans seemingly unending desire to see the world destroyed – via global warming, alien invasion or some other insurmountable threat – was still growing by the time he filmed Godzilla, and it’s equally fair to say that Godzilla did nothing to satiate that desire. There’s probably more money-shot action per second in Godzilla than the entire Debbie Does.. saga, and that’s saying something. Mind you, when the majority of the film was released in the multitude of trailers, teasers, clips and whatnot in the ensuing blitzkrieg advertising promotion, sitting through the film is like watching them all out of sequence and suddenly going “so that’s where that bit fits in”. The film follows the traditional blockbuster monster movie – start off slow, hint at the creature’s power, size and intent by showcasing destruction of increasing ferocity throughout, while keeping the Big Reveal until about an hour into your film, then unleash all kinds of heck to salvage whatever Shock And Awe The Audience program you were following. Emmerich delivers what American audiences expected to see, I guess, which was a city filled with major national landmarks being obliterated in typically gung-ho style. The problem with Godzilla as a film is that the spectacle is outweighed by the turgid, lamentably stupid, insipidly acted, screenplay. The script shoehorns in every conceivable “monster movie” cliche, and even a few more than that, to make sure you “get your money’s worth” from what is essentially a two-hour-plus destruction reel from the visual effects dudes over at Sony. The film runs some 2 hours and ten minutes, which by my estimation is probably a good hour over what it needed to to deliver a decent story.
The trouble with a story trying to accomplish such an “epic” scale, the filmmakers decided that they needed a cast of thousands to justify it. They really, really didn’t. Matthew Broderick is woefully miscast… strike that… Maria Pitillo is horrifically miscast… strike that….. Hank Azaria is terribly miscast….. ahh hell, the entire film is just badly cast, from Broderick down to the inevitable dude who gets eaten by Godzilla’s progeny late in the film, this is a debacle of acting talent wasting all our time when we really just wanna see shit blow up. The “story”, and I use that term exceptionally lightly with regards to Godzilla, is stretched out by a myriad of hackneyed, unoriginal and utterly unnecessary subplots, none of which we care about because they ultimately slow the pacing of the film down for a few cheap -and rare – laughs. Hank Azaria is woefully out of form as the resident “comedy relief”, playing the obligatory cameraman without a self-preservation instinct, and much of his stuff doesn’t work – at least, it doesn’t work for audiences outside of New York, I reckon. Jean Reno does a solid job against the flow of turd-acting as a French secret Service dude, but not even he can salvage any respectability in this mess. It’s like the entire cast signed up for a role, without actually knowing what role they were going to play. Emmerich seemed to be making it up as he went along, and it shows in the convoluted, protracted pseudo-dramatic moments this film passes off as character building. As films like Cloverfield many years later would show, you don’t need a massive cast to make the destruction of a city by a giant unkillable monster feel awesome.
The cast are (with the exception of Reno) uniformly awful in their respective roles. Broderick, as the main role of the film, totters about looking bewildered he’s even in the film, while his on-screen love interest, played by Maria Pitillo, is about as sexually tense as a cardboard box. Come to think of it, I think I’ve seen cardboard boxes act better than Pitillo does in this – she is, quite frankly, horrendous to watch in this. Pitillo’s Audrey is a screeching, obnoxious, unfunny, abomination of a character, and if that was the intent of Emmerich then he made a monumental cock-up. Pitillo’s performance here is awful, truly barrel-bottom-scraping stuff, the kind of third-rate primary school acting that you might see on any episode of Yo Gabba Gabba. She’s wooden, has zero chemistry with her supposed former flame in Matthew Broderick’s Nick, and delivers every line with the audacity to call herself an actor just searing into your eyeballs and eardrums. And let’s not forget Kevin Dunn’s entirely apoplectic portrayal of the military commander trying to bring the giant lizard down – his berating of all and sundry throughout the film is wearing, and instead of seeming “gruff but fatherly”, he comes across as “annoyed and pissed off”, which isn’t endearing to the audience. Michael Lerner and Harry Shearer pay the mortgage with this effort – Lerner as the imbecilic New York City mayor, and Shearer as a sniveling, sneaky reporter trying to usurp the Godzilla story out of Audrey’s hands; they both do nothing for their careers here. Doug Savant stutters (why?) his way through a performance as the most inept army Sergeant in history, while Vicki Lewis and Arabella Field play token (and entirely useless) female characters just to make sure things don’t get too filled with testosterone. It’s my belief, however, that the cast are only as good as the words they say, and here, they spout some absolute solid gold crap. Therefore, the blame for a lot of this film’s problems can be laid squarely on the script.
The script borders on inane – there’s nothing exciting or thrilling about the character or their stories, and while I can expect that characters in films like these may not always be the most well thought out, you expect at least some sort of effort by the scriptwriters to make us like (or even appreciate) even one of these people. No, we don’t – not even Jean Reno can undo the horrendously mystifying way Emmerich has chosen to shoot him in this film, and his gargantuan fan following must still be ruing the day he chose to make dreck such as this. Characters spout dialogue like they’re still sitting about the read-through table discovering their characters; there’s no realism or believability to any of the people in this film, they just exist to serve the visual effects and constant plot build up to the next Godzilla attack. Every walking cliche in Hollywood appears in this film at some point, and whereas Independence Day hit a nerve with audiences for its heart and soul while delivering cornball antics on a widescreen scale, here, cornball comes across as simply insufferable. The script also tries to shove in a bunch of plot “twists”, most of which make no sense or offer no surprises. The films finale, the destruction of Madison Square Garden, is but a speed-hump in the true finale, an eardrum-bashing, foot-stomping, car-chasing hurley burley of last-gasp theatricality, designed to waste the last of this bloated turd’s budget before producers figured out what Emmerich had done. There’s no sense of logic to this film, no effort to craft a story above spectacle, and that, I think, is the biggest reason Godzilla fails as a film.
Another problem the film had, and this is touched on in almost every review of Godzilla ever written, is the depressing visuals of the film in the first place. The movie starts off interestingly enough, with stop-overs in tropical jungles and windswept beaches, before finally settling down in New York – where it f*cking rains the rest of the film. New York is one of America’s crowning achievements, a modern masterpiece of architecture and design, filled with iconic buildings and locations and most assuredly one of the worlds most amazing cities – and yet, Roland decides to film the entire thing during monsoon season. Okay, so New York doesn’t have a monsoon season, but holy crap does it have to rain the entire time? Drenched in rain, shrouded in depressing grey and monochromatic drabbery, New York feels somewhat isolated from the rest of the world as the events of this film take place, a sense of being otherworldly that alienated the audience in the first instance. People have often stated that the constant rain allowed many of the films visual effects to be hidden behind the gauze of precipitation, perhaps a way of counteracting future claims that the visual effects look dodgy (they do now anyway – Godzilla changes size more times in this than Broderick does double-takes!) and making the effects work “easier” somehow. I think this is a little unfair, because the work that went into the Godzilla effects was undoubtedly hard to do, but to have all that glorious digital work smeared over by rain would have felt like a big smack in the gob for the dudes sitting at their computers hoping their one single shot looked cool. Most of the major part of the film takes place at night, or in the afternoon during sunset, and if I was a betting man, I’d say that’s to the explosions look cooler when framed against a black sky. Just a thought.
Yes, Godzilla is a loud, insipid and completely horrifying exercise in Hollywood film-making. The film plods along, even during the “action” sequences, and you never feel the urgency and energy Emmerich probably wanted so desperately in this thing. The sense of awe and amazement at Godzilla exploding up through a New York City street never arrives – it was never there in the first place, because by the time we finally get to it, the audience has succumbed (hopefully, for their sakes) to complete boredom and fallen asleep. It’s such a laborious process, this film, that it’s even hard to watch it while doing this review. The script is atrociously written, the cast little better with their performances, and the direction from Emmerich feels uninspired and second rate, almost like he was sleepwalking through it to get to The Patriot. You get the sense that nobody’s heart was really in this – and even listening to the commentary found on the DVD release of this, those involved still seem… bored by all that’s going on, almost as if they can’t believe they were even involved in such a mess.
I know, I know, it’s easy to sit here and judge a multi-million dollar film after the fact, but the sheer fact-of-the-matter is that Godzilla deserved better than what was served up. We deserved better. As it stands, Godzilla is testament to the audacity of the Hollywood 90’s mentality of “bigger, better, blow it up” that pervaded cinemas for nearly a decade before petering out into some level of restraint. Almost. Roland Emmerich’s next film, The Patriot, was a decent effort to say the least, but he’d never again reach the dizzying heights of ID4 with any of his other big budget spectacle disaster epics. There’s about 45 minutes of watchable film in Godzilla. The rest is just filler, and shithouse filler at that.