This review is part of a Godzilla crossover week with Classic-Horror.com. Click here for Classic-Horror's review of the same film.
Roland Emmerich's Godzilla is the end result of millions of dollars being spent on marketing, advertising, and special effects. Had even a small fraction of the film's bloated budget been spent on hiring a more competent director and screenwriter and a more motivated set of actors, the film could have at the very least salvaged some of the notoriety of its namesake. But instead we have this, a two-hour-plus summer blockbuster remake of the famous Godzilla (AKA Gojira) franchise of Japan; we have an Americanized bastardization that is an insult not only to its overseas counterpart but to other summer blockbusters as well.
You will recall that the original Godzilla of 1954 carried a message warning of the dangers of nuclear warfare. This Godzilla reduces that parable to a highly stylized opening credit sequence, leaving a haphazard plot to substantiate a reason for the film to even exist. Matthew Broderick stars as Dr. Nick Tatopoulos, a research scientist who is studying the effects of radiation on earthworms in the Ukraine. He is called away from his field work by the U.S. government and flown to New York City to identify and track a two hundred-foot-tall lizard named Godzilla, the byproduct of nuclear testing. Nick meets up with an old flame, Audry (Maria Pitillo), who is now a struggling TV journalist, and her friends Lucy and Victor Palotti (Arabella Field and Hank Azaria), and the foursome follows Godzilla as he rampages through the Big Apple. Meanwhile, New York's Mayor Ebert1 (Michael Lerner), up for reelection, leads a military attack against the beast while encouraging the residents of Manhattan not to evacuate their city. There is also a French Secret Service Agent, Philippe (Jean Reno), watching Nick and his team from afar, waiting for the perfect moment to engage Godzilla himself.
On the surface, the film sounds like what it should be: Godzilla attacks a metropolis, the government launches a full-scale assault that fails, and meanwhile a lonely scientist hypothesizes what Godzilla's true intentions are and how he can be stopped. The film has a major, basic flaw, though, in that its characters all hit the right points in a formulaic screenplay that demonstrates no understanding as to what those points are there for. The script is rife with instances where the plot is at a standstill. For instance, there is an entire subplot involving Audry trying to impress her boss, Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer), which leads to the two of them attempting to steal the Godzilla story from one another. It's completely unnecessary but takes up a good majority of the film. There is never a moment throughout the entire film that one feels that a character's actions or dialogue are perpetuating the plot. It's as if the writers made a bulleted list from a previous Godzilla film and then arbitrarily filled in the rest of it with dull subplots.
Dean Devlin and co. attempt to liven up an otherwise dull script with a few comedic scenes that do nothing but make me feel that much smarter. Consider Lucy's reaction when Godzilla is walking through the streets of New York and the diner that she is sitting in suddenly and violently shakes: her conclusion? "It must be another parade." Not an asteroid attack, not a volcano, not even an earthquake, but a parade. If Godzilla's destruction is likened to that of a parade, I don't think the missiles are necessary. Oh, and how about the brain-dead man that sits in his car and listens to his headphones while Godzilla stomps down the street? According to the logic of the film, the man can't hear Godzilla's attack because his music is turned up too loud, but what about the vibrations? Maybe he thinks it's a parade, too. But let us not forget the poor geezer that fishes off the peer one morning and gets his line caught on what he believes to be a huge fish. It turns out it's Godzilla, who, if he were truly swimming toward the peer, would have either snapped the line instantaneously or effortlessly pulled the old man into the water. But no, we're given yet another arbitrary scene, where the fisherman tugs at his line, assures his buddies that he caught the big one, and then (What do you know?) Godzilla leaps out of the water over the old man and charges down the city, probably trying to catch that parade.
Of course none of the characters in this film truly work because there is absolutely no motivation from the actors that portray them. In the scene in which Nick is explaining to the government that Godzilla is a brand new species, Broderick delivers his lines with all the pizzazz of a news anchor reading the top headlines. Considering that Broderick's character studies wildlife and nuclear effects, one would assume that he would be elated, ecstatic, frightened, or at least simply compelled by discovering such a thing, but instead he sounds like he can't wait for the director to call "cut."
The film's worst offender, however, is Jean Reno. Reno, normally a very subdued actor who delivers subtle performances, here seems catatonic. He portrays Philippe as someone who seems to have just woken up before every scene. That could be the reason his character is desperate for a cup of coffee throughout the movie. He delivers his lines without the slightest inflection or feeling, as if he doesn't care about the material one bit. How is an audience supposed to care about Godzilla when the people paid to care about it don't seem to?
We're supposed to care about it because of the special effects, of course, and director Emmerich is never hesitant to show off the sleek effects, even if more than half of the movie takes place either outside at night or in the rain. What other reason would there be to have this many scenes where Godzilla runs through New York and the military desperately chases after him firing missile upon missile at him? Most of the time, those missiles miss and lead to a large explosion, destroying things like the Chrysler Building. No one is ever reprimanded in the movie for such a colossal mistake; in fact, the gunner that fires the missile that destroys the Chrysler simply says, "Damn, I missed him!" and that seems to appease his commanding officers. But that's alright, at least it leads to another dazzling effect that causes the audience to "ooh" and "ahh." Anything to silence the cursing and snickers.
So, Godzilla is a tremendous disappointment, but its marketing campaign, launched an entire year before the film's initial release in 1998, of course wanted the world to think otherwise. In London, crushed cars were placed along city streets; New York was littered with advertising slogans from "Size Does Matter" to "His Foot is as Long as This Bus" (tacked on the side of city buses); fast food chain Taco Bell incorporated Godzilla into its Super Bowl commercial and subsequent tie-in products. For a film that contains a scene where a character hears a news reporter use the word "Godzilla" and then screams, "It's Gojira, you moron," the marketing team sure did want people to remember the name Godzilla. It was this inescapable marketing campaign that proved to be film's best quality: it got people to see the film.
Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you consider the quality of the film) it didn't get people to see the film twice or tell other people to go see it. It does, however, continue to live on well past its theatrical runtime. Since the film's release, Godzilla fans have developed a clever nickname for the film: GINO, which stands for "Godzilla in Name Only." I couldn't have put it better myself.
1 This is a not-so clever jab at film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel in the characters Mayor Ebert and his aide, Gene, because the two spouted negative reviews at Emmerich's previous films Stargate and Independence Day.