Cinematic Flashback: Godzilla (1998) Review

Ladies and Gentlemen, we New Yorkers like to believe we’ve seen it all… what you’re going to see right now will shock you beyond belief. This is, uh, footage we have that indicates that there is a *dinosaur* loose in Manhattan and my “cinematic flashback” for 1998’s Godzilla.

GODZILLA

“Size Does Matter”

Director: Roland Emmerich

Writers: Roland Emmerich, Ted Elliot, Terry Russo, and Dean Devlin

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Kevin Dunn, and Hank Azaria

Run Time: 139 minutes

Release Date: May 20th, 1998

Rating: PG-13

THE STORY


Following the French atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific, an unknown creature is spotted passing eastward through the Panama Canal. Scientist Niko “Nick” Tatopolous is called in to investigate the matter, and he quickly arrives at the conclusion that a giant, irradiated lizard has been created by the explosions. Godzilla then makes its way north, landing at Manhattan to begin wreaking havoc in the big city. As Nick, his reporter ex-girlfriend, a group of unlikely heroes, and even with the combined forces of the U.S. military to fight the monster, will it be enough to save the people of New York?

MY THOUGHTS


With the release of 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, I decided to go back and review 1998’s Godzilla, one of the first Hollywood iterations of the iconic Japanese giant monster. Of course, the character of Godzilla (before this particular movie) was classic staple of the giant monster / kaiju genre from Japan, with Tomoyuki Tanaka co-creating the old and famous (yet cheesy) various Godzilla films. Plus, the character of Godzilla had entered pop-culture mainstream, with various appearance in media mediums throughout the decades. Thus, it came as no surprise that Hollywood would want to take an interest in this giant monster, with 1998’s Godzilla being a prime example of that first step. However, it seemed that the movie was met with scrutiny and uninteresting appeal.

I remember I was in 8th grade (I was 13 years old), so (of course) I was super excited to see this movie…. even saw it in theaters (I think it was one of my first PG-13 movie that went to see without my parents). For the most part, I liked it. It was definitely something that spoke to the “times” of the late 90s in the action blockbuster department. Could it have been better? Of course, but it was something that everyone was taking about that year (or at least that summer of ’98). What I really liked about the movie was the first half of the film (most the first act), with the building of suspense of Godzilla’s first appearance in New York City. The film, which was directed by Roland Emmerich (the directorial mind behind 1996’s Independence Day), proved to be effective in establishing the film’s cinematic build in the first act; providing plenty of mystery and suspense to mankind’s introduction to this giant creature. This, of course, is clearly represented when Godzilla finally arrives in New York City, which is where the film truly does shine and is the most iconic / memorable moment of the film. How so? Well (at least to me), the idea of not physically showing Godzilla’s fully body (at this point in the movie) kind of added to the whole mystery, the Emmerich only presenting Godzilla’s lower half features (feet and legs) and occasionally back portion of his tail / body. Plus, the whole destruction of his arrival was well-staged and definitely had a “grandiose” entrance for any giant monster in movies. Speaking of which, the film’s visual (though dated by today’s effects) were pretty good. There were a few “iffy” shots, but the ultimately are easily forgiven. Thus, the first half of the film definitely works and really felt like the start of something entertaining with a giant monster blockbuster.

As a side-note, I personally did like the creature design work for 1998’s Godzilla, which was vastly different from the past (almost classic) bulky body of Godzilla. Although I understood why the design for original Godzilla (i.e. a human in a costume). That’s probably why I did like design for this new Godzilla in the film, which was leaner and a bit muscular with more of a dinosaur / reptilian look within its physical features.

The problem with Godzilla is the simple fact that the second half of the film was less interesting and became more generic / formulaic in its narrative to other similar projects. Not so much in the giant monster / kaiju realm, but rather in the storytelling format for a big action blockbuster feature in the late 90s. The wonder and cinematic magic (cheesy as it sounds) from the first half was loss and was replaced with bland character dialogue and plot points and an uninteresting narrative involving Godzilla making a nest inside Madison Square Garden for his 200 eggs that begin to hatch when the film’s characters show up. At that point, the film just devolves into a complete rip-off or Jurassic Park franchise, with Godzilla’s newly hatchings being roughly the size (and look) of raptors. What ensues is a chase from them inside MSG, ducking, dodging, and trying to get away from…. sounds familiar. Even Godzilla’s presence in the second half seems quite underwhelming and becomes far less cinematically interesting than when he did in the film’s first half. Thus, the script handling, which was written by Ted Elliot, Terry Russo, Dean Devlin, and Emmerich, provides to be quite flimsy….even for a blockbuster feature.

Plus, the fact that Godzilla “disappears” within New York City at various points is bit farfetched (even I thought about that when I first saw the movie back in ’98). I mean…. a giant reptilian monster, who stands roughly 60 meters (i.e. 130 feet) tall, who suddenly vanishes in and around and underneath the city. New York City is a big city, but not so much for a creature of that size to disappear. This also involves the various chase sequences in the second and third act with Godzilla, who seems much smaller than what his scale size suggests (I hardly doubt that every single building in New York City is vaguely larger that Godzilla’s size and streets wide enough for him to easily pass through without crumbling buildings).

The cast in Godzilla has plenty of recognizable faces within its various characters, including Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Pitillo, Hank Azaria, Kevin Dunn, and Michael Lerner. All of these acting talents are relatively good and have displayed “quality” performance in the other movie projects (before or after Godzilla’s release). That being said, most of the characterizations of these characters are “blah”; finding their builds and overall development in the movie to be generic and one-dimensional. To be honest, no one in the movie is quite memorable (for their roles) and the characters were just as blockbuster caricatures. I mean…. even the characters in the original Godzilla movies were better development and presented (as campy and cheesy as they were). That being said, I really didn’t expect the characters in 1998’s Godzilla (for all its late 90s action blockbuster premise) to be compelling / well-rounded characters. So, it kind of goes “hand in hand” with everything.

Unfortunately, Godzilla, while making money at the box office, was considered a disappointment and received a mixture of reviews (though most were negative). Mostly this was probably because the film wasn’t up to par with many viewers (expecting something more than what was given) as the age of 90s action movies was starting to die out, which roughly ended around the start of the new millennium. Because of the poor reception and box office result, planned sequels to Godzilla were cancelled by the studio and were replaced with a short-lived animated TV series (titled Godzilla: The Series), which ran for two seasons (1998-2000) with 40 episodes. However, the show, which was shown on Fox’s “Fox Kids” Saturday morning run, clashed with the competing Pokémon / Digimon TV show war (Pokémon was shown on Kids WB, while Digimon on Fox Kids). Thus, Godzilla: The Series was shuffled around to less-favorable time slots and was even taken off the air for a time before it resumed, quickly ending its run without much fanfare. I vaguely remember the TV show. I think I saw 2 or 3 episodes and I just found it to be a redundant and just plain uninteresting (I rather just watch 1998 film instead).

In the end, 1998’s Godzilla proved to be disappointment, but that’s not to say that it had it merits in “failing with style”. I personally think of this movie as a sort of “guilty pleasure” for me as its sort of bad but in a good way. There’s a mindless fun to it and I think that’s what comes of watching it (I see the movie on TV every now and again….and watch it from time to time). Its first half proves to be good suspense giant monster mayhem, while the latter half is as bland and uninteresting as they come; a sign of dying breed of imagination in the moviemaking industry. However, this Hollywood iteration of Japan’s iconic kaiju monster was left in cinematic purgatory and the movie itself discarded (Toho began trademarking new iterations of TriStar’s Godzilla as “Zilla”, with only the incarnations from the 1998 film and animated show retaining the Godzilla copyright/trademark). Thus, the opinion of 1998’s Godzilla is in the “eye of the beholder” (sort of speak), but cinematic history hasn’t been kind to it. Still, the movie played its part, did what it need to be, and exited just as mysterious as a 130 ft tall giant monster disappearing in the “Big Apple”. Now, after the success of 2014’s Godzilla and it’s 2017’s spin-off Kong: Skull Island, 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monster plans to be a giant monster “battle royale” that was promised. Let’s hope so….

Cinematic Flashback Score: 3.0 Out of 5

 

Fun Fact: Due to the tight deadlines and likely because the monster’s look was to be kept secret, the movie wasn’t given test screenings. The studio later deemed this a mistake, since this had meant that none of the movie’s faults could be fixed for the theatrical release. This was one of the reasons behind the movie’s grandiose promotional campaign, since the execs expected the movie to fail without sufficient marketing push.

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