“Godzilla” 25 Years Later – Was This Version That Bad?

Oh to be back in the late 90s.  Video stores were still everywhere, social media wasn’t even in our vocabulary, and big budget disaster movies were the Hollywood tentpoles rather than superhero franchises.  There is no conversation about this era without mentioning German-born director Roland Emmerich.

In 1996, he captivated audiences with Independence Day.  While the movie didn’t review very well critically, it was a massive box office and cultural success, with people still quoting it today and watching it every 4th of July.  So when he was directing an American remake of the classic Japanese kaiju film Godzilla, he seemed like an obvious choice.

Released at the cusp of 1998’s summer blockbuster season, Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla was nowhere near the hit that Independence Day was.  Its reviews were even worse, and its box office barely broke even when you factor in marketing.  Fans of the OG Japanese Godzilla franchise absolutely hated this version, and (much like some of Roland Emmerich’s later films), it’s largely been a punching bag in the cultural zeitgeist.

But until 2014 and the launch of the WB’s Monsterverse, this film was the definite American version of Godzilla.  So in honor of its 25th anniversary, we wanted to take a look back at this admittedly flawed movie.  And see if there’s more charm than we remember, or if this is truly a relic best left in the past…

Following the Emmerich Formula
Much like Independence Day 2 years prior, Godzilla featured a lot of the same elements.  You had a large ensemble cast, with many characters having their own plots/arcs and never interacting with each other, you had this massive “event” that all the characters were interacting with, and of course you had major landmarks being destroyed via explosion.

This ensemble cast featured Matthew Broderick as a nerdy scientist, Jean Reno as a covert French agent, Maria Pitillo as wannabe reporter and ex to Broderick’s character, Hank Azaria as a wise-cracking cameraman, and Harry Shearer as a condescending news anchor.  With two Simpsons voice actors in the main cast, and a third (Nancy Cartwright) in a supporting role, it’s hard to argue that this movie took itself seriously from the start.

This movie was definitely the height of Maria Pitillo’s career. She was an up and coming actress in the 90s, appearing in True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and Chaplin. But after Godzilla, she did a few episodes of TV shows and then retired from acting altogether.

Plotwise, it follows all the beats you’d expect.  The military begins tracking this massive creature out in the Pacific, all while the movie sets up the many characters in their prospective settings and plotlines.  Godzilla then arrives in New York, and the disaster movie portion of the film begins with it destroying large parts of the city, while the military clashes with it, also destroying large parts of the city.

Much like with Independence Day, a lot of the destruction is done via practical explosions using miniatures, and honestly it looks a millions times better than anything CGI has done since then.  Your eyes can tell the difference when they’re seeing something tangible actually blow up.  However, much unlike Independence Day, Godzilla goes in hard with CGI when it comes to the creature itself.  And it is in that regard that the film feels painfully dated with the late 90s CGI really not holding up.

In many shots, Godzilla unfortunately looks very pixelated. To be fair CGI was still evolving, and for something like a creature with scales, it was hard to make it look real back then.

The movie then makes the odd choice to kill off his titular monster at the end of the second act, thus leaving the third act to deal with its monstrous offspring as they hatch in Madison Square Garden.

Granted, the entire third act feels like a knockoff of Jurassic Park, especially when you see the design of baby Godzillas and how much they resemble the velociraptors from that franchise.  It’s a weird pivot, especially since that final act feels more like a sequel than it does the ending to everything that came before.

When the “Godzilla babies” are done practically, they honestly look pretty good. But there’s plenty of bad CGI in that sequence as well.

“Not My Godzilla”
By far, the biggest criticism was from original franchise fans, who complained that the movie felt nothing like a Godzilla film, and that the kaiju itself looked far more like a giant iguana than the famous Japanese monster.

And there’s definitely some truth to that.  Emmerich’s team went for a far more sleek design with the creature, and while the movie admits it was created by radiation, it doesn’t really have the same connection and power up ability from radiation that the others all did.

In a lot of ways, this just feels like another Roland Emmerich disaster movie that happens to feature Godzilla rather than aliens or an ice age (see Day After Tomorrow for that).  But that’s sort of the point.

If you’re going to do a remake for modern audiences in a different country, it makes sense for that movie’s target audience to be the general public of that country, not necessarily diehard fan of the original franchise.

In shots like this, Roland Emmerich is definitely catering to American fans who are far more familiar with King Kong than they are Godzilla.

Is It Self Aware?
As previously mentioned, Independence Day remains a celebrated movie that people often still watch every year on or around the 4th of July (myself included).  And while so many people enjoy watching it, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would call it good cinema. Even those who enjoy it admit that it’s a dumb movie, but that it’s just so much fun.  And the movie feels like it knows exactly what it is, and isn’t trying to be anything more than that.

The same, perhaps, could be said of Godzilla.  Again, when you feature actors from The Simpsons, and have Harry Shearer basically doing his Kent Brockman voice for the duration of the movie, you kind of know exactly what you’re doing.  There’s even a moment where Hank Azaria just uses his Moe voice and says “Ah, jeez’, one of that character’s biggest catchphrases.

Matthew Broderick’s casting also feels very telling. By the late 90s, he had shed the “coolness” of Ferris Bueller and was known for much more cheesy roles and performances like Inspector Gadget.

Point being, Roland Emmerich never set out to make a serious drama or action movie with strong environmental or nuclear disarmament themes.  Granted, those things are mentioned briefly, but they’re not really what the movie is about.  It’s about sitting back in the theater with a giant bucket of popcorn, and just having a good time at the theater.  And it’s in that regard that the movie really does succeed.

So many critics and cinephiles try to dissect movies and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, we literally do that on this site all the time.  But in some cases, it never goes deeper than the surface, and that’s exactly the way the creators intended.  Roland Emmerich never set out to “do Godzilla justice” for American audiences, he just made a cheesy, but fun movie for general audiences.

So while this movie absolutely fails as a Godzilla movie, it’s a pretty decent 90s disaster movie that’s fun to go back and revisit, and reminisce about a time when not every single blockbuster had to be connected to an ongoing franchise.

The 2014 version is a much better adaptation of Godzilla, but some complained that it took itself too seriously and that the titular kaiju was barely in it.

What did you think of Godzilla (1998)?  Let us know in the comments!

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