Sunday, May 11, 2014

GodzillaMania #13: Godzilla 1998

Plenty of cinephiles started their movie love with Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Disney. As a film-loving kid, these were all part of my steady diet. But before anything else, I loved Godzilla. To me, the King of the Monsters was the end-all, be-all of movie creations, and programs like TNT’s MonsterVision with their Godzilla marathons (and awesome promos) had four-year-old me hooked. With the new Godzilla coming in May (fingers crossed it doesn’t suck), it’s time to run through 60 years of one of cinema’s greatest monsters with the (SPOILER-heavy, sorry) GodzillaMania.

Godzilla 1998: 5/D-

1998’s American version of Godzilla is one of the only films in the series (official or otherwise) I had a chance to see in theaters – with the exception of Godzilla 2000, this was the last Godzilla film to be released in American theaters. Being a seven-year-old Godzilla superfan, I was even more excited for this than I was for the next year’s upcoming Star Wars prequel (I learned the meaning of disappointment at a very young age). My father was kind enough to take me to the midnight screening, or at least a late-night premiere, where we were given special promotional materials that, being an idiot, I’d lose within a day.

 As a kid hopped up on sugar and years of waiting to see Godzilla on the big screen, I liked the film even though it didn’t feature most of the things I loved about the series. It wasn’t until revisiting the movie on VHS that it occurred to me just how little it resembled the movies I loved. But had the film gone in a radically different direction from the source material in a new or exciting way, it’d be easy to forgive. But Roland Emmerich (who admitted he didn’t like the old Godzilla films) turns in a lazy, dull, bloated disaster movie-meets-Spielberg rip-off, a rightfully derided film that made a lot of money but still managed to disappoint just about everyone who saw it.

Matthew Broderick stars as Dr. Niko “Nick” Tatapoulos, a biologist hired by the military to track a giant lizard created by nuclear testing. They track the creature to New York City, where it makes a habit of appearing, destroying things, and then disappearing. After taking a skin sample following an abortive military chase, Nick theorizes that the creature, dubbed “Godzilla” by the media, is pregnant and looking to lay a nest in New York. When ex-girlfriend Audrey (Maria Pitillo) steals confidential tapes from Tatapoulos, he’s fired and the military abandons their search. But someone else has been listening: French Secret Service Agent Philippe Roche (Jean Reno), who believes Nick and is trying to cover up for French nuclear testing in Polynesia.

That last bit is one of the less noted aspects of Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s terrible screenplay, but one of the most telling. Gone is the thoughtful meditation on U.S. nuclear testing and the fallout it caused in Japan. Instead, the film pawns the responsibility off on the French so they can ignore any real consideration of nuclear concerns and turn the film into a jingoistic explosion-fest. It’s a hateful change that’s made more laughable by a bit of unintentional irony: for all of Devlin and Emmerich’s thoughtless rah-rah bullshit, the U.S. military in Godzilla is portrayed as borderline inept. Sure, the Japanese military forces in Godzilla were rarely able to do much damage to the King of the Monsters, but they didn’t lose track of a giant goddamn lizard in a populated area or find themselves unable to even hit the thing.

That ties into the wanton destruction and end-of-the-world scenarios that have been Emmerich’s M.O. since Independence Day. Godzilla’s set-pieces are devoid of the horror of the original film or the entertaining goofiness of the sequels. Instead, Emmerich’s more-is-more aesthetic is at its worst here, with every action scene feeling like the same bit of shouting, shrieking and shooting bombast distinguished only by which NYC landmark is going to be blown up this time.

The destruction in Godzilla’s first New York scene no doubt leaves hundreds, if not thousands, dead. Yet the most that Harry Shearer’s newsman notes is that the Disney and Sony stores are being looted – the dead are either faceless or unacknowledged. The rest of the movie sees the city evacuated, at least, but that potentially mitigating factor feels insignificant when taken alongside the film’s endless 142 minutes of monotonous action and noise, complete with two equally stakes-free climaxes where it’s clear that the only people who die will be the one’s who didn’t have names in the first place.

Like Independence Day before it, Godzilla’s cast is made up of stock characters, but Emmerich’s earlier film at least had Jeff Goldblum and a charismatic Will Smith to enliven things. Broderick can be charming in the right role, but his protagonist is mostly a dull repeat of Goldblum’s Independence Day role, mostly present to spout exposition about what idiotic place the film is taking us next. He’s given a rousing speech at the end that differs from the rest of his nerd-sputter, but it mostly plays as a boring version of Bill Pullman’s speech in Independence Day.

Reno sleepwalks his way through his ostensibly badass role, and Pitillo doesn’t get much to do except play a drippy love interest. Their romance is one of the most anemic in blockbuster history: first scene together is made up of banal chit-chat (never mind that there’s a giant lizard in the city) and exposition. Their second scene is meant to be a big emotional moment after she’s stolen something from him, but since we don’t know their relationship, we don’t care. Their third scene? The climax.

The supporting players, meanwhile, are stuck in one of two modes: obnoxious stereotype or fatally underwritten minor player. Shearer’s asshole news anchor never turns into anything more than lame comic relief, the kind of absurdly dickish guy prone to saying things like “I don’t give a rat’s ass about a war in some country whose name I can’t even pronounce.” Hank Azaria, meanwhile plays Victor “Animal” Palotti, Pitillo’s cameraman sidekick who’s so stereotypically working-class New York that he might as well be called “Brooklyn.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Kevin Dunn is tasked with playing a generic army officer, while Vicki Lewis, the skillful comic actress who was a highlight on NewsRadio, plays a scientist whose role is to essentially be a second scientist in the room. In Lewis’s biggest scene, she flirts with Broderick after noting that he’s not really the right man for the job. When one considers how much more dynamic a story between two scientists rushing might be in this context than the dull romance between Broderick and Pitillo (and the irritating subplot involving Pitillo’s aspiring reporter being sexually harassed by Shearer), Lewis’s character’s superfluity becomes especially galling.

The most irritating characters in the film, however, are the unctuous Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) and his assistant Gene (Lorry Goldman). In a petty rebuke to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s thumbs down-reviews of Stargate and Independence Day, Ebert is turned into a candy-chomping (haha, he’s fat), callous official, while Siskel becomes his wimpy assistant. Mayor Ebert feels he’s evacuated the city for nothing, and he’s interested in exploiting the Godzilla’s eventual death for his own political gain. It’s one thing to take issue with your critics; it’s another thing altogether to turn them into glib caricatures in a mean-spirited way of getting back at them for not liking your movies. It felt nasty at the time, and it only feels more hateful now that both of the great critics are gone.

So the film is hateful, loud, monotonous, overlong and stuffed with irritating or boring characters, but is there anything really wrong with it? How about a new point of comical stupidity in nearly every scene? There’s no way to really get through all of it without listing it off, so here goes:

-Godzilla is able to hide easily in New York City. This is A. a giant lizard, B. in the biggest city in the U.S., and C. surrounded by millions of dollars of military technology.

-Jean Reno encounters a man who survived a Godzilla attack on a Japanese fishing boat. When the man doesn’t respond to any questions in Japanese, Reno waves a lighter in front of the man’s face, asking in English what he saw, receiving the answer, “Gojira.” Apparently waving a lighter in front of a man’s face translates English to Japanese.

-Later, we see the military footage of this encounter…edited exactly the same as the scene earlier in the film. Nice of the U.S. government to spend money on Hollywood cameras and editing systems rather than relying on security footage.

-The military response to Broderick stating, frequently, that the job they’ve hired him for isn’t in his field essentially boils down to, “Yeah, well, whatever.”

-There’s a moment early in the film in which Broderick walks into Godzilla’s footprint and is unable to see exactly what he’s supposed to study. This is supposed to be awe-inspiring rather than deeply idiotic.

-The helicopters chasing Godzilla can’t hit a giant lizard and instead seem to take aim for every building in the city. Also, when being chased by Godzilla and picked off, none of the pilots seem to remember that they are in flying machines that can go up.

-Broderick keeps a shrine of sorts to Pitillo’s character, a collage of pictures of their time together (their relationship ended years ago). This is seen by Pitillo as sweet rather than creepy.

-Emmerich has a terrible sense of humor, with running jokes including Frenchman Reno’s displeasure with donuts (“No croissant?”) and American coffee (speaking as a lover of strong coffee, he has a point on that one); no one being able to pronounce Broderick’s last name; and Broderick being amazed by the efforts to lure Godzilla with food (“That’s a lot of fish!”). Number of times any of these things are funny: 0.

-When Godzilla is finally killed, the film tries to have a brief moment of sympathy for a creature that’s mostly been a personality-free monster, only to segue directly to cheering over its death. The tonal whiplash here is as astounding as it is meaningless.

-An actual line of dialogue that I couldn’t help but quote: “You know that bad feeling I get sometimes when something really bad is going to happen?” WRITING!

What makes Godzilla an insult beyond its stupidity, however, is its total lack of individuality. Whereas Independence Day somewhat leavened the derivativeness, queasy end-of-the-world entertainment and stupidity (see: aliens stopped with computer virus) with its charismatic stars and often transcendent stupidity (Pullman’s big speech, Brent Spiner being possessed by an alien), Godzilla is a long, drawn out bore that mostly distinguishes itself by ripping off Jaws and Jurassic Park. With the former, it blows up taut suspense scenes (the shark breaking the dock or dragging the Orca) to louder, dumber scenes (Godzilla dragging two boats and blowing up the dock as a man runs from it). With the latter, it mostly just restages the T-Rex scenes for Godzilla and the raptor scenes with the baby Godzillas with no imagination and a monster that looks like a shittier version of the T-Rex.

Without Spielberg’s deftness, empathy, eye for great images (Godzilla mostly settles for dull greys) or strong sense of story and character, it turns out to be a lot of empty noise and destruction. Without the meditative, fatalistic tone of the original Godzilla, it’s a film that’s not about anything except its own bigness. Without the sense of fun or the brevity of the earlier Godzilla films, it leaves the viewer feeling beaten up and dispirited rather than elated. The most memorable part of the movie is the awful soundtrack, highlighted by a dull cover of David Bowie’s “Heroes” by the Wallflowers and Puff Daddy’s ghastly “Kashmir”-sampling “Come With Me.” The whole affair remains one of the most dated and embarrassing blockbusters of the 90s, a film that ends on a set-up for a sequel that no one wanted. For Godzilla fans, it’s the film we all like to pretend never happened, and that we hope never happens again.

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