Monday, October 6, 2014

60 Years of Godzilla - Godzilla (1998)

Yo quiero Godzilla!

It's almost shocking that it took over forty years for an American Godzilla movie to be produced. American distributors would buy the rights to show the kaiju movies made by Japan's Toho Studios in the states, American producer Henry G. Saperstein got involved creatively with some of them, Hanna-Barbera made a Godzilla cartoon, but a live action Godzilla movie? The U.S. really slacked getting around to that.

Hollywood had their first chance when Toho gave director Steve Miner, fresh off of making Friday the 13th parts 2 and 3, permission to shop around his own Godzilla project, which was to be a 3D movie set in the San Francisco area at the height of the Cold War. A screenplay was written by Fred Dekker (Night of the Creeps, The Monster Squad), William Stout drew up the monster designs, Rick Baker and David Allen were going to handle the special effects... But no studios wanted to put up the $30 million budget.

Another decade passed after Miner's efforts before TriStar Pictures bought the rights to make a Godzilla trilogy from Toho in 1992. Toho was in the midst of producing a new era of Godzilla films at that time, and it was the development of the American Godzilla movie and the desire not to flood the market with simultaneous Japanese and U.S. Goji productions that made Toho decide to put the King of the Monsters on hiatus in Japan. With TriStar's Godzilla looking likely to get a 1996 release, Toho made the "death of Godzilla" film Godzilla vs. Destoroyah for release in December of 1995, after which the intention was for Gojira to go dormant at Toho until the 50th anniversary in 2004.

Speed director Jan de Bont was hired to direct TriStar's Godzilla from a screenplay by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean) which found Godzilla doing battle with The Gryphon, an alien creature that arrives in Kentucky via a meteor and creates a form for itself using DNA gathered by monstrous "Probe Bats". The final form of The Gryphon has the body of a puma, the wings of a bat, and a tongue composed of snakes.

Miner/Dekker's Godzilla kept the basics of the kaiju intact - he was a prehistoric creature awoken and altered by a nuclear detonation. Elliott and Rossio crafted a more complicated backstory for him. Although he is initially found in an area off of Alaska where the Soviets had dumped reactor cores and is described as a "living nuclear reactor", he didn't start his life as any simple dinosaur. Rather, he was the creation of a technologically advanced, ancient civilization who spliced together dinosaur DNA to make a monster that could fight off an alien force that threatened to destroy the planet. Long ago, Godzilla thwarted an invasion of DNA-collecting aliens like The Gryphon, and was then kept in stasis in a tank of amniotic fluid for millennia, waiting for the aliens to return. Now that The Gryphon has arrived, Godzilla once again has purpose, and he wades into battle with the hybrid monster. The setting for their fight to the death was New York City.

Stan Winston was set to do the effects for the de Bont film, designing The Gryphon and planning to make a Godzilla that looked very much like the traditional design. The budget for Winston's effects crew alone was said to be $50 million.

It's the cost of things that eventually killed the Elliott/Rossio/de Bont version of Godzilla, as TriStar balked at the $120 million budget de Bont required. Unable to bring his vision to life, de Bont bailed and went on to make Twister instead.

By the time de Bont was walking, director Roland Emmerich and frequent collaborator screenwriter Dean Devlin were on the edge of having massive success with their film Independence Day. TriStar hired the pair to go directly from ID4 into developing their own take on Godzilla. Although Elliott and Rossio receive "story by" credits on the finished film, Emmerich and Devlin really started over from scratch.

Part of why TriStar was glad to land Emmerich and Devlin was their assurance that they'd be able to make the movie for substantially less than $100 million. However, Independence Day was such a big hit that the studio then increased the budget they had to work with. As production went on, costs are said to have even gone past the increased budget. Officially, the final film cost $130 million. More than the price that got the de Bont version shut down. Some reports say that it may have ended up being closer to $150 million.

Emmerich and Devlin reworked Godzilla's origins, but didn't go as insane with it as Elliott and Rossio did. Rather, they simply changed the character's roots from dinosaur to iguana, an iguana mutated by the radioactivity of the nuclear tests, nearly two hundred detonations, conducted by France in French Polynesia between 1966 and 1996.

As in the 1954 Gojira, the U.S. Godzilla's presence is first revealed through its destruction of a Japanese fishing boat in the Pacific. The sole survivor claims the boat was destroyed by the mythological sea monster Gojira.

The creature continues on across Tahiti, leaving massive footprints as it goes. The remains of the fishing vessel wash up on Jamaica. Soon the monster is just two hundred miles off the East coast of the United States, pulling three fishing trawlers underwater.

Scientist Nick Tatopoulos, who works for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and has recently been studying the effect of radioactivity on earthworms in Chernobyl (they're 17% larger than normal, is one of the experts brought in by the military to try to figure out what's going on. He's the first one to deduce that the creature they're tracking is a "mutated aberration", the result of the radioactivity in French Polynesia.

In rain-soaked New York City, Nick's college sweetheart Audrey Timmonds, who ran out on him eight years ago when he asked her to marry him, has been working as the assistant to Charles Caiman, a real creep of a news reporter, hoping hard that she'll be able to work her way up to being an on air personality.

Godzilla makes landfall in NYC just 25 minutes into the movie. We don't get a full shot of the creature just yet, only quick glimpses and body parts, and it is clearly massive. This version of Godzilla, brought to the screen through animatronics and CGI rather than Toho suitmation, is about 197 feet tall and 330 feet long. The giant monster strolls through the city, wreaking havoc... and then somehow manages to disappear completely.

The military soon brings Nick to the city, or to a base in New Jersey with a view of the city. Some believe that the monster has moved on from NYC, but Nick thinks it'll stick around. It would feel comfortable on Manhattan, an island where it can hide. To the chagrin of Mayor Ebert (who, paired with his aide Gene, is a character Emmerich and Devlin used to thumb their noses at film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel), the city is evacuated.

As it turns out, Godzilla was able to disappear by burrowing through the subway tunnels. Nick comes up with the idea to lure the monster into the open by dumping truckloads of fish into the middle of Times Square.

It works. 45 minutes into the film, Godzilla comes tearing up out of the street and we get our first good, long look at the creature designed by special effects artist Patrick Tatopoulos. The design strayed too far from the classic Godzilla look for purists, it is very different, but there are recognizable elements in there. I was never put off by it. It seemed reasonable to me that the Godzilla of a different studio in a different country wouldn't look exactly the same as the Toho Godzilla. Of course, I also understand people wanting to see the Godzilla they know when they go to see a movie called Godzilla.

When Godzilla goes to enjoy its meal of fish, the military opens fire... and rather than kill the creature, they just make it really angry. Godzilla goes on another rampage, wiping out some of the military forces. Godzilla even takes out some of the soldiers and vehicles with a blast of fiery breath. Tanks, choppers, and the Chrysler Building are destroyed. And then, they lose Godzilla again.

Audrey has seen Nick on TV and clearly still has feelings for him, but when she seeks him out, she does so with ulterior motives. She wants to use their connection to get information out of him that she can pass on to the network she works for. As expected, this duplicity goes on to cause drama for them.

Audrey is there when Nick does a blood test that shows Godzilla is pregnant. Godzilla is a male and the only one of his kind, but he reproduces asexually, and he has travelled this distance to find a good place to nest.

When Nick leaves Audrey alone in his workspace, she's briefly touched by the sight of the pictures he's kept from their days together in college, but that doesn't stop her from stealing video of the Japanese fisherman who said he saw Gojira. She shoots, with her cameraman pal "Animal", footage of herself doing the introduction to the video and takes it to the network.

The network airs Audrey's story, but with her segments replaced by Charles Caiman, who butchers the pronunciation of Gojira into Godzilla. The report includes the information that Godzilla is believed to be nesting, and credits Nick with that bit of news, which gets him booted off the military project.

Throughout the film, a French guy named Philippe Roaché has been lurking around. He's the one who talked to the traumatized Japanese fisherman. He was in Jamaica. He's in New York City. He introduces himself as an insurance agent, but there's clearly something more going on with him, as he plants a listening device on Mayor Ebert and monitors military activities with a group of French cohorts. When the booted Nick goes to take a cab out of the area, Roaché is the driver. He ignores Nick's request to be taken to an airport and instead takes him to an abandoned warehouse, which has now become a base of operations for Roaché and his heavily armed buddies.

Roaché and company are French Secret Service, and they're here to clean up the mess their country caused with the nuclear tests.

The military has brushed aside Nick's warnings that Godzilla is likely laying eggs somewhere in the city and have chosen not to search for the nest. Roaché enlists Nick to help him and his team find it.
Nick joins the Frenchmen... and a snooping "Animal" sees this happen. As Nick and the secret service agents descend into the subway tunnels, disguised as American Army soldiers, "Animal" follows with a remorseful Audrey by his side and his camera in hand.

While the main characters search for the nest underground, Godzilla returns to the surface and is immediately engaged in combat by the military. Jumping into the Hudson River to escape their bullets and missiles, Godzilla finds submarines waiting for him in there, kicking off an underwater action sequence. Godzilla thwarts the submarines for a while, but is ultimately knocked out by torpedo explosions.

Nick and the others eventually locate Godzilla's nest when they climb up out of the subway and into the ravaged Madison Square Garden. Nick was only expecting Godzilla lay the twelve eggs or so that are typical of lizards, but in the arena the characters find several dozens of eggs, each of them much larger than a person.

The agents set out placing explosive charges on each egg, but they don't have enough bombs to pull this job off... and they're too late anyway. The eggs are hatching. Soon the characters are surrounded by baby Godzillas. Hungry baby Godzillas.

Trapped in the Garden, Roaché's men become fodder to be picked off by the Godzillas as Roaché, Nick, "Animal", and Audrey struggle to escape and alert the military of the new threat.

Its through the necessity of getting the word out that Audrey is able to redeem herself: with "Animal" aiming a camera at her, the aspiring reporter manages to cut into a Caiman broadcast and go live on the air, interviewing Nick "from the beast's lair" about the two hundred nine foot tall babies that have just hatched.

Nick warns that each of these babies will grow up and reproduce just like Godzilla did. If left unchecked, these creatures will soon overrun the planet. The military needs to destroy Madison Square Garden before the babies can escape into the city.

The military springs into action, giving our heroes just six minutes to get out of the Garden before the place is levelled by air strikes. They manage to get out of the building with just seconds to spare.
Unfortunately for Nick, Audrey, "Animal" and Roaché, Godzilla has regained consciousness and was returning to Madison Square Garden when the place was blown up. Godzilla rises from the underground, sees the corpses of its offspring littering the area, and personally blames the four people in front of him for their deaths.

The angry and vengeful Godzilla chases the quartet throughout the streets of the city, running them down as they attempt to escape in a taxi with Roaché at the wheel. Roaché's driving keeps them alive, even when Godzilla blasts some fire breath at them - the second of the only two times Godzilla uses that ability in this film. Godzilla briefly has the taxi trapped in a closed off tunnel, he could easily cook the characters if he were to send some fire breath down the tunnel.

This Godzilla's breath seems to need some kind of extra spark in its path to ignite it. He exhales heavily, his breath lifting vehicles off the ground. These vehicles then explode, which ignites the breath and turns it into a stream of flame. He could do that again with the trapped taxi, but he holds back.

The taxi even briefly gets stuck inside Godzilla's mouth, but the characters again manage to escape death. The chase ends on the Brooklyn Bridge, where Godzilla gets caught up in the suspension wires. The wires hold the monster in place long enough for F-18s to batter him with missiles. The explosions going off on his body are eventually too much for the mutated lizard to take. He collapses. His heart slows down until it stops completely. Godzilla dies.

Roaché disappears. As far as anyone other than Nick, Audrey, and "Animal" are to be concerned, he was never there to begin with. Rather than continue to pursue her news career, Audrey quits and walks off into a happily ever after with Nick.

But in the rubble of Madison Square Garden, there is one more Godzilla egg. An egg that splits open as the camera pushes in on it. A baby Godzilla emerges...

Cut to black. The end credits roll. Instead of the credits song being Blue Öyster Cult's "Godzilla", as one would hope, it's "Come with Me", Puff Daddy's attempt to soil the amazing Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir" by using its music as the base of a horrendous rap song.

When discussing Godzilla movies, the 1998 U.S. Godzilla is where I risk losing all credibility. While it's popular to look down on this movie, bash it, call it GINO (Godzilla In Name Only), I actually really like it.

People complain about the redesign, but as said before, I didn't need an exact replication of the Toho design, and I like this iteration of Godzilla's quickness and agility.

The action sequences are fun and the characters are generally likeable. The folly of nuclear weapons is still at the root of this Godzilla and it's a classic "monster on a rampage" story, although much more lighthearted than when Godzilla would rampage through Japanese cities. Japan knew the tragedy of destruction, whereas this movie was made at the height of audiences craving carnage candy. Independence Day had given them a taste of seeing popular landmarks destroyed on a grand scale, and movie goers wanted more. This is destruction as pure entertainment.

Emmerich and Devlin gave the film a rather comedic tone, and although I do find its idea of comedy grating occasionally, that doesn't hinder my viewing experience too much.

Certain moments of comedy are really the only problem I have with this movie. That makes me much more lenient on it than the general perception of it, but I don't mind being a rare voice of positivity on maligned movies. When you like something that a lot of other people don't, it just gives you something else to enjoy.

I've liked Godzilla '98 ever since seeing it theatrically on opening day. Sixteen years and a lot of negativity later, I still like watching it.

Godzilla '98 was, though, one of the few movies that had its fast food tie-in deal with Taco Bell, and its release coincided with that chain's introduction of Gorditas, one of the only foods I like at Taco Bell. Because of this, I can never see the movie's logo without instantly wanting to stuff my face with some Gorditas. Marketing conditioning at its finest.


  1. More power to you, but I'm with the masses on this one. I've got lots of gripes with it, but my biggest is that they couldn't even decide how big Godzilla was. One minute he's as big as a skyscraper, the next he could easily fit into the Holland Tunnel. And the shots of him/her walking between buildings were all horrible. The best thing about it is the Siskel and Ebert parody. Other than that, I'll pass. That said, I admire your passion for it. Because of that passion, it was fun reading this review. Great work!

    1. Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed the article despite the differing opinions.

      - Cody