Critics and audiences roundly trounced Roland Emmerich and his then writing/producing partner Dean Devlin for their follow-up to Independence Day, but I never really got what was supposed to be so terrible about it. It’s a competently made monster movie. Sure, they’ve given him a curious redesign (as if they wanted their lizard to give off a gumby vibe of not being that bright really, and with a strangely humanoid gait to enable him to run really fast). And they’ve shifted the focus away from the monster while constructing every plot beat according the Spielberg Handbook for the Devoid of Inspiration. But it’s no worse than Independence Day, surely?
Well, it’s certainly no dumber. And it displays either a sense of humour about the perceived artistic failings the duo are guilty of or a bit of spiteful payback, depending on your perception (given Emmerich’s movie legacy, I find it hard to believe he lacks an extremely well-developed funny bone); the mayor and his assistant are named after critics Siskel and Ebert, who eviscerated their previous pictures. And they stuff the film with in-jokes and references (just one instance; Broderick’s character listens to Danken Schoen in the lift, the tune he performs karaoke to in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). And the glee with which the director destroys American landmarks is infectious; it’s especially amusing, as he never seems to tire of such obliteration. That said, it’s curious to behold the mass destruction of New York in a post 9/11 environment.
But the displeasure that greeted Godzilla must have been partly down to the filmmakers’ lack of reverence for the titular character. Who knows if original writers Ted Elliot and Terry Rosio (the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) were more respectful since, although they received a credit, Devlin and Emmerich reportedly started from scratch. Much like J. J. Abrams and Star Trek, the director is said to have not much liked the original. In that sense, Abrams got lucky with the response to his divergence from lore. I have to admit, I’m sympathetic with Emmerich. I can’t see what the big deal with monster movies is past the age of seven anyway. Apart from anything, how do you crack the nut of making them work plot-wise? Peter Jackson certainly came a cropper with King Kong. And all Abrams and co did with Cloverfield was to redo Emmerich’s Godzilla with a found footage gimmick and added nastiness. There’s a vague attempt to show a bit of sympathy for the beast at the end, and they make him out to have a fair bit of grey matter, but mainly he’s just a giant scaly wrecking ball. Pacific Rim is the latest to tackle big monsters (with big robots to boot); it will be interesting to see how it fares, not least in terms of whether the story goes anywhere interesting.
Emmerich and Devlin’s solution to plot problems is to take the formulaic approach. They copy Spielberg. There are numerous shout-outs to Jaws and Jurassic Park here, even to Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the stranded shipwreck in an early scene). The old man fishing on the pier is a comedy riff on the shark movie, of course. As is the mayor’s denial of the dangers of the monster. Meanwhile, rain-drenched New York is a direct steal from the sodden breakdown of Jurassic Park. Emmerich isn’t stupid; he saw how much better the T-Rex looked when battered by the elements, so he puts Godzilla in a permanent downpour. Indeed, Godzilla looks like one of the wettest films ever made to be set on dry land (the cast wore wetsuits throughout – Matthew Broderick unknowingly sported his back-to-front until Hank Azaria set him straight). And, when you see the monster swimming, your mind can’t help but reference the previous year’s aquatic xenomorphs in Alien Resurrection. And what are the baby Godzillas, if not an unsubtle recreation of Jurassic Park’s velociraptors?
It’s difficult to fault Emmerich’s approach to special effects. There’s a reason he pays attention to Spielberg; both are adept at integrating them with the main action, ensuring physicality and suspension of disbelief. He goes for practical work as often as not (including extensive use of models) and his choices tend to pay off. Although, revisiting the film, it was surprising how extensively he uses back projection (another film “recent” film its use has been very obvious is Aliens).
The duo play lip service to the atomic origins of the monster with a credits sequence showing archive footage of nuclear testing, and then they show Broderick investigating giant earth worms (if only!) at Chernobyl. But having organised the threat and scale of their monster, I completely get the decision to switch focus to the baby ’zillas in the latter half of the film. They are able to interact directly with the human cast, and you can see that Emmerich is much more engaged with their dramatic potential than daddy/mummy’s stomping round the streets of the Big Apple. Basically, we see a stir-and-repeat of the climax of Jurassic Park, with more cheesy jokes. Ironically, it’s easily the best section of the movie, and it also yields the biggest laugh (Broderick’s lift scene).
The assembled cast includes some curious and offbeat choices. Broderick makes an affable lead, coming on in Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws mode as the dedicated boffin. Jean Reno is endlessly watchable no matter what he does, and sportingly takes a role that blames the French (not America; it’s lily-white!) for nuclear testing run amok. Azaria brings an appealing comic sensibility, while Maria Pitillo is cute but lacks presence. It doesn’t help that she is foisted with an unsympathetic character; it seems that the reward for dumping your boyfriend in favour of your career, then screwing him over for a big break, is that you get promoted and he readily takes you back. Michael Lerner’s enjoyably bombastic as the mayor, while Kevin Dunn adds colonel to his CV.
David Arnold’s score isn’t all that; it’s as formulaic as the plot and character beats. But Godzilla’s greatest sin is that it’s called Godzilla; it isn’t a truly lousy film. Really, the Golden Razzie nominations seem like hyperbole based on fan response, rather than reflecting a big pile of crap. But then, I admit, I don’t think I’ve seen a Roland Emmerich movie that hasn’t entertained me. I haven’t seen one that’s very good either, of course.
Godzilla was expected to be the biggest movie of 1998, but it only came in ninth in US. Worldwide, it was third, which suggest popular perception of its failure is not the whole story. Nevertheless, on a cost vs profit scale this was no monster smash. Like the Planet of the Apes reboot, it was a take on familiar material where fan indignation outweighed reasonable box office returns. I suspect that if there had been plaudits all round follow-ups to both would have been forthcoming. In Godzilla’s case there were plans for two sequels. Godzilla reboots in 2014…