For all its faults, there’s a lot to love about Roland Emmerich’s monster opus.
It’s hard to believe that it took Hollywood 44 years to make a Godzilla movie. Sure, the Toho films had been repackaged with dub voicing and American actors in the past, but it wasn’t until the summer of ‘98 that the King of the Monster’s got the mishandled western remake treatment that so many other foreign films continue to receive to this day. At the time, Toho had agreed to give their money-maker a rest and put the franchise on hiatus following 1995’s heartbreaking Godzilla vs. Destroyah, which saw the King given a warrior’s death. Following the success of Independence Day, blockbuster destruction auteur Roland Emmerich and his creative partner Dean Devlin were given the opportunity to reinvent the franchise at TriStar Pictures. So far so good, right?
The pair were given a huge budget, and they assembled an impressive cast which included Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, and Hank Azaria. The soundtrack was made up of a who’s who of 90’s musical titans like Puff Daddy, Green Day, and Jamiroquai. There was even an animated TV series made to coincide with the film’s release, with the aim of creating a successful toyline off the back of it. The marketing campaign made the excitement palpable, and for a minute the future of American Godzilla looked bright. Then the film hit theaters, and people hated it.
Toho responded to the catastrophe by disowning the movie and initiating their Millennium series, beginning with 1999’s Godzilla 2000. In 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, they even acknowledged the existence of the bastardization by referring to TriStar’s monster as another creature the foolish Americans mistook for G. And to put the final nail in the creature’s coffin: in 2004’s Final Wars, he got his ass handed to him by the real King of the Monsters. Since then, the beast has been christened in Godzilla lore as GINO (Godzilla in Name Only), or ‘Zilla.
It’s understandable why Toho was upset with the American remake. Emmerich’s movie is flawed in the sense that it fails to understand what Godzilla represents. The monster has always been mythic in nature and symbolic of Japan’s cultural identity, whereas Emmerich’s beastie is a big dumb animal. When compared to the Toho franchise, Godzilla ’98 lacks most of the creature’s defining characteristics. And when you consider how the saga came to be in the first place, the remake is an insult to the Godzilla name.
In the 1954 film — which remains the standard bearer of which every film in this franchise will always be compared to — Godzilla is a metaphor for the collective fears of a suffering nation. Upon release, the 1945 atomic annihilation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was still fresh in Japanese memory, as was the fallout from the Lucky Dragon Five fishing boat incident which had occurred months before the movie’s premiere. On top of being a manifestation of nuclear panic, Godzilla has also been interpreted as a symbol of Japan’s post-war national guilt; the monster’s onslaught represents the country’s spiritual and cultural past reasserting itself on the present day, as the nation had become westernized following the American occupation between 1945 and 1952. There was resentment among the Japanese populace at the time as a result of this departure from traditionalism, and Godzilla was the fictional embodiment of this mentality. That said, the monster’s destructive antics have also been interpreted as punishment for Japan’s war crimes, particularly the heinous Unit 731 experiments which saw prisoners used as human guinea pigs.
The original Godzilla movie is a dark, complicated experience with lots to unpack. Emmerich’s movie, on the other hand, is a silly popcorn flick. I love both of them.
Of course, that’s not to say some of the Toho movies weren’t silly either. As the franchise progressed, it underwent constant regeneration and abandoned any notion of a coherent narrative. Following the horrific progenitor, the movies were often kid-friendly, with the King of the Monsters depicted as a superhero who fought off mischievous kaiju invaders. It wasn’t until 1984’s The Return of Godzilla — the 16th installment in the franchise — until we saw a direct sequel to the 1954 film. The Godzilla movies are essentially a series of reboots for the most part, but the monster itself has always retained distinguishable attributes — the robust appearance, atomic breath, etc. — and, as such, the movies have always felt somewhat connected.
But Devlin and Emmerich weren’t interested in making a movie that honored Godzilla’s legacy. Neither had an affinity for the Toho films to begin with, and their lack of enthusiasm for them was apparent from the get-go. When Emmerich agreed to helm the remake, he did so with the intention of ignoring what came before.
“I didn’t want to make the original Godzilla, I wanted nothing to do with it. I wanted to make my own. We took part of [the original movie’s] basic storyline, in that the creature becomes created by radiation and it becomes a big challenge. But that’s all we took. Then we asked ourselves what we would do today with a monster movie and a story like that. We forgot everything about the original Godzilla right there.” – Roland Emmerich
You can’t really blame Emmerich from wanting to do his own thing. He made the movie he wanted to make, and while he was more than happy to take advantage of the Godzilla brand to do so, at least he remained honest to his ambitions and vision. There’s an argument to be made that the movie should have been helmed by filmmakers who respected their Japanese counterpart; but, at the same time, if you’re going to remake something then why not give audiences something different?
But it’s not like Emmerich’s film was unique, either. Godzilla ’98 bears striking similarities to the 1953 American monster rampage yarn that spawned all nuclear-themed creature features in the first place — The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. In that film, an atomic bomb test in the Arctic Circle unfreezes a hibernating Rhedosaurus, resulting in the dinosaur wreaking havoc in New York City. Like Fathoms, Godzilla ‘98 revolves around a fast-moving prehistoric creature awakened by nuclear blasts that decides to make the Big Apple its stomping grounds. The beast itself is dinosaur-like as opposed to the fire-breathing supernatural behemoth that is Godzilla. In that regard, Emmerich and Devlin stripped away the King’s uniqueness and made a dinosaur movie.
I’ve had countless conversations with G-fans throughout the years who’ve told me that they’d like Godzilla ’98 a lot more if it was a Fathoms remake instead — and it should have been. It certainly borrows more from that movie than it does anything in the Godzilla pantheon. However, isn’t that a roundabout way of saying they still enjoyed the movie but disapproved of how it was branded? Admit it, naysayers, you enjoy it for what it is.
When it comes to the remake debate, it’s not uncommon for comments like “It would be a good movie if it were called something else” to crop up in the conversation. There’s always going to be a strong association to the original property whenever a movie or TV show is remade, which can make the updated version harder to accept as its own entity. There’s no denying that Godzilla ‘98 is a bad Godzilla movie, but it is a fun monster movie if you’re willing to view it as just that.
One thing I’ve always enjoyed about Godzilla ‘98 is how the monster is presented. I can sympathize with this bastard because it’s just trying to survive in the big, bad city, not unlike Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City or the homeless gentlemen in Street Trash. It just wants to be a good parent to the baby monsters it’s nesting underneath Madison Square Garden, and while the beast might be untamed and dangerous, humanity is to blame for bringing the chaos on themselves because they had to set off weapons of mass destruction and awaken it.
But we come into movies like this looking for monster mayhem, and we get plenty of that here as we witness our prehistoric foe battle the military, walk across the Brooklyn bridge, torment fishing boats, chase down taxi cabs, and unleash a herd of baby G’s. As far as gleeful absurdity goes, Godzilla ‘98 has it in abundance, and it’s a joy to behold. Some scenes are truly spectacular, like when Hank Azaria’s character narrowly escapes being crushed by G’s giant foot because he was luckily positioned between the gap in its toes. Or how about the scene where a fisherman casts his hook into the sea and reels in the amphibious dinosaur? It’s not thought-provoking art by any means, but I’ll be damned if isn’t entertaining.
Another aspect of Godzilla ‘98 that isn’t as bad as you remember is the cast. As is the case with most Emmerich movies, the characters are one-dimensional at best, and the performances are intentionally hokey. Every person involved is firmly aware of what type of film they’re in, and they bring enough personality to proceedings to make the stretches between monster action pleasant enough to watch. The script is weak, but the onscreen talent elevates the material despite consensus stating otherwise. Broderick plays the type of naturally likable nerd that’s always been his forte, while Azaria and Reno have too much charisma not to enjoy. Maria Pitillo gave the film’s most panned performance, but like the movie itself, it’s far from irredeemable. Maybe I’ve watched Godzilla ‘98 too much for my own good (I watch it at least twice a year), but this is a ragtag group of dumb caricatures that I enjoy spending time with.
Realistically, it’s impossible to shower Godzilla ‘98 with praise because, quite frankly, it doesn’t deserve to be hailed among the crème de la crème of giant monster movies. But like some of the lesser entries in the Toho kaiju canon, it’s charmingly stupid and makes for some light-hearted, unadulterated fun when you just want to unwind. It’s a great rainy day Sunday afternoon movie; not too demanding, but still engaging and entertaining enough to hold your attention and hit the sweet spot. I urge all of you to revisit it and give it another chance because this is one movie that deserves a re-evaluation.