On Godzilla

Directed by Roland Emmerich (StargateIndependence DayThe Day After Tomorrow2012), Godzilla is known for being a very divisive film. According to the Den of Geek article, “Godzilla 1998: What Went Wrong With the Roland Emmerich Film?“:

Following the release of 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, a film that marked the resilient series’ 50th anniversary, Toho Co. announced they would be taking a hiatus from Godzilla for a bit. It might be another decade before we saw a new film, they warned, which would give the King of the Monsters a rest and give the screenwriters a chance to come up with some new ideas. They’d done it before, back in 1975 and 1995, so there was no widespread panic at the news. Godzilla would be back, because Godzilla was always back. In fact it was only a few months before rumors began swirling a new Godzilla film was already in the planning stages. Some said it would be in 3-D, others that Toho was bringing back the much-maligned director of Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster. But for all the rumors, nothing ever materialized.

Nearly a decade passed before it was announced a new Godzilla film really and truly and finally was in the works. Thing was, though, this wasn’t going to be a Toho production. No, it would be an American film from Warner Brothers directed by hip youngster Gareth Edwards, who’d already cut his teeth on the giant monster front with his hit, Monsters. As the hype began to grow and Edwards stayed tight-lipped about the project, people started to get excited.

Can’t say I did, though. Yes, it’s foolish to dismiss any film before seeing it, but fact was I wasn’t a big fan of his Monsters. More importantly though, I kept recalling George Santayana’s famous quip about those who don’t remember the past and so forth. So let’s go back almost 20 years to 1995.

After Godzilla was decisively snuffed for only the second time in his then-40-year career at the end of Godzilla vs. Destroyah, Toho’s Tomoyuki Tanaka announced the studio would be giving their cash cow a breather. Let the Big Guy take a little vacation or something. But he never mentioned Godzilla would be taking that vacation in Manhattan.

After announcing the hiatus, Tanaka turned around and sold the licensing rights to Sony on a limited basis for what was supposed to be a three-picture deal. Sony immediately got to work, bringing in the sure-fire team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, who at the time were still riding high on the mega-success of their Independence Day. It was a dream match-up, right? Emmerich and Devlin obviously had a taste for mass destruction, so why not hand them an established property about a monster whose taste for mass destruction might conceivably surpass their own?

The pair was given a jaw-dropping budget, rounded up an all-star cast the youngsters would like (including Matthew Broderick and most of The Simpsons’ cast), arranged for a killer soundtrack, and started blowing up New York. Sony’s hype machine went into overdrive, the public became very excited, the merchandise began appearing on store shelves, and a new tie-in cartoon series went into production. It was a sure thing. Then in 1998 the film hit theaters, where it promptly crashed and burned. When the film is remembered at all today, it’s usually with sneers and derision.

Plans for those two sequels were quickly scrapped. Toho snatched the licensing rights back from Sony, and immediately began damage control by pushing ahead with their own Godzilla 2000 in an effort to get the true series back on track. There’s even a sly, snide jab at the Emmerich/Devlin film at the beginning of 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack. Upon hearing about a monster attacking the East Coast of the US in 1998, a student asks, “That was Godzilla, right?” A fellow student responds, “The Americans say it was, but the guys over here have their doubts.”

So what the fuck happened?

Well, I can think of a few things off the top of my head.

First of all, Devlin and Emmerich made the same boneheaded mistake Peter Jackson would make when he set out to remake King Kong. In the 1933 original, Kong was a mythological figure, a legend, a character from a fairy tale who was still more human than any of the human actors around him. Even though he made a big deal of sticking (to a point) to the original script, in the end Jackson’s Kong was, well, just a big gorilla.

Likewise, from his debut in 1954, Godzilla had always been a myth, an allegory, a symbol, and an embodiment of recent Japanese history. Even as his character changed over the course of the series (from vengeful demon to savior and back again) all those things remained consistent. So much so that countless academic papers have been written attempting to interpret what Godzilla represents. As re-imagined by Emmerich and Devlin, Godzilla was nothing more than a mutated dinosaur. That what we’re dealing with is merely a big animal behaving like a big animal is a point Matthew Broderick’s character makes repeatedly throughout the film. The Toho pictures (like the original Kong) gave us reason to care about Godzilla because he knew what he was doing. He had purpose. This was more akin to having some stranger’s pit bull break loose and knock your trash cans over.

It’s even emphasized by the monster’s revamped design, which bears no resemblance to any Godzilla we know. The thick legs are gone, the back spines are gone, the cruel, humanoid eyes are gone. What it is, in short, is a plain old allosaurus (or whatever paleontologists are calling it these days). Godzilla’s profile was always absolutely unique and unmistakable, but this thing here? I saw pictures of that in dinosaur books when I was a kid. I mean, Christ, he doesn’t even breathe radioactive fire! What the hell’s THAT all about?

Then there’s the effects question. Without diving headlong into the useless CGI debate, the 1998 model Godzilla was a state of the art CG creation. It was smooth and slick and virtually hyper-realistic (and to my mind anyway utterly lifeless). At the time of the film’s release it was dazzling and kapow. But the trouble with state of the art anything, especially computer FX, is that they have a very short shelf life. It’s only going to be a blink before the next generation of digital effects comes along, leaving everything that preceded it looking clunky and silly and sad (remember Lawnmower Man? That was pretty wowza in its time too.) Forget 20 years, by the time you get four or five years down the line, things can start looking pretty dusty. A man in a rubber suit, however much the knotheads may mock it, is eternal. Even the shabby Toho Godzillas from the ‘70s had more personality than this thing, and seemed much more real and present because they were.

There was a much bigger problem afoot with the Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla, however. For all the lifts and outright thefts from other, better films scattered throughout Godzilla (last time I made a list I counted at least 40 individual ideas lifted from everything from Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent to Jaws), at its heart the Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla isn’t even a remake of Godzilla.

Consider the bare bones of the plot after scraping away all the surrounding soap opera nonsense: Nuclear tests awaken an amphibious prehistoric creature. Driven by some primordial urge it sets out in search of its natural spawning ground. Along the way it destroys a few ships and coastal towns, and as those reports are collected it soon becomes obvious to authorities the creature is headed straight for New York. It crashes its way onto the docks in New York harbor and stomps into Manhattan where, as such things do, it wreaks havoc (including walking through a building, leaving a monster-shaped hole). Scientists and the military both scramble to stop it, but learn it has the pesky ability, big as it is, to disappear for long stretches. Eventually they track it to a famous NYC landmark where, after our heroes are placed in grave danger for a few moments, the military destroys the monster.

Sounds about right, right? Trouble is, that’s the plot synopsis for 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Yeah, it seems that student at the beginning of 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah was right after all, and it wasn’t really Godzilla we were dealing with.

Now granted, Emmerich and Devlin obviously know their B-film history, and that being the case may well have been aware Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (along with King Kong) was a fundamental inspiration for 1954’s Gojira, but that doesn’t change the fact that, despite their use of the name, what they made was a reboot of the 1953 film, not the 1954 film or any of the Godzilla films that followed.

Maybe it was a marketing decision. Maybe the team wanted to remake Beast from the start (which would allow them to savagely rip off the Great Ray Harryhausen for a second time without giving him a lick of credit or paying him a dime) but figured “Godzilla” would mean better box office in terms of name recognition alone. Or maybe they were just confused.

When you get down to the nut, the real curse facing any attempt to create an Americanized Godzilla is a simple one. Although inspired by two American films, when Tanaka first came up with the idea of making a monster movie (a first in Japan at the time) he insisted there be something about it that made the monster in question uniquely Japanese. To this end his writers came up with a creature representing the horror of not just Hiroshima and Nagazaki, but the nearby H-bomb tests that followed the war. As the series progressed the films dealt with other issues facing Japan at the moment, from the decision to use nuclear power to the environment to Japan’s role in the world. Moreover, the series, in a convoluted way, remained aware of its own history and mythology, even as it was rewritten from decade to decade. One of the reasons the Godzilla films seem so silly to American audiences is that this self-consciousness and the deep, specifically Japanese roots were often excised by American distributors or were simply missed by American audiences. Any attempt to Americanize Godzilla means stripping away everything he represents to his original audience, leaving us with nothing more than a big mutated dinosaur.

That’s why, as history seems to be in the process of repeating itself, I suspect the upcoming Edwards film, as good and dazzling and action-packed as it may be, will likely, like the Emmerich/Devlon film, be a monster movie, but not a Godzilla film.

Finally, according to Cryptic Rock‘s article, “This Week In Horror Movie History – Godzilla (1998)“:

This week in Horror movie history, back on May 20th of 1998, the classic tale of Godzilla received a twentieth century upgrade in Roland Emmerich’s (ID4 1996, Independence Day: Resurgence 2016) co-written/directed film Godzilla. Godzilla had been terrorizing audiences since Japan’s 1954 original film directed by Ishirō Honda, and soon the dinosaur was pitted against other classic creatures over time, such as King Kong, Mothra, Monster Zero, Ebirah, Hedorah, Gigan, Megalon, even Mechagodzilla, among others. With the 1998 edition, it marked the twenty-third Godzilla film, and the first ever to be produced solely in a Hollywood studio. Produced/co-written by Dean Devlin (Stargate 1994, Cellular 2004) the film was released via Centropolis Entertainment and Sony Pictures Entertainment with distribution by TriStar Pictures in the US and Toho in Japan. The film also had a star-studded cast that included Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off 1986, Trainwreck 2015), Maria Pitillo (Natural Born Killers 1994, Bright Lights, Big City 1988), and Hank Azaria (Pretty Woman 1990, The Smurfs 2 2013). While many opinions were panned at the time of release, Godzilla has gained a cult following eighteen years later.

The story begins with Dr. Niko “Nick” Tatopoulos (Broderick), a nuclear biologist, who is recruited by the US government to help Dr. Elise Chapman (Vicki Lewis:Finding Nemo 2003, Finding Dora 2016) and Philippe Roaché (Jean Reno:Mission: Impossible 1996, The Da Vinci Code 2006) figure out what has caused havoc from the Pacific Ocean, to Jamaica, to New York before it destroys the City That Never Sleeps.

When Emmerich set out to do a Godzilla movie, it was ten years in the making after Toho agreed to share the rights through American Producer Henry G. Saperstein.  After initially being rejected by Columbia and TriStar, Sony Producers Cary Woods and Robert Fried submarined the suits and went directly to the CEO, Peter Guber, who also saw the potential. Initially, the idea was to go with a three-film deal in the vein of the classic Godzilla films. The catch was that Emmerich wanted to do the film on his own terms, so as a result, he need to come up with his Godzilla design. Toho approved the new look after holding the suspense; yet, the movie still was not greenlit. Still Emmerich and Devlin went forward with the script, again with stipulations that they would retain the script if it was rejected.

For all their posturing before about creative freedom, Emmerich and Devlin followed the template set by Toho with Godzilla being a product of nuclear testing when writing the script. The aspect they changed was to make Godzilla more animalistic than a mere monster. Instead of the original Godzilla’s atomic breath, the American Godzilla had combustible breath. The final change to Godzilla was to make it able to give birth to hundreds at a time. With the first draft complete, the movie was finally given the green-light.

Although a suit was made, the crew wanted to use computer graphics over practical effects. Therefore, 400 computer graphics were used for the movie to a couple dozen practical effects throughout the eleven month production. In addition, the production had the crew shooting on location in Hawaii, California, and New York with the actual US Marines involved, specifically Marines Reserve Pilot Col. Dwight Schmidt having the role of firing the kill missiles. Marketing-wise, the crew were of the mindset that less is better when teasing Godzilla. As a result, none of the three-hundred companies used for promotion, such as Taco Bell, had promotional material that showed a fully fleshed-out Godzilla. Unfortunately, this did not work and many companies lost money because their product just did not sell.

When it was all said and done, Godzilla came out in the green when it was released despite a majority of negative reviews from critics and audiences alike with few positive. Representatives from Toho walked out of the G-Con ’98 screening in Chicago dissatisfied by what they saw. On the other hand, that season’s awards ceremonies had the movie win or nominated for Best Special Effects, Outstanding Individual Achievement for Effects Animation, David Arnold, Blockbuster Entertainment Award 1999 Favorite Song: Sean Combs, Bogey Awards for 1998, Bogey Award in Silver, California On Location Awards 1998, and Location Team of the Year in a Feature. Again, on the flipside of the normal awards, Godzilla was either nominated or won every category of the dreaded Raspberry Awards, the awards given to the films deemed the worst of the year.

The main problem with the movie was that Godzilla was not a man-in-suit. Although, computer graphic Godzilla seamlessly fit into scenes, Emmerich was so wrapped up in technology, many agreed that he lost the heart of the character with his changes. Sure, the end can pull at the ol’ heartstrings, but what is in the second act is where audiences need to care. If core characteristics of the main character are not there, audiences will and felt alienated. As far as the human characters, they play their parts admirably; however, they do not seem to know what kind of movie they were in, whether it be Comedy, Action, Drama, or Horror, in that their dialogue and their actions did not match. This made for a disjointed movie. Less is better.

Despite the choices that hampered the popularity of the movie at release and killed plans for the subsequent sequels, Godzilla continued in an animated series that continued the film’s storyline, running from 1998-2000. Also, rentals have proven profitable with a take of around $70.8 million in the US according to IMDB.com, proving the cult status of the movie. It would be another sixteen years until another American Godzilla movie was attempted when it was release in May of 2014.  Both critics and fans praised the iteration, and a few “versus” films are planned over the next five years with a direct sequel to 2014’s hit bowing in ’19, ensuring that the nuclear dinosaur will continue wreaking havoc on our side of the pond for some time to come.

According to Roger Ebert:

Going to see “Godzilla” at the Palais of the Cannes Film Festival is like attending a satanic ritual in St. Peter’s Basilica. It’s a rebuke to the faith that the building represents. Cannes touchingly adheres to a belief that film can be intelligent, moving and grand. “Godzilla” is a big, ugly, ungainly device to give teenagers the impression they are seeing a movie. It was the festival’s closing film, coming at the end like the horses in a parade, perhaps for the same reason.

It rains all through the “Godzilla,” and it’s usually night. Well, of course it is: That makes the special effects easier to obscure. If you never get a clear look at the monster, you can’t see how shoddy it is. Steven Spielberg opened “Jurassic Park” by giving us a good, long look at the dinosaurs in full sunlight, and our imaginations leapt up. “Godzilla” hops out of sight like a camera-shy kangaroo.

The makers of the film, director Roland Emmerich and writer Dean Devlin, follow the timeless outlines of many other movies about Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra, Gamera and their radioactive kin. There are ominous attacks on ships at sea, alarming blips on radar screens, and a scientist who speculates that nuclear tests may have spawned a mutant creature. A cast of stereotyped stock characters is introduced and made to say lines like, “I don’t understand–how could something so big just disappear?” Or, “Many people have had their lives changed forever!” And then there are the big special effects sequences, as Godzilla terrorizes New York.

One must carefully repress intelligent thought while watching such a film. The movie makes no sense at all except as a careless pastiche of its betters (and, yes, the Japanese Godzilla movies are, in their way, better–if only because they embrace dreck instead of condescending to it). You have to absorb such a film, not consider it. But my brain rebelled, and insisted on applying logic where it was not welcome.

How, for example, does a 300-foot-tall creature fit inside a subway tunnel? How come it’s sometimes only as tall as the tunnel, and at other times taller than high-rise office buildings? How big is it, anyway? Why can it breathe fire but hardly ever makes use of this ability? Why, when the heroes hide inside the Park Avenue tunnel, is this tunnel too small for Godzilla to enter, even though it is larger than a subway tunnel? And why doesn’t Godzilla just snort some flames down there and broil them? Most monster movies have at least one bleeding-heart environmentalist to argue the case of the monstrous beast, but here we get only Niko Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), an expert on the mutant earthworms of Chernobyl, who seems less like a scientist than like a place-holder waiting for a rewrite (“insert more interesting character here”). It is he who intuits that Godzilla is a female. (You would think that if a 300-foot monster were male, that would be hard to miss, but never mind.) The military in all movies about monsters and aliens from outer space always automatically attempts to kill them, and here they fire lots of wimpy missiles and torpedoes at Godzilla, which have so little effect we wonder how our tax dollars are being spent. (Just once, I’d like a movie where they train Godzilla to do useful tasks, like pulling a coaxial cable across the ocean floor, or pushing stuck trains out of tunnels.) In addition to the trigger-happy Americans there is a French force, too, led by Jean Reno, a good actor who plays this role as if he got on the plane shouting “I’m going to Disneyland!” All humans in monster movies have simple-minded little character traits, and Reno’s obsession is with getting a decent cup of coffee. Other characters include a TV newswoman (Maria Pitillo) who used to be the worm man’s girlfriend, a determined cameraman (Hank Azaria), a grim-jawed military leader (Kevin Dunn) and a simpering anchorman (Harry Shearer). None of these characters emerges as anything more than a source of obligatory dialogue.

Oh, and then there are New York’s Mayor Ebert (gamely played by Michael Lerner) and his adviser, Gene (Lorry Goldman). The mayor of course makes every possible wrong decision (he is against evacuating Manhattan, etc.), and the adviser eventually gives thumbs-down to his reelection campaign. These characters are a reaction by Emmerich and Devlin to negative Siskel and Ebert reviews of their earlier movies (“Stargate,” “Independence Day”), but they let us off lightly; I fully expected to be squished like a bug by Godzilla. Now that I’ve inspired a character in a Godzilla movie, all I really still desire is for several Ingmar Bergman characters to sit in a circle and read my reviews to one another in hushed tones.

There is a way to make material like “Godzilla” work. It can be campy fun, like the recent “Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe.” Or hallucinatory, like “Infra-Man.” Or awesome, like “Jurassic Park.” Or it can tap a certain elemental dread, like the original “King Kong” (1933). But all of those approaches demand a certain sympathy with the material, a zest that rises to the occasion.

In Howard Hawks’ “The Thing,” there is a great scene where scientists in the Arctic spread out to trace the outlines of something mysterious that is buried in the ice, and the camera slowly pulls back to reveal that it is circular–a saucer. In “Godzilla,” the worm expert is standing in a deep depression, and the camera pulls back to reveal that he is standing in a footprint. Which he would have already known. There might be a way to reveal the astonishing foot print to the character and the audience at the same time, but that would involve a sense of style and timing, and some thought about the function of the scene.

There is nothing wrong with making a Godzilla movie, and nothing wrong with special effects. But don’t the filmmakers have some obligation to provide pop entertainment that at least lifts the spirits? There is real feeling in King Kong fighting off the planes that attack him, or the pathos of the monster in “Bride of Frankenstein,” who was so misunderstood. There is a true sense of wonder in “Jurassic Park.” “Godzilla,” by contrast, offers nothing but soulless technique: A big lizard is created by special effects, wreaks havoc and is destroyed. What a cold-hearted, mechanistic vision, so starved for emotion or wit. The primary audience for “Godzilla” is children and teenagers, and the filmmakers have given them a sterile exercise when they hunger for dreams.


2 thoughts on “On Godzilla

  1. Pingback: On The Stepford Wives | The Progressive Democrat

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