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Godzilla

(US DVD: 11 Oct 2009)

An Epic Monster and an Epic Fail

In the ‘90s, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin created Hollywood “event” films such as Independence Day and Stargate. In their movies, invading aliens and pretty lights distracted audiences from gigantic plot holes and lapses into narrative nonsense, talents that fully prepared Emmerich to produce the recent apoco-disaster flick 2012.


Their crowd-pleasing talents seemed to make them a natural fit for a big, loud remake of the classic creature feature Godzilla. An epic monster, filmmakers who knew how to create CGI-driven popcorn features and a marketing campaign that emphasized that this film would indeed be BIG because it was just going to be SO BIG (“Size Does Matter” was the tag-line) seemed to ensure its success.


How could it go wrong? Watching the newly released Blu-ray transfer allowed me to count the ways.


The film attempts to tell its story of the attack of a gigantic amphibian (I can’t bring myself to call it Godzilla) on Manhattan Island through the adventures of biologist (Matthew Broderick) and a would-be reporter (Maria Pitillo) who seem to have dated in college or have some connection that makes them important to us. Meanwhile, nuclear tests have awakened the monster in the Pacific who doesn’t go to Japan, which would be closer, but to New York, somehow. He attacks and everyone runs or gets crushed.


Also, in a plot line that seems to have resulted from an argument about the direction to the take the script, the monster has reproduced asexually and its eggs are somewhere near the rubble of Madison Square Garden and have to be found or we’ll all die. This subplot entirely takes over the film for close to 40 minutes. Oh yes, there is also a creepy member of the French secret service (Jean Reno) who inexplicably has a warehouse full of weapons he plans to use against the creature. Cue really loud music, cue really loud explosions.


How did this film manage to be so bad? A comparison with the original Gojira (1954), one of the greatest monster films ever made, explains why. Japanese monster auteur Ishioro Toho had a vision that made his Godzilla both an ancient, godlike beast worshipped by islanders and also a product of the nuclear age, sleeping through endless ages until awakened by nuclear tests.


The references to the apocalyptic dangers of the atomic age are plenteous and controversial. In one striking scene, a woman and a child are framed in front of a building, their shadows etched across a cityscape reduced to rubble in an eerie evocation of the shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Just before the pair is crushed by the monster, the woman mutters to the child that at least they will see his father soon, suggesting that the absent parent either died in the atomic flames or as a veteran in the war.


In a short “making of” feature that appears on the new Blu-ray, Emmerich claims that he started out to make the film as if no one had ever made a Godzilla movie before. I believe him. His 1998 version makes a pass at social commentary but it is so diffuse that it’s barely noticeable. There seems to be a sort of general message about “the environment” but this hardly becomes a major theme.


We first meet Matthew Broderick’s character studying earthworm growth near Chernobyl in the Ukraine (the site of the 1986 disaster). The film includes a reference to Godzilla being awakened (or created… it’s not made clear) by nuclear testing. American audiences could take pleasure, however, in the fact that it turns out that the United States shares none of the blame for this. It’s not American dalliance with nuclear apocalypse that awakened the monster, but rather nuclear testing by those perfidious French (this is supposed to explain the involvement of the French secret service).


Of course, if the Emmerich remake represented pure, giant reptile fun, I could certainly live without the metaphorical richness that makes Gojira such an important film. Unfortunately, this is not fun. The filmmakers successfully hide the creature from us to build suspense though, when we finally see the beast it’s a let-down on a truly epic scale.


The 1998 Godzilla is a dinosaur seemingly on loan from Jurassic Park rather than the mythical beast that ate Tokyo. Efforts at humor are, meanwhile incredibly lame, even by ‘90s action movie standards (at one point


Ferris Bueller, he was funnier in Glory).


Worst of all, this Big Lizard has no soul. Gojira ended with an incredibly sad moment of sacrifice by one of the major characters and the equally sad death of the creature itself, its slow sinking to the bottom of the sea a meditation on the death of old and ancient things. Emmerich’s limpid version features a Hollywood ending in the worst sense of the term: the consummation of a love story we don’t care about, a set-up for a sequel that thankfully never happened and the death of the monster that has no pathos because it feels like the death of a special effect. Also, more explosions.


The extras on the Blu-Ray edition are limited.  Volker Engel and Karen Goulekas, director and associate director of visual effect provide the audio commentary. This is a testament to the utter dependence of the film on special effects (and perhaps he desire of cast and crew to maintain a minimum safe distance from this rather disastrous, and expensive, feature). One extra that promised some interesting footage, a montage of Godzilla’s greatest fight scenes from the classic era, turns out to be little more than an advertisement for DVDs available from TriStar.


While watching this unfortunate re-make, I couldn’t help but think about how it evoked the first American retread of Gojira. This 1956 bowdlerization of Toho’s vision cut 40 minutes of the most controversial material, dumbed down its political message, and inserted Raymond Burr in the cheesiest and most intrusive way possible to try and make it more truly American. Emmerich and Devlin did something very similar in 1998 and showed the danger that accompanies any reboot-it risks turning a compelling narrative into “franchise”.


There is no good reason for this film to be on Blu-Ray other than an effort to squeeze more dollars out of a failed film just as Emmerich unleashes another big, loud apocalypse on movie audiences. If you want to see Godzilla in his true glory, Gojira appeared on Blu-Ray this year as did Matt Reeves and Drew Goddard’s magnificent Cloverfield, in some ways a true remake of Godzilla that makes no claim to be a remake but has all the spirit and power of the original. 


But run from your lives from Godzilla 1998, a Hollywood monstrosity so absurd that it makes the film’s title song, Puff Daddy’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s classic “Kashmir”, seem like a good idea.

Rating:

Extras rating:

W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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