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Thursday, May 03, 2012

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Godzilla (The 1998 American Film)

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin!  For those just joining us, this was something I used to do on my podcast, but I grew tired of doing it.  But I wrote so many reviews before growing tired of it, that I decided to start posting them on the blog, rather than having them stagnate on my hard drive.  Today, we do a movie that I loved bunches when it first hit theatres, but has since become regarded as one of the worst summer blockbusters ever made:  the American Godzilla.

This review is originally dated December 3, 2010.

Let's begin a new sub-series of Fishing in the Discount Bin called Crap I Still Own on VHS.  The title is pretty self-explanatory.  Despite my DVDs and Blu-Rays, there are still movies I own just on VHS.  And now that I have really good VCR, I figure it's time to re-visit some of these gems.

Now, when I was in Japan, I discovered a time-honoured tradition.  And that is, Godzilla movies always come out in December.  It's just the schedule that Toho -- the studio that makes t he Godzilla films -- adheres to, and they've done it so long it's become traditional.  And now that December is here, I figured it was time to watch some Godzilla.  So, I reached into the crap I still own on VHS, and I grabbed the 1998 American remake, known as Godzilla.

Man, when this film first hit theatres back in 1998, I remember being all nuts for it.  It was one of the first films whose development I'd been following in the media for years.  It was first announced in 1993, following on the heels of Jurassic Park.  In the ensuing years, there were a few false starts, but nothing ever came along.  And then, in 1996, we had the gigantic smash hit film Independence Day.  Fresh off that film, the writing/producing/directing team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich signed on to make Godzilla.  Filming began in the summer of 1997.

I was still in college, and had fully embraced movie gossip websites.  Godzilla was one of the first films I knew of to have a rather extensive production blog, and you could follow its filming online.  I remember being on the mailing list, and getting the weekly newsletter telling me how production was going.  This newsletter was called "G-Mail."  I wonder if Google had to pay Sony Studios to get that term.

And then there was the massive teaser campaign.  Godzilla has a brilliant marketing campaign, only giving us glimpses of Godzilla, and vowing now to show us the entire beast until the film hit theatres.  Pictures did wind up online, however, but the filmmakers had a brilliant way of plugging the leak.  They lied, and said the pictures were fake.

It opened in May of 1998 and was there a couple of weekends later to see it.  I remember loving it at the time.  When I popped the VHS into the player, it's been a good 7 or 8 years since I last saw it.  Did I still think it was incredibly awesome?

The hero of this piece is Dr. Nick Tatopolis, a biologist specializing in mutations caused by radiation.  He's pulled away from his study of the Chernobyl earthworms by the US military and spirited away to the south Pacific, where there have been mysterious sightings of a gigantic creature, and this creature leaves a radioactive trail.  Since the French have been doing nuclear tests in the area, popular speculation is that it's some kind of lizard mutated by the radiation.  While analyzing a Japanese fishing boat that the creature trashed, a mysterious Frenchman watches over the proceedings. 

The creature shows up in New York City, and starts laying waste to everything.  Here's where we meet the love interest of our tale, Audrey, who just happened to be Nick's college sweetheart, but she turned down his marriage proposal to pursue a career in journalism.  But she's not yet the star reporter she dreamed of being, and instead she's the personal assistant to a sleazy New York anchorman.  But when Godzilla shows up, and she spies her old sweetheart is on the team, she seizes the opportunity to get the big story.

Using Nick's plan, the Army manages to flush out Godzilla, and I've got to admit, this is a beautiful scene in the film.  The music, by composer David Arnold, is a really great knock-off of John Williams' Jurassic Park themes, and everyone is just awestruck by the size and power of the beast.  But then, they open fire and there's lots of smash-boom-bang.

Analyzing the wreckage, Nick discovers that Godzilla is getting ready to lay eggs, and that he's come to New York to nest.  However, Audrey swipes this information, and gives it to her sleazy reporter boss so she finally can have the big story.  Sleazy boss claims the story for his own, Nick gets thrown off the project for speaking to the press, and whatever chance of reconciliation these lovers had is now gone. 

While leaving the scene, Nick is abducted by the mysterious Frenchman, who reveals himself to be...essentially, the French James Bond.  He knows Godzilla was created by French nuclear testing, so he's been sent in by the French government to clean up this mess.  French James Bond believes Nick's theory of a nest, and while the Americans go to destroy Godzilla, they'll find the nest and wipe it out.  Nick agrees, and they go in search of the nest, with Audrey and her cameraman Victor following them.  She hopes to cover the story of Nick's victory, thus redeeming herself and wining back Nick's trust.

There's another action scene where Godzilla and the US Army fight and Godzilla is seemingly killed.  The nest is discovered in Madison Square Garden, but before they can destroy it, more than 200 eggs hatch and they're chased all around the building by these Baby Godzillas.  I remember *really* liking this when I first saw the movie, because "d00d!  They're just like the raptors in Jurassic Park!"  They manage to hijack a TV feed to tell the world that the nest is here and it must be destroyed.  Audrey covers the story of Nick being right and they fall back in love.  They make it out of the building in time, it's destroyed, Godzilla shows up, and is all pissed off that her babies are dead.  One last big action sequence, Godzilla's destroyed, and everyone lives happily ever after...even a lone Baby Godzilla, to star in the sequel that never materialized.

Now that I've watched a lot more Godzilla films, I understand more of the criticisms of this film.  I understand how this creature is not Godzilla.  Godzilla is angry, malicious, and never runs from a fight.  This American Godzilla, however, always seems to be on the run, fleeing like a frightened animal.  As the story goes, Toho Studios gave Devlin and Emmerich a style-guide as to how Godzilla was to be portrayed so Godzilla would be true to his character, but Devlin and Emmerich willfully threw that out so they could do whatever the heck they wanted.

And speaking of poor characterizations, what is up with Matthew Broderick as Nick?  He's just so...bland.  This guy is facing the biggest discovery ever in his field, but he only reacts with, "Huh.  Yeah.  Whatever."  That seems to be his whole attitude throughout the film. 

On the plus side, though, Jean Reno as the French James Bond kicks all kinds of ass. 

And what's with the Simpsons cast showing up in this?  We've got Harry Shearer (Mr. Burns, Smithers, et al) as the sleazy anchorman, Hank Azaria (Moe the Bartender, Apu, et al) as Victor, and even Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson) puts in a cameo.  I remember spotting all that the first time I saw the film and thought it was kind of neat.

Should I acknowledge the mayor and his aide?  Devlin and Emmerich were kind of pissed that Siskel and Ebert gave Independence Day a poor review, so they retaliated in this film by creating the character of "Mayor Ebert" who was a sniveling, cowardly sort who was always eating candy, and his aide "Gene" who was a shameless suck-up.  And yes, they chose actors that looked like Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.  Siskel and Ebert acknowledged it on their show.  They said they were amused by it and wondered why the filmmakers didn't push it further and have "Mayor Ebert" and "Gene" be killed by Godzilla.

I don't know.  I still don't understand the hatred this film inspires.  it's loud.  It's goofy.  It's very much in the same vein as Independence Day, and that's maybe why it inspires the hatred.  Devlin and Emmerich took the "sci-fi B movie meets disaster movie" formula they created for Independence Day and applied to a Godzilla film...and the graft didn't take.  Throw in the fact that Godzilla doesn't act like Godzilla at all, and you get the Godzilla film in-name only.

It's a fun movie, but it's not a Godzilla movie. 

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