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While buses everywhere are now emblazoned with the three heads of King Ghidorah squaring off against the King of the Monsters, in the world of 1998, Godzilla and his monstrous friends were not particularly known quantities in the west.
The character had enjoyed a swarming, labyrinthine mythology in Japan. But elsewhere his exploits were reserved for bargain bins and underground discussions between cult film fans. In Ireland or the UK, only in the wee hours of the morning could one catch a scant glimpse of a cheerfully crap dub of such wonders as Terror of Mechagodzilla, Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster or Godzilla vs SpaceGodzilla (yes, the names for the monsters are often bad).
By 1998, only a smattering of the staggering 22 films had seen theatrical releases in the US and even then they were butchered beyond belief in their repackaging efforts (additional scenes starring Perry Mason-star Raymond Burr were crowbarred in for both 1954’s Gojira and 1984’s The Return of Godzilla to sweeten the sauce for the yanks). Nevertheless, Tristar saw enough of an interest to justify a big-budget Hollywood effort. Hot on the heels of the eminently serviceable Independence Day, logic dictated that Roland Emmerich was the man for the job. Size does matter after all, and back then nobody made bigger disaster movies. Bigger and better rarely go hand in hand though.
It goes without saying that Godzilla isn’t as wretched as its reputation. 21 years on, it’s still rubbish. Yet it breezes along with enough fluffy action that you’re never too bored. But the unfathomably saccharine lead performance by Matthew Broderick ensures that Ferris Bueller’s coolness is the first victim of the King of the Monsters. Clad in the most 1998 of outfits, Broderick slouches through the movie like your sister’s awkward boyfriend, frequently whining in that nasally warble of his, as if he’s asking the other characters’ permission to be in the movie.
Maria Pitillo may be a great actor beyond the trappings of this awful film, but sadly her Razzie was well-earned and as a result, we may never know. That leaves the characteristically hapless Kevin Dunn playing true to type as a beleaguered army general (commanding an army that literally does far more damage than the titular beast) and Simpsons alumni Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer, mysteriously given roles in this big budget Hollywood movie (if you squint hard enough you’ll spot Nancy Cartwright as well).
The greatest head-scratcher isn’t even the question of why the army don’t just try and lure Godzilla out of the city immediately – it’s why Jean Reno plays such a huge part in the film. His baffling inclusion as a French secret service agent (!) is never fully explained and with Leon: The Professional a mere half-decade previous, one can only assume that this was stunt-casting at its absolute worst. His most memorable contribution to this film about a rampaging lizard monster is that American instant coffee tastes bad.
Reviled though it may be, the fans may not even realise why Godzilla is a terrible film. Yes the titular monster is changed from something akin to…well, a man in a lumpy dinosaur costume to…well…an anorexic hunchback with lockjaw rendered with undercooked 1998 CGI. The true controversy for the devoted is that Godzilla himself isn’t the walking apocalypse of the classic films (or these recent ones). For much of the film, he doesn’t appear to be taking his anger out on humanity. He’s simply wandering around looking for food and stumbling into enemies that provoke him.
Truth be told, he’s something of a pacifist. He’s also not that powerful. A weakness for canned fish (yep) makes him easy to lure into the open and he’s eventually dispatched by a few measly rockets (a far cry from the ‘oxygen destroyer’ of the 1954 film or the ‘Super X’ of Return of Godzilla). Even David Arnold’s overzealous score tries to make him the source of wonder rather than terror.
This was definitely Roland Emmerich trying to make King Kong. Honestly though, while the fans may tell you that this is the main sin of the film – making Godzilla a credibly defeatable foe for humanity shouldn’t really be counted as a sleight (otherwise what’s the point of the film?). What ruins Roland Emmerich’s attempt is the jaw-dropping stupidity of the characters. And while the scenes involving the human characters are absolutely awful, they’re usually so unbelievably awful that you can’t help but smile.