Appellate Judge Dave Ryan prefers his monster lizards rubbery, awkward, and Japanese, thank you very much.
Our reviews of Godzilla (1954) (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection (published February 10th, 2012), Godzilla (1998) (Blu-ray) (published November 20th, 2009), and Godzilla (2014) (Blu-ray) (published September 17th, 2014) are also available.
After Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin hit paydirt with Independence Day, it went without saying that more massively-budgeted summer popcorn blockbusters would soon follow. Although goofy and rampantly unbelievable, ID4 was a guilty pleasure; a film that captured the joy and…well, massiveness of a big-time science fiction hit. Emmerich and Devlin really got it, right? They just knew what it took to put fannies in the seats, right? Of course. How could anyone not see this?
Then a giant lizard came into their lives…and everything changed.
Facts of the Case
A Japanese fishing ship develops mysterious claw marks in its side and sinks. (gojira…) A Panamanian village is ruthlessly stomped (off-camera) by something large and possibly lizard-like. (Gojira…) An angry, skyscraper-scaled iguana decides to hang out in NYC for a spell. (GOJIRA!!!!!!) Yep—it's the 'Zilla, and he's back in business.
Patently ill-equipped to handle an extra-large cold-blooded reptile rampage—hell, they can't even take care of the rats, for Pete's sake—city officials and the U.S. government turn to…a small Japanese boy in extremely tiny shorts and his gaggle of friends, all of whom talk like Speed Racer. The boy summons Gamera (who is, of course, a friend to all children) and Jet Jaguar, who collectively fail to stop Godzilla after a raging battle in the Tarrytown area. (You know—up by the Tappan Zee.) But wait—Godzilla actually isn't bad! He's here to help people fight the real evil—the deadly monster Brangelina, who has the body of a dragon, the claws of a panther, the laser eyes of Mechagodzilla, and the sassy retorts of Kathy Griffin. Godzilla, Jet Jaguar, Gamera, and—of course—Mothra (who really needs to get away from those crazy dancing people) have the monster battle to end all monster battles on the campus of Hofstra University as mankind's fate hangs in the balance, and everyone learns a really ham-fisted and preachy lesson about the environment.
Or that's what the movie WOULD have been like had the Toho Co. made the film. But they didn't.
Instead, city officials hire Ferris Bueller…er, I mean, Dr. Nick Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), who is an expert in—get this—worm mutations at Chernobyl. He, his ex-squeeze-turned-newsroom-intern Audrey (Maria Pitillo, Providence), and a genial French assassin/spy, Phillipe (Jean Reno, Ronin) team up to fight Mr. Big Lizard. Or is it Miss Big Lizard? Turns out our pal 'Zilla is asexual, full of eggs, and anxious to nest in Madison Square Garden. (Sadly, Godzilla was not recognized for his/her pioneering role in representing the transgendered in cinema; Oscar wasn't ready to laud such a role until Transamerica came along. But I digress.)
Stuff blows up, giant lizards are chased, massive amounts of fish are dumped in the street, submarines patrol the Hudson, and so on. It's an Emmerich/Devlin film alright. And the helicopters…oh so very many helicopters. Why so many helicopters? Why?
Anyhow, to summarize: French nuclear testing bad; aggressive news reporting good.
Hey, remember Godzilla? I'd wager you don't. The film is unmemorable. It is generally considered to be a box office failure (although it did manage to make back its production cost, allegedly). It was disowned by Toho, who actively excised this Godzilla from the canon by having the real Godzilla kill him in a subsequent film. The planned sequels never materialized. It was thoroughly overshadowed by the next year's crop of sci-fi blockbusters, namely The Matrix and Star Wars Ep. I: The Phantom Menace. If it's thought about today, it's probably in the context of "bad Matthew Broderick career moves." But was it really that bad?
Well…yes and no. Yet here it is, back for another DVD dip on a special "Monster Edition" version. I'll go waaaaay out on a limb here and say that anyone who could possibly want to own Godzilla on DVD has already purchased it…but Sony is putting out a bunch of licensed Toho Godzilla films on DVD, and it can't really ignore its own product. So the "Monster Edition" it is, consisting of all the features from the original 1998 DVD, plus a couple of new (and largely disposable) extras.
First, the good part: the film looks and sounds great. This was a fantastic transfer by 1998 standards, and remains an extremely solid transfer to this day. Although the film is pretty dark, the colors are well-saturated and bright, and the picture is crisp and clear. The Dolby 5.1 surround soundtrack delivers the goods as a good monster movie soundtrack should, with lots of screeching lizard action in the rear channels, and a good heavy subwoofer "thump" when large iguanas are stomping down the street. Technically, the disc is exemplary.
The extras aren't bad, either. The promo featurette is…well, it's a promo featurette. You pretty much know what you're getting there. The commentary by members of the FX crew is informative enough. I personally like the slavishly respectful cover of David Bowie's "Heroes" by the Wallflowers, so the included video is a positive in my book. However, the "new" features—a production gallery, three episodes of the Godzilla animated series, and a "Greatest Fights" reel that's just a promo reel for the other Sony Godzilla films—simply aren't worth a second purchase if you already own the original DVD.
Now, the bad part: this just isn't a very good film. Yet it's not really bad, per se. It's just kind of there. If you like big-budget action films, this is…one of them. But you probably knew that. That sort of non-info is not why you read DVD reviews. So let's take a critical look at what went wrong with Godzilla.
The biggest flaw in Godzilla is, without a doubt, the script. The story here is uninteresting, thin, and poorly executed to boot. It's supposed to be twisty and turny, throwing new obstacles at Our Heroes at every opportunity. It certainly does throw out new obstacles every 10 minutes or so—but they all feel tacked on, as if some script doctor decided that the film needed "more action," and added a new set piece without any consideration for how the addition would fit with the rest of the narrative. By the end of this long (over 2 hours) film, one doesn't view the twists as "surprises"—instead, they trigger an "oh no, here they go again with some other idiotic plot twist" reaction. You just want the stupid lizard to die already, so you can get back to your life and your loved ones. I can see why this film had very bad word of mouth after its release. Even though you don't actively dislike it, you really just want it to end.
I think a large part of the problem here is that the writers just weren't sure what kind of story they wanted Godzilla to be. At first, we don't see the monster at all, a la Jaws. 'Zilla is an unseen but clearly gigantic menace. That style lasts all of 20 minutes or so. Then, the style/tone shifts to a "monster in the woods" feel, much like your typical werewolf film. Then it just rips off Jurassic Park for an hour, and the wheels completely come off. These stylistic shifts are jarring, too—it's not as if there's a seamless transition between them. Contrast this with Independence Day, which had a very clear structure. Act I: We don't know what's up with these aliens. Act II: Okay, they're bad. Act III: But we're badder. That film had a very different feel in each of these three modes, but they flowed well. One led sensibly to the next. Here, the different styles are just haphazardly grouped together with no rhyme or reason. It simply doesn't work well.
While the story is the biggest problem with the film, it isn't the only problem. There's another anchor dragging down this sinking ship: Matthew Broderick. Much as I hate to say it—because he really does seem like a very likeable and bright guy—Matt's just plain bad in this film. Choosing to play the lead in a monster movie in much the same way you played the young Neil Simon on Broadway in Brighton Beach Memoirs is an interesting choice…but not a very good one. I'm guessing that Broderick is supposed to be Everyman, thrust into this monster-related situation against his will and responding in the same way any of us would. But that's not how it plays on screen. There's way too much Ferris in this performance, and it's inappropriate. For much of the film, you seriously expect him to look straight into the camera and say, "A giant reptile. I'm getting verklempt," or something equally glib and wink-like, to the audience. I'm all for humor in action films, but there's a difference between injecting humor into something and turning something into a joke. Broderick crossed that line in Godzilla.
The problems continue. We never really get a handle on Godzilla's motivation, nor are we ever made to feel that Godzilla is bad. In the Toho films, Godzilla was smart—and often witty, or at least as witty as a guy in a rubber suit can be. Plus, he had a clear agenda. In most films (a notable exception being the original 1954 Godzilla), he was out to destroy the (insert bad environmental thing here) that caused the evil monster (insert monster name here) to threaten humanity. In this film, Godzilla is truly a mindless brute. He (she) is just a lizard that was mutated into gigantism by a nuclear test, who wants to eat and reproduce (not necessarily in that order). Godzilla's destruction isn't intentional; it's just a byproduct of a big animal being loose in a world designed for humans. This film is literally about a bull in a china shop. Godzilla isn't really evil—he (she) is just a pest, like a mouse or a mole. A very big and destructive pest, yes—but not a creature of malice who consciously and intelligently wants to kill humans. Godzilla is hunted because he (she) is dangerous—not because he (she) is bad. And that really takes all the fun out of it.
The fine special effects folks did a really good job on this film. Godzilla is an insanely detailed and good-looking piece of computer animation. The animators and modelers apparently took great pains to make sure that Godzilla looks realistic, as if a lizard actually did achieve gigantic stature thanks to nuclear testing. His (her) limbs look like real lizard limbs, with the proper skeletal and joint structure and musculature. And there's the rub. Godzilla doesn't look like a fearsome monster; he (she) looks like a big digital iguana. (Or perhaps a Komodo dragon.) When I'm at a monster film, I want to see a monster, dammit. I'm not looking for realism!!! Besides—we all know that Godzilla is some kind of dinosaur. I mean, come on!
Then there are the helicopters. Roughly half of this film involves shots of helicopters flying, searching, shooting at things, or doing other helicoptery things. Often in the dark. Sometimes there are about 50 helicopters on screen at once. These are very maneuverable helicopters, too—they actually drive like cars when flying down narrow NYC streets, making smooth 90-degree turns without any effort. So what's the deal? Was Boeing Vertol or Sikorsky a secret financier of this picture? Did they get a good deal on the digital skeleton/skins for the AH-64 Apache at Computer Graphics 'R' Us? Don't get me wrong, I'm not a raging anti-helicopterite—but enough is enough.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Okay, the film has significant, unyielding flaws. But despite itself, it still manages to be somewhat entertaining. It's just not entertaining in a "gee, I think I'll be voluntarily watching that again in my lifetime" way. It's not laughably bad, nor is it embarrassingly bad. It's just kind of blah and disappointing. There are definitely worse ways to spend two hours. There is also a multitude of better ways to spend two hours, which is unfortunate for the makers of this film.
Many of the cast members are quite fun to watch, too. Jean Reno seems to have a little fun with his character, and Maria Pitillo (who apparently fell off the face of the Earth after this major starring role) is cute and entertaining as the spunky love interest. Harry Shearer, who plays a slimy news anchor, and Hank Azaria, as Audrey's faithful cameraman "Animal," infuse the film with some good side humor. But they can't overcome the lead balloon of a story they're saddled with.
As noted above, the Toho people absolutely hated this iteration of Godzilla, and refused to allow the film to take its place in the official Godzilla canon. Instead, this Godzilla monster was officially redubbed "Jira" ("Zilla" in English), and is considered an entirely different monster. One who was promptly killed off in Godzilla: Final Wars. (Ironically, Zilla's demise in that film is one of the fights featured on the new "All Time Best Monster Fights" promo reel extra in this package.) Case closed. So officially, this unfortunate episode in the long and storied history of Godzilla joins that Bobby-less season of Dallas, the Scrappy Doo era, and Galactica 1980 in The Land of Things That Didn't Really Happen—Really, We're Serious, They Didn't Happen.
But it's available on DVD, if, you know, you want to rent it or something.
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