Recently, I have heard a common comment made about the 1998 film, Godzilla, which boils down to this: “If this movie wasn’t called Godzilla, it would be pretty great!” The opinion is depicted in the below video, in part as a defense of 1998 remake.
Now I have already stated some of my thoughts on this film years ago and I really don’t have too much desire to rehash here. To sum up: I don’t care for it. That’s just my opinion, it is no more valid or objective than anyone else’s. I don’t mean to belittle those who enjoy this film – heck, I’m glad someone does!
So why am I writing this? Well, at one point in the video, the speaker brings up that the sole reason many people dislike this film is because it is called “Godzilla.” For the record, he’s not wrong. I have been to numerous G-Fests and have heard variations of this dialogue a lot. Like a lot a lot. It was even the reason for the older post I linked you to above – I wrote a whole article about how the 1998 film is nothing like the 1954 original and should not be used as an introduction to the Godzilla mythos.
That said, would I like this film if it was called say The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms or Reptilicus or Skippy the Super-Sized Iguana? No, I would not. Well…maybe that last one…
The Too Many Characters of Godzilla 1998
In my writing workshop I often talk about the importance of characters. Without them, nothing happens. You can have the best plot in the world but, if your audience is not sold on your characters – ya got a lot of nothing. That said, when it comes to editing, I typically advise my students to remove characters when possible. To use a metaphor from another industry: Too many cooks in the kitchen can spoil the stew.
And boy howdy are there a lot of characters in Godzilla 1998. I’m not just talking about background extras, I’m talking about “hey let’s take a scene to introduce this person, name them, even give them some personality quirks.”
“Oh, are they important for the plot?”
“Great question: Absolutely not.”
In a 139-minute-film, there is room to trim the fat, especially if the writer is trying to create something light and fun (which I believe Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich were trying to do…I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt). So, I’m going to start naming characters – Lucy Palotti, Dr. Elsie Chapman, Dr. Mendel Craven. What do they have in common? They are all in Godzilla 1998, have scenes devoted to their characters, and do not contribute at all to the story in any meaningful way. Chapman and Craven especially are the two greatest offenders. We spend a decent chunk of Act 1 establishing Nick’s Godzilla-hunting team only to lose them forever once we hit New York. They’re great for dropping exposition but not much else.
So, if I had been a script writer on this movie, right away I would have advised either incorporating these characters into the action of the plot or removing them entirely. At the very least, minimize them enough that we the audience have no reason to expect anything from them later on.
Stereotypes as Characters
That said, when you look at how Devlin and Emmerich viewed characterization, you begin to see why they stuffed their film so full of fluff – because surface is all there is. We’re not talking benign shallowness either, oh no. Godzilla 1998 has a script that looks at people and stereotypes before replying “I…I can’t tell the difference.”
Jean Reno’s setup? Apart from just playing his role from The Professional, he is given multiple scenes – MULTIPLE – where he and his French redshirts complain about American coffee. Hank Azaria is playing a Simpsons-level caricature of a New Yorker, the military jarheads are all as dumb and obedient as you might think, and Lucy Palotti just exists because I guess they think the over-bearing, belligerent wife stereotype is also hilarious.
As for Nick – he’s literally a wormy scientist, but at least he gets to use his all-encompassing science smarts in some unexpected ways (who knew a worm expert could use human pregnancy tests in such a way?). Audrey, why she’s just the typical career-oriented woman punished for her ambitions at self-sufficiency numerous times before all is forgiven at the final curtain.
It’s lazy writing at best and offensive writing at worst. Given how they wrote the white characters, I’m actually kinda glad there are no people of color in this movie – otherwise Godzilla 1998 may be even more maligned than it already is.
Action without Tension
The final third of Godzilla 1998 is filled with action sequences: There’s the underwater submarine battle, little Godzillas in Madison Square Garden, and the final taxi-cab chase through New York. It’s definitely a lively way to end things, however I always found myself really bored during all of it. I called Reno’s associates redshirts above for a reason – just like in Star Trek, they only exist to be killed.
Never, not for a single moment, did I ever think any of the main characters were in danger, no matter how dire the situation. Even when, as Animal put it “we’re in his mouth, man!” I wasn’t engaged. Yeah, sure, the movie will end with Godzilla chomping down and the credits rolling.
I don’t want to sound like I need everything serious – I don’t. I’m happy to watch light-hearted entertainment any day of the week…but there is A LOT of it at the end of this movie. Sequence after sequence of our main characters just running away from bad CGI (for the record, I remember thinking it was bad at the time…this movie came out 5 years after Jurassic Park for Pete’s sake).
So yeah, if you’re going to put that much action into a film, I’ve either got to be more invested in your
caricatures characters, it has to move the plot forward at every turn, or it’s got to be really interesting and unique. Speaking of that last point…
An “Original” Approach
There’s another reason I brought up Jurassic Park. A very common criticism of Godzilla 1998 is that it borrowed a lot more from 1993 than 1954. The mini-Godzilla sequence is very similar to the raptor finale, and Godzilla chasing a car feels like it’s missing Jeff Goldblum’s “must go faster!”
In their video, Cold Crash Pictures does actually address this criticism and defends it by pointing out that this is not the first time a Godzilla film has borrowed from a Hollywood blockbuster. He’s not wrong. For me, however, none of my favorite Godzilla films steal from Hollywood – and I’m also a believer in “two wrongs don’t make a right.”
So there you have it: Paper-thin stereotypical characters running around in tensionless bloated action for over two hours does not a fun ride make, no matter what you call the film – at least that’s my opinion. Again, I’m not claiming to be any kind of authority and my opinion is no more valid or important than the one projected in the video at the start of this piece.
Oh yeah, then there’s that really weird Siskel and Ebert thing…it’s honestly one of the more creative ways I’ve seen pettiness expressed in filmmaking.