This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the American Godzilla film. No, not the recent and generally well-received (75% on Rotten Tomatoes) Godzilla directed by Gareth Edwards. I’m talking about the 1998 film starring Matthew Broderick and directed by Roland Emmerich. That film was a critical flop (a mere 16% on RT) and a commercial disappointment. Godzilla ’98 is viewed negatively by most in the kaiju fandom. The titular monster is referred to as G.I.N.O (Godzilla in Name Only) or simply as ‘Zilla, to distinguish it from the “true” Godzilla. So who cares that this turd of a movie is now two decades old?
Well, obviously, I do, or I wouldn’t be writing this!
Don’t get me wrong: I understand and appreciate all the criticism. The film is poorly paced, and it is hard to care about any of the human characters. Godzilla disappears for the entire second act! The baby Godzillas are a total Jurassic Park ripoff. It’s not a well-constructed piece of cinema, by any means.
I get the fan critiques, too. The slim, speedy design of the monster is quite unlike any Godzilla that came before. The creatures origin (it’s basically a mutated iguana) is mundane. The iconic breath weapon is gone, save one “blink and you’ll miss it” homage. And this Godzilla was killed by a few missiles. The “real” Godzilla never fell so easily. These observations are not wrong. Not wrong at all.
And yet, I still love the movie, and look back on it fondly. Rewatching it recently reminded me why. Honestly, it’s less about the movie itself than the hype surrounding it. You remember the insane marketing? SIZE DOES MATTER? Here, lizard, lizard? It was everywhere you looked. Apart from maybe Batman ’89 I can’t recall a film that was more hyped.
The anticipation of Godzilla fever was sweeping the nation, and of course, companies were ready to make money off it. There was a toyline, restaurant promos, and, most importantly, a rush to get older Godzilla films back on store shelves. I was able to pick up dozens of the Godzilla movies for the first time, and I didn’t have to import them or anything. I was even able to tape-record a few on AMC. Hours of Godzilla content that I had never seen before… good times.
And as Godzilla was at Taco Bell and Best Buy, so too was the green behemoth all over the internet. I spent many hours scraping the web (then in its infancy, or maybe toddlerhood) for Godzilla trivia. I hit the jackpot when I found Barry’s Temple of Godzilla. It was a delight, with pictures, reviews, even audio and (if you could wait long enough to download them) video clips! This was one of the first and best fan websites I ever visited, and I still love going there from time to time. The layout has changed very little since 1996 and I find that delightful.
But it wasn’t just about the hype. Though the movie has its flaws, I maintain that Godzilla ’98 is a pretty good popcorn movie. The buildup to the first actual sighting of Godzilla is superb. The fishing boat attack is suitably scary, and I dare say that the shot of Nick Tatopoulos standing in the giant footprint of the creature is iconic. Godzilla’s initial attack on New York is an epic sight. I remember being awestruck by the effects at the time. I walked out of the theater thinking “it didn’t look like a man in a suit, it looked totally real.” In my opinion after a recent rewatch, the CGI has aged fairly well, though it’s obviously not up to current standards.
The monster design of Godzilla ’98 is controversial, for sure, but I am a huge fan (pun intended). Godzilla is sleek and slim, and moves very quickly. There’s a sense of nimble grace to the creature, which contrasts nicely with the destruction it causes. Godzilla has a sort of charisma to it, and though it’s a trope as old as King Kong, you find yourself rooting for the monster as the movie progresses. The final scene where Godzilla dies, heartbeat fading in the rain, is surprisingly touching.
The cast is better than it gets credit for. Matthew Broderick is an likeable protagonist, and really sells his growing attachment to Godzilla. Jean Reno is great, menacing when he needs to be but funny, too. Hank Azaria and Kevin Dunn both do solid work here in their limited roles.
Godzilla ’98 isn’t a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination. It didn’t live up to the hype, but the hype was enjoyable enough on its own to make it memorable. The great special effects and intense action scenes compare favorably to Japanese Godzilla films from the same era. Godzilla may just be a mutated iguana, but it’s a great-looking mutated iguana. And there are some good performances from veteran actors, too. Gold can be found in the admittedly messy river of this film, if you just look for it.
And let’s not forget that without Godzilla ’98, we would have missed out on a fantastic cartoon! Godzilla: The Series continued the story of the one remaining baby Godzilla form the end of the film. The creature forms a bond with Nick, and can actually breathe atomic fire! The new additions to the human cast are welcome, but the best part is the “Monster of the Week” format. Godzilla is not the only giant mutation around, and watching the team track down these brutes, calling in Godzilla when needed, is lots of fun.
I watched every single Godzilla: The Series episode this summer, and it’s the latest show in my series of Geek Haikus. Check out the gallery, and maybe watch an episode or two when you have a chance. Godzilla: The Series is the literal spawn of the ’98 film, and the best thing to come from it, by far. This alone is enough for me to love Godzilla ’98!