Is 1998’s ‘Godzilla’ Really That Bad?

This week, Godzilla takes a second stab at Hollywood. But more than fifteen years ago, now, the Big G made his first attempt at crushing multiplexes with Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich’s take on the giant lizard. It’s widely dismissed as terrible… but is it really that bad? In the third of what’s becoming an ongoing attempt to destroy my sanity, we investigate.

Having revisited it this weekend, yes. Yes, it is.

Really, there’s no reason why this movie should have been so terrible. Devlin and Emmerich had essentially already remade a cheesy ’50s cult film, Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, into Independence Day. Yeah, they’re not Merchant and Ivory, but these guys managed, twice, to turn in respectably fun and goofy movies. Really, Godzilla should have been a lock.

You can break this movie down into three problems, all of which interact at once quite nicely in this video for the single worst song the ’90s ever produced:

But we’ll explicate it in more detail, below.

The Shtick. Oh Dear God The Shtick.

There is not a single moment in this movie where it turns down the opportunity to make an obvious, crappy joke. Matthew Broderick standing clueless in a footprint, a New Yawker stating that the destruction of Madison Square Garden now has him pissed, Harry Shearer bitching about a lack of a big story while not seeing Godzilla behind him, or the American military acting like the Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Most of the time, when a New York landmark goes down, it’s because the military screwed up.

Roger Ebert is the Mayor of New York, for Christ’s sake. And his campaign symbol is a thumbs up. Sony executives should have leaped over the tablet and beaten Devlin and Emmerich with the nearest blunt object after reading that.

The (Mis)Casting

Jean Reno, it must be said, is having a grand old time in this movie. He knows his character makes no sense, and he couldn’t care less; he’s having too much fun imitating Elvis, crashing cars, and making cheap jokes about how bad American coffee is. He’s the Nicolas Cage of Godzilla.

Everybody else is terrible. Matthew Broderick went through this phase in the mid-’90s where for some reason he was mistaken for a leading man. This nebbish is supposed to be so amazing, a somewhat attractive blonde living in New York is still carrying a torch for him eight years later. Maria Pitillo, who you might remember was going to be the Next Big Thing for a while until this movie put paid to that, isn’t actually so bad that she deserved that Golden Raspberry, but she and Broderick have nothing to work with. It’s like watching a high-school production of Romeo and Juliet where only the awkward kids showed up for the audition.

Also, Harry Shearer uses his Kent Brockman voice the entire time, and it’s really disconcerting. You half-expect him to welcome our new lizard overlord.

The Pacing

For some inexplicable reason, the redesign of Godzilla was a big hush-hush secret and the centerpiece of the marketing campaign, as if Patrick Tatopoulos’ creation was somehow a world-changing secret instead of an iguana with Bruce Campbell’s chin and uncertain genitalia. As a result, the movie tries to play it coy for some utterly insane reason. Once a Godzilla movie rolls out Godzilla, that’s it. That’s the movie. You don’t cut away from Godzilla, and you definitely don’t stuff him down a hole for a fair chunk of the second act, which is exactly what this movie does.

That combined with the above shtick makes watching this movie a herky-jerky experience. Lizard, pause, joke, pause, lizard, pause, joke, pause, over and over again. It gets worse in the third act, where somebody decides we needed a swarm of vicious Godzookys flooding Madison Square Garden, which is where the movie decides that it’s tired of being a giant monster movie and would rather be Jurassic Park instead, before begrudgingly becoming a giant monster movie again.

So, in one movie, they manage to violate two fundamental rules of a good Godzilla movie: Never assume the humans are more interesting than Godzilla, and never, ever, ever put anything that might have spawned from Godzilla’s loins onscreen. At least it wasn’t that fat lump Minilla.

The net result of this is… it was a goddamn hit, mostly by sheer force of marketing. But thankfully, Sony realized it didn’t need a sequel, and the rights ultimately went to Warner Bros. And really, as bad as 2014’s Godzilla might possibly be, it can take comfort in the fact that it can’t be worse that this.