Godzilla 1998: What Went Wrong With the Roland Emmerich Film?

Feature Jim Knipfel 2/26/2014 at 8:48AM

Hype is building around Gareth Edwards’ upcoming stab at the King of Monsters, we look at the train wreck that preceded him: Godzilla 1998

Following the release of 2004’s Godzilla: Final Wars, a film that marked the resilient series’ 50th anniversary, Toho Co. announced they would be taking a hiatus from Godzilla for a bit. It might be another decade before we saw a new film, they warned, which would give the King of the Monsters a rest and give the screenwriters a chance to come up with some new ideas. They’d done it before, back in 1975 and 1995, so there was no widespread panic at the news. Godzilla would be back, because Godzilla was always back. In fact it was only a few months before rumors began swirling a new Godzilla film was already in the planning stages. Some said it would be in 3-D, others that Toho was bringing back the much-maligned director of Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster. But for all the rumors, nothing ever materialized.

Nearly a decade passed before it was announced a new Godzilla film really and truly and finally was in the works. Thing was, though, this wasn’t going to be a Toho production. No, it would be an American film from Warner Brothers directed by hip youngster Gareth Edwards, who’d already cut his teeth on the giant monster front with his hit, Monsters. As the hype began to grow and Edwards stayed tight-lipped about the project, people started to get excited.

Can’t say I did, though. Yes, it’s foolish to dismiss any film before seeing it, but fact was I wasn’t a big fan of his Monsters. More importantly though, I kept recalling George Santayana’s famous quip about those who don’t remember the past and so forth. So let’s go back almost 20 years to 1995.

After Godzilla was decisively snuffed for only the second time in his then-40-year career at the end of Godzilla vs. Destroyah, Toho’s Tomoyuki Tanaka announced the studio would be giving their cash cow a breather. Let the Big Guy take a little vacation or something. But he never mentioned Godzilla would be taking that vacation in Manhattan.

After announcing the hiatus, Tanaka turned around and sold the licensing rights to Sony on a limited basis for what was supposed to be a three-picture deal. Sony immediately got to work, bringing in the sure-fire team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, who at the time were still riding high on the mega-success of their Independence Day. It was a dream match-up, right? Emmerich and Devlin obviously had a taste for mass destruction, so why not hand them an established property about a monster whose taste for mass destruction might conceivably surpass their own?

The pair was given a jaw-dropping budget, rounded up an all-star cast the youngsters would like (including Matthew Broderick and most of The Simpsons’ cast), arranged for a killer soundtrack, and started blowing up New York. Sony’s hype machine went into overdrive, the public became very excited, the merchandise began appearing on store shelves, and a new tie-in cartoon series went into production. It was a sure thing. Then in 1998 the film hit theaters, where it promptly crashed and burned. When the film is remembered at all today, it’s usually with sneers and derision.

Plans for those two sequels were quickly scrapped. Toho snatched the licensing rights back from Sony, and immediately began damage control by pushing ahead with their own Godzilla 2000 in an effort to get the true series back on track. There’s even a sly, snide jab at the Emmerich/Devlin film at the beginning of 2001's Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack. Upon hearing about a monster attacking the East Coast of the US in 1998, a student asks, "That was Godzilla, right?" A fellow student responds, "The Americans say it was, but the guys over here have their doubts.”

So what the fuck happened?

Well, I can think of a few things off the top of my head.

First of all, Devlin and Emmerich made the same boneheaded mistake Peter Jackson would make when he set out to remake King Kong. In the 1933 original, Kong was a mythological figure, a legend, a character from a fairy tale who was still more human than any of the human actors around him. Even though he made a big deal of sticking (to a point) to the original script, in the end Jackson’s Kong was, well, just a big gorilla.

Likewise, from his debut in 1954, Godzilla had always been a myth, an allegory, a symbol, and an embodiment of recent Japanese history. Even as his character changed over the course of the series (from vengeful demon to savior and back again) all those things remained consistent. So much so that countless academic papers have been written attempting to interpret what Godzilla represents. As re-imagined by Emmerich and Devlin, Godzilla was nothing more than a mutated dinosaur. That what we’re dealing with is merely a big animal behaving like a big animal is a point Matthew Broderick’s character makes repeatedly throughout the film. The Toho pictures (like the original Kong) gave us reason to care about Godzilla because he knew what he was doing. He had purpose. This was more akin to having some stranger’s pit bull break loose and knock your trash cans over.

It’s even emphasized by the monster’s revamped design, which bears no resemblance to any Godzilla we know. The thick legs are gone, the back spines are gone, the cruel, humanoid eyes are gone. What it is, in short, is a plain old allosaurus (or whatever paleontologists are calling it these days). Godzilla’s profile was always absolutely unique and unmistakable, but this thing here? I saw pictures of that in dinosaur books when I was a kid. I mean, Christ, he doesn’t even breathe radioactive fire! What the hell’s THAT all about?

Then there’s the effects question. Without diving headlong into the useless CGI debate, the 1998 model Godzilla was a state of the art CG creation. It was smooth and slick and virtually hyper-realistic (and to my mind anyway utterly lifeless). At the time of the film’s release it was dazzling and kapow. But the trouble with state of the art anything, especially computer FX, is that they have a very short shelf life. It’s only going to be a blink before the next generation of digital effects comes along, leaving everything that preceded it looking clunky and silly and sad (remember Lawnmower Man? That was pretty wowza in its time too.) Forget 20 years, by the time you get four or five years down the line, things can start looking pretty dusty. A man in a rubber suit, however much the knotheads may mock it, is eternal. Even the shabby Toho Godzillas from the ‘70s had more personality than this thing, and seemed much more real and present because they were.

There was a much bigger problem afoot with the Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla, however. For all the lifts and outright thefts from other, better films scattered throughout Godzilla (last time I made a list I counted at least 40 individual ideas lifted from everything from Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent to Jaws), at its heart the Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla isn’t even a remake of Godzilla.

Consider the bare bones of the plot after scraping away all the surrounding soap opera nonsense: Nuclear tests awaken an amphibious prehistoric creature. Driven by some primordial urge it sets out in search of its natural spawning ground. Along the way it destroys a few ships and coastal towns, and as those reports are collected it soon becomes obvious to authorities the creature is headed straight for New York. It crashes its way onto the docks in New York harbor and stomps into Manhattan where, as such things do, it wreaks havoc (including walking through a building, leaving a monster-shaped hole). Scientists and the military both scramble to stop it, but learn it has the pesky ability, big as it is, to disappear for long stretches. Eventually they track it to a famous NYC landmark where, after our heroes are placed in grave danger for a few moments, the military destroys the monster.

Sounds about right, right? Trouble is, that’s the plot synopsis for 1953’s The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms.

Yeah, it seems that student at the beginning of 2001’s Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah was right after all, and it wasn’t really Godzilla we were dealing with.

Now granted, Emmerich and Devlin obviously know their B-film history, and that being the case may well have been aware Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (along with King Kong) was a fundamental inspiration for 1954’s Gojira, but that doesn’t change the fact that, despite their use of the name, what they made was a reboot of the 1953 film, not the 1954 film or any of the Godzilla films that followed.

Maybe it was a marketing decision. Maybe the team wanted to remake Beast from the start (which would allow them to savagely rip off the Great Ray Harryhausen for a second time without giving him a lick of credit or paying him a dime) but figured “Godzilla” would mean better box office in terms of name recognition alone. Or maybe they were just confused.

When you get down to the nut, the real curse facing any attempt to create an Americanized Godzilla is a simple one. Although inspired by two American films, when Tanaka first came up with the idea of making a monster movie (a first in Japan at the time) he insisted there be something about it that made the monster in question uniquely Japanese. To this end his writers came up with a creature representing the horror of not just Hiroshima and Nagazaki, but the nearby H-bomb tests that followed the war. As the series progressed the films dealt with other issues facing Japan at the moment, from the decision to use nuclear power to the environment to Japan’s role in the world. Moreover, the series, in a convoluted way, remained aware of its own history and mythology, even as it was rewritten from decade to decade. One of the reasons the Godzilla films seem so silly to American audiences is that this self-consciousness and the deep, specifically Japanese roots were often excised by American distributors or were simply missed by American audiences. Any attempt to Americanize Godzilla means stripping away everything he represents to his original audience, leaving us with nothing more than a big mutated dinosaur.

That’s why, as history seems to be in the process of repeating itself, I suspect the upcoming Edwards film, as good and dazzling and action-packed as it may be, will likely, like the Emmerich/Devlon film, be a monster movie, but not a Godzilla film.

Jim Knipfel’s latest book, A Purposeful Grimace: In Defense of Godzilla, may be ordered here. http://electronpress.com/oscommerce1/

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Don't ever speak of 98' zilla again.

The only thing I'd say you are missing is the constant jabs at siskel and ebert. Immature mockery belongs in no movie ever, and well, all emmmerich did in the end was make them look like the smartest guys in the room.

I agree with you completely on the misunderstanding of Godzilla by American audiences and why the 98 one sucked but I think Americans will get it more now and in turn the makers of this new one. Even though it doesn't compare to the shear destruction of two atom bombs, 9-11 seriously influenced American audiences and gave them an understanding of devastating destruction on our own turf.

Oh, please!! After decades of seeing a guy in a rubber suit stomp over miniatures of Tokyo, and all the confusing, sometimes sentimental nonsense about "Godzilla" saving the people of earth from various monsters portrayed by guys in equally cheesy rubber suits, we finally got a movie that made Godzilla BELIEVABLE - the 1998 version - and then all the die-hard fans (who are apparently able to suspend disbelief to the point that a guy in a rubber suit looks "scary!!") trash the only GOOD Godzilla movie ever made, up to that point.
I'm looking forward to this movie, but in case none of you have seen the previews, it comes a LOT closer to that 1998 GOOD version, than any of those silly "rubber-suit" versions...

At the end of the day, its still about a giant monster causing havoc and destruction for whatever reason. Or he's fighting another creature causing havoc and destruction for whatever reason. That will always be the main selling point of these movies. Old or new.

"Good" is in the eye of the beholder. But what can truly differentiate films is "tone". One can't lump all the Toho films into a single "guy in a rubber suit" catagory....even though they all featured a guy (and guys) in a rubber suit. 1954's Godzilla debut is much more similar in tone to the upcoming Edwards version than the cartoonish Toho films staged on Monster Island. That is why, in my opinion, that the newest movie will be "good"...it intentionally shares the no-nonsense tone and terror of the "good" original. The dramedy/action underpinnings and style of all those Emmerich/Devlin disaster flicks already seem dated to me..and I always feel the commerce coming through. What I like about the new trailer is my reaction to it...I feel like I did as a kid the first time I saw the original Godzilla. I'm 62 years old...and the kid in me can't wait!

By the way, great article Mr. Knipfel.

PLEASE don't tell me that you were scared as a kid by the guys in the rubber suits... I was only 8 years old when I realized how dumb & cheesy those Japanese-made Godzilla movies were...

Oh, and you, Sunny, said:

"One can't lump all the Toho films into a single "guy in a rubber suit" catagory....even though they all featured a guy (and guys) in a rubber suit...."
I rest my case.

So what's your point? You want a Godzilla movie where Kong and Godzilla have tea and chat about the weather?

I don't know what this dude is on about I loved this film, still do!

The main problem with the '98 version is the filmamkers had NO respect for the source material and stripped away everything that made the character unique and original. That's like doing Superman but making him so he doesn't fly or have superhuman strength! The creature didn't look like Godzilla, nor did it act like Godzilla. Those were my gripes; not how they brought him to life (CGI versus man in suit). In the end, it just wasn't Godzilla, and to correct you on a point, it is strongly inferred (in the '98 version) that he is in fact a mutated lizard, not a dinosaur.
I also have to take you to task on Peter Jackson's King Kong. That was as respectful a tribute to an original version as you're going to see, and yes, the original is a huge gorilla. The filmmakers initial concept was to make him more of an ape-man or something more humanoid, but they then settled on a giant gorilla. The filmmakers of this new Godzilla, by all accounts are G-fans and actually like the character, unlike Emmerich, and from what I've seen so far seems to point to this movie keeping the elements that made Godzilla, at his best, extremely cool.

Random Person, today you are my hero. Sometimes things just need to be said, and I appreciate that you said them.

I think someone should do that. Robot Chicken perhaps.

Trust me, other than this version and the '98 version both being created with 3D software, this will be lightyears away from that debacle, and closer to the silly rubber-suit versions you're knocking, especially the 1954 Gojira.

98 GODZILLA wasn't a mutated dinosaur he was mutated lizard like an iguana.horrible.

"That’s why, as history seems to be in the process of repeating itself, I suspect the upcoming Edwards film, as good and dazzling and action-packed as it may be, will likely, like the Emmerich/Devlon film, be a monster movie, but not a Godzilla film"

Have you not seen the trailers? Have you not heard the Edwards quotes? I'm confused by this last comment? It's obvious it's much, much more then a monster movie. Much deeper as was his first film Monsters.

Yea, I wish Godzilla would have emoted better in '98. I'm tired of all this destruction and action and entertainment in my monster flicks. I want to know what makes Godzilla cry, laugh, and what he believes his purpose in life is. Now that I got that sarcasm out of my system, I'd like to say this article seems like it was written by some film snob trying to sound intellectual by stating the japanese versions will always be superior to any american incarnation. That being said, can't wait for the new one. Trailer looks awesome.

Haha that would be hilarious.

Godzilla 98 was okay for myself personally. But what made it such a travesty was one issue. The story. Aka The Plot. Where as the original Gojira was about the fear of nuclear devastation. Godzilla 98 lacked a lot of fears regarding an unknown gigantic lizard causing havoc in Manhattan. Not to mention full of plot holes. And a jab at Siskel and Ebert for reasons only Emmerich would know about. There were other instances were the creature didn't match in size in certain scenes. Made the US military forces look pretty sheepish. And don't get me started about the taxi cab in it's mouth but couldn't chew due to a piece of bridge?

Sorry but it was pretty disappointing.

but if you must, do it in Elvis' voice

Edwards clearly knows what he is doing with this movie. It will be a fantastic and character oriented reboot of the series and even if people don't recognize that, toho will not do a name change and still consider it a godzilla movie. They worked to help make this movie, guys.

Just because it may not look all that realistic doesn't mean it is bad. I guess you're just the type that watches the movies for the crappy cgi explosions and pointless action scenes without actually caring about the actual storyline.

Iguana turns into mutant allosaurus and travels all the way to new york of all the places it could go to make a nest. Totally more realistic.

I was around 9 when the 98' movie came out. It actually became a favorite of mine instantly, especially since I had always been fascinated by dinosaurs since I saw Jurassic Park. Although I had never before seen the original Japanese Godzilla movies, thanks to the 98' movie I became interested in learning more from the country where the original idea came from. Since then I've explored their music, movies and shows. I think each movie appeals to people in the audience in different ways. What one might find interesting in one movie, others might not, but I think the point we should recognize is that obviously the 98' filmmakers were inspired by the originals because they liked them and so as a fan wanted to produce something from that inspiration. They gave it their own spin and introduced Godzilla to people like me, who probably would never have heard of the original at such an early age. Both sides have their merit. If you don't agree with one side, just ignore it and find what you do like.

I absolutely agree with you that D&E missed the mark by trying to make Godzilla more real than mythical, but remember the context of the time. Toho approved of the design, and this was coming off the heels of Jurassic Park. Godzilla was always inspired by dinosaurs, but our understanding of what they were had changed significantly since 1954. Clearly JP was an influence on redesigning the big guy, and it might have worked had it been surrounded by better material (for the record, Allosaurus is still Allosaurus, but 'Zilla was actually a mutated iguana, with back spines). Godzilla spawning was a bad idea. Matthew Broderick as action hero was a bad idea. Actually, Godzilla as action flick rather than disaster flick was a bad idea. The goofball Mayor was a bad idea. I don't think "silly" would have been much of an issue had they done it well (and cultural context or not, there are a lot of silly elements to the Godzilla series, especially the later entries in the Showa series). From what I've seen so far, Edwards has the right idea (whether his execution delivers is another matter). He basically sticks to the classic design, understands the need to have actual, Godzilla caused mass destruction and to show its ramifications. He has nabbed a hot actor at his peak instead of a has been looking for a comeback. And he has another monster in it (according to reports). Even what seems to be revisionist history on Godzilla's origin would seem to add to his mythological nature rather than detract from it. It would certainly be nice if he captures much of what makes Godzilla special to Japanese culture, but part of doing remakes it to tailor the film to a different audience. I would be perfectly fine with him making an American version, or just one less culturally specific, so long as it still spoke to important themes.

One of the complaints about the 98 film is that Godzilla didn't cause enough destruction - much of it was actually caused by the military shooting at him (and missing).

The only good thing about the movie was the soundtrack and the first 2 trailers....simple like that

Brilliant "rebuttal" there, Sunshine. Bet it took you all day to come up with it.

I've never been a fan of the actor in a rubber suit Godzilla movies. With the admitted exception of the '54 original, which was a serious attempt at science fiction (albeit hampered by a low budget and cheesy '50s special effects), I've never understood how they could appeal to anyone over the age of six. But that's just me. Your mileage may vary. The '98 version may not have been a "real" Godzilla movie - whatever that means - but despite its many flaws, it was a far more realistic depiction of what such a creature would actually be if it could exist in reality than any of the rubber suit versions. That scores points with me. The more realistic a filmmaker tries to make a thing - even an impossible thing - the easier it is to suspend disbelief and just enjoy the show. Rubber suit Godzilla has his loyal fans. So does "realistic" Godzilla. There's really no point in arguing over which one is "better."

How do we know Edwards' Godzilla won't end up being another GINO, as the purists call Emmerich's Godzilla?

We don't.

1998 Godzilla was bad....bad film making. the 1954 Godzilla is terrific

That's like saying Lord of the Rings is "guys with swords". It shows you have a poor understanding of the films or subjugate your mind to useless generalizations. For starters, the original Godzilla was quite dark and gritty. Godzilla was an allegory for nuclear weapons, and the film even showed children being poisoned by Godzilla's radiation. While the effects have dated, it's not a cheesy film in tone. Hence, why you can't lump all the Toho films together.

"Americans will get it more now."

Will they?

See, one thing that has puzzled me about this whole production is: Why would Toho allow Gareth Edwards to americanize Godzilla in the first place? I mean, it's as if Toho executives have amnesia or something.

Should Toho have said "No" to Edwards? We may never know.