Roland Emmerich's 1998 Godzilla was many things (most of them bad), but it wasn't really a Godzilla movie.

Feature Jim Knipfel

Jan 16, 2018

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. This has happened several times in Godzilla’s career. They’d done it before, back in 1975 and 1995, so there was no widespread panic at the news. 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?

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.

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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! 

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. 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?) 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  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 it, 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. Most attempts to Americanize Godzilla end up stripping away everything he represents to his original audience, and in the case of the 1998 movie, that left us with nothing more than a big mutated dinosaur.