Godzilla at 25: When Hollywood Made a Manhattan Monster Movie, with Disastrous Results
Roland Emmerich’s 1998 Godzilla film was clearly an attempt to create a new blockbuster franchise but was one of the most hated big movies of the decade.
The city that never sleeps just got a wake-up call.
Godzilla films had been produced in Japan for decades with various levels of production values, but it wasn’t until 1998 that Hollywood made a big-budget film about the monster. It came from director Roland Emmerich and his co-writer Dean Devlin, the team that had a massive hit with Independence Day in the summer of 1996.
The result, which arrived in May of 1998 — 25 years ago this week — was one of the least respected blockbusters in history, one that disappointed at the box office, received scathing reviews, and never really gained any type of critical re-appraisal. Its obvious echoes of the 9/11 events probably kept many people from re-watching from 2001 on.
The film, for some reason, debuted as the closing film at Cannes in 1998, before hitting theaters days later. After its weak performance, there was never a sequel.
The film went with a Jaws-like gimmick in which we don’t see the entirety of Godzilla for a long stretch of the film, something which extended to its ad campaign, which also left the monster out. And once we see the big monster, she’s somewhat underwhelming. And yes — as we learn in a plot twist about Godzilla being “born pregnant” — the monster is a female.
The film stole most of its major ideas from the original Jurassic Park five years earlier, including a hero who’s a nerdy scientist played by an actor who’s an unconventional fit for an action hero role (Matthew Broderick, standing in for Jeff Goldblum; Nicholas Cage in The Rock was another example in that era) And somewhat incongruously, every woman in the movie seems to have the hots for him.
But even so, the film didn’t seem to understand what worked about the Jurassic Park movies, starting with the sense of wonder. Even the mostly forgettable Jurassic Park sequel the year before, The Lost World, had a third-act showdown with the T-rex in San Diego that was a better version of what Emmerich’s Godzilla was trying to do. Cloverfield is probably a better Godzilla-in-New York movie than the ’98 Godzilla, and Hollywood did better on its next try, with Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla film.
Maria Pitillo, plucked from obscurity to play the female romantic lead, and barely seen again after that, was supposed to be Broderick’s college sweetheart, even though they’re very clearly not the same age. The supporting cast is led by Simpsons voices Hank Azaria (as a news cameraman) and Harry Shearer (as a lecherous news anchor).
The other major thing remembered about Godzilla was the weird joke in which the mayor of New York City (Michael Lerner) is “Mayor Ebert” and is fat, constantly eats snacks and puts his thumbs up, and has a sidekick named “Gene.” This not particularly subtle joke was supposedly revenge for Ebert panning a previous Emmerich/Devlin picture. Lerner passed away recently, ironically nearly ten years to the day after Ebert’s death.