Ah, Godzilla. One of our favorite movie monsters. Who doesn't love the big guy? Up from the depths, thirty stories high, breathing fire, he stands in the sky. That's how the intro theme to the Hannah-Barbera cartoon introduced him, and boy did they get it right. The King of the Monsters has overcome a number of deadly foes over the years; Mothra, MechaGodzilla, the Japanese military, low effects budgets, and many others. But no matter what, there has always been one soulless, all-powerful beast that Godzilla has never been able to defeat, leaving the iconic monster broken and powerless as it destroys everything in its path.
Yet again, we Americans prove that we can't make a decent Godzilla movie to save our lives. I'm sure you've heard—regardless of whether you've seen the movie—about how the latest Godzilla film was a complete bomb that teased awesome monster battles and gave us a boring main lead instead. And those people are right. But there is one thing that I've heard from a number of frustrated moviegoers in the film's defense:
“At least it's better than the one with Matthew Broderick”.
Even before the first teaser trailers for the 2014 version came out, the 1998 version has been loathed by pretty much everyone with functioning eyes and ears. Ferris Beuller stars as the Worm Guy (sometimes called Nick) as he's called in to track down a new lifeform, only to team up with a backstabbing blonde and a French stereotype to save the world from the T-Rex from Jurassic Park. That movie is like the Batman and Robin of the Godzilla franchise; just like George Clooney's Bat-Nipples and Arnold's ice-related puns, this movie never happened. Thank God the newest film was better than that atrocity.
You are all wrong.
Strap yourselves in as I take you on the ride of your life, a journey in which we look at both Godzilla films (both of which I have watched in the last thirty days) and compare them. What did they do wrong, what did they do right, and was the 1998 version the worst Godzilla film of the two?
So, the first thing we should compare in the Godzilla movies is the history of the architecture of the respective films' settings, and what it says about their traditional values in comparison to modern culture. Just kidding, the first thing we're looking at is their versions of Godzilla himself. Put down the Art History textbooks, nerds.
The 1998 version's Godzilla, or Zilla as he's called by those who hate him (heretofore referred to as “Everybody”), is the second thing everyone brings up when criticizing that film (right behind Broderick's line “That's a lot of fish!”). And to be honest, I can see why. Barring the fact that they completely changed the design of the then 44 year old monster, they changed it to something that many felt was generic and derivative. Jurassic Park was released only five years prior, and it was easy to get the impression that they were simply trying to capitalize on that film's success by making Godzilla look like the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex. Looking back on it, I think that's exactly what they were doing. Look back at the sequence where the characters dodge the baby Godzillas in Madison Square Garden and tell me that that's not taken from the ending sequence where they are chased through the Visitor's Center by the feather-less Velociraptors. Maybe not scene by scene, but at least in spirit. I'm surprised Zilla wasn't cloned from “Dino DNA” found in tree sap.
Regardless, Zilla was hated. Hence the name. He was so hated, that the Japanese had the “real” Godzilla fight Zilla in Godzilla: Final Wars, filmed presumably while burning an American flag. Zilla lost in record time. I could last longer against Floyd Mayweather wielding a chainsaw than Zilla lasted against his Godzilla-suited opponent. No, Floyd, that is not a challenge.
Unlike the much hated Zilla, the 2014 version actually had the traditional design for Godzilla. Unlike his Atomic Breathless copycat, this one actually used his Atomic Breath. He was big, strong, invincible, and embodied everything that Godzilla should embody (Truth, Justice, and the American Way, I think). So naturally, he was the better Godzilla, right?
Well, it's a tough one. I actually like both in their own way. The 2014 Godzilla may be the “real” Godzilla, but let's be honest. The “real” Godzilla is even more generic than his counterpart. Godzilla was designed in 1954 to performed by an actor wearing a suit stomping on cardboard buildings. Zilla was designed to be sleek, fast, and look great using state of the art special effects of the time (and the effects in the 1998 film still look good today). But Godzilla isn't supposed to be sleek and fast, he's supposed to be the embodiment of raw power. I got that from the 2014 Godzilla. I felt that invincibility and power, even though he was only on screen for about 87 seconds (124 seconds if you include blurry shots of his tail). You just knew that he could have taken a hundred missiles to the face and he wouldn't have felt a thing. A nuclear explosion is what he probably uses as an alarm clock. I'm sure he uses arctic glaciers as barbells for his strength training regimen. He's the Incredible Hulk without the humiliation of wearing ripped purple pants. Broderick's fish-eating dinosaur, on the other hand, was killed by a handful of missiles from a couple of fighter jets.
But what the 1998 monster lacks in raw strength, he made up for with other measurements of power. This guy was fast, on land as well as in the ocean. This guy was stealthy, and of course in the most awesome way possible. He didn't lumber around like a big, mindless monster. Oh no, he stalked his prey, and mind you, his prey was military combat helicopters. Silent as the night, he took down these missile-firing birds of prey one by one in much the same manner that I take down foes in the Batman: Arkham games. I'm surprised he didn't pull out a Zilla Batarang, a Zillarang if you will (hey Mattel, I've got a great toy idea for you that the kids will love). He was swift, a silent predator, and smart. He realized his mistakes and never made the same one twice (“Hmm, another pile of fish gathered just for me, placed under a bunch of spotlights? No thanks. By the way, soldiers, I can still see you!”). He stayed on the move and in tight spaces, ensuring that he had the maximum protection from the humans' weapons. He used deception and bait-and-switch tactics. He somehow managed to hide himself and his entire nest of eggs from the most advanced and powerful military in the world for days right in the middle of Manhattan (too bad satellite imagery won't be invented for another century). He was always one step ahead of the military. In fact, it was only by outwitting him, rather than overpowering him, that humanity was able to take him down. And you can argue that the only reason he allowed Dr. Tatotoopopulopulicilis (it's Tatopoulos) trap him in the Brooklyn Bridge's suspension cables is because he was blinded by rage after seeing the death of all his newborn children. If Godzilla Rex hadn't allowed himself to be blinded by rage and kept his wits, they would never have been able to stop him.
If Godzilla is Superman, then Zilla is Batman. If Godzilla is the Hulk, then Zilla is Spider-Man. Nothing can hurt Godzilla, but nothing can touch Zilla. Godzilla can overpower and destroy anything, while Zilla is always one step ahead of you and will strike when you least expect it. So which one do I think is the best? Well again, it's tough to say. I think most people give it to the 2014 one simply because it's the “real” Godzilla. And I'll give it to that one simply for that reason as a tiebreaker of sorts, because I think both monsters are awesome, regardless of what the Japanese movie makers think. Both creatures were powerful and invincible, but in very different ways. Perhaps if the 2014 version actually showed Godzilla at some point, he could have done something to truly make himself stand out.
And seriously, Japan, I've seen some of your Godzilla movies. The Broderick film is like The Dark Knight compared to a good few of yours. You've no right to criticize.
The characters in both films are all over the place. The 1998 film took place in an alternate universe where the world was populated entirely by walking cliches and racial stereotypes. But being a Roland Emmerich film (this is the guy who brought you Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow), you really couldn't expect much. The characters aren't really good, they aren't really bad, they are just there. Everyone has every possible criticism to make about Broderick as the main protagonist, or his love interest, Audrey, but I had no problem with them. While they don't stand out in any way, their motivations are clear and they do things that you would think their characters would do in their situations. The film tries to do the age-old trick of having them still be in love after all those years, blah blah blah, care about us, dammit! But at least the film knows what it is, a Godzilla movie, and keeps both its focus and Nick's on taking down the titular monster. As a matter of fact, what was wrong with Broderick's character? He was a nerdy scientist who got conscripted into one of the single largest military endeavors of all time with no warning or advanced knowledge. Suddenly, the “worm guy” is playing with the big boys. He found a threat even greater than the monster (the nest) but no one believed him, and he had to take it upon himself (by unofficially joining the French Secret Service) to find and destroy the nest before it was too late. He pined over a girl, sure, but kept defeating Godzilla and destroying the nest as his main priorities. He got closer to Godzilla than anyone ever has, kept his cool the entire time, and lived to tell the tale. And in the end, he outwitted the monster and used quick thinking to coordinate a final attack that finally put the invincible beast down for good. You know what? Broderick did do a good job in the film, and so did the character he played. Then again, he did say the line “That's a lot of fish!”. And that is unforgivable.
The rest of the film's cast, like I said before, are a bunch of cliches and stereotypes. Animal and his wife are New Yawkuhs living in New Yawk, and Animal is only pissed because there will be no more Knick games that year (no reason to root for the Nets yet). The mayor only cares about his poll numbers, the French love cigarettes, croissants, and coffee, and Audrey's boss only cares about Audrey's vagina. The guy who plays Sam's dad in the Transformer films gives Colonel Hicks some growth throughout the films, going from being completely dismissive of Nick to trusting him, and eventually complimenting Sergeant O'Neil later in the film (and then later buying him a transforming Camarro from Bernie Mac).
But even the walking stereotypes breathed more life into the 1998 film than what was delivered by its 2014 counterpart. Bryan Cranston was, of course, a true acting powerhouse, delivering an emotional performance that made you care about his character and motivations. So naturally he was killed off in the first act. Well that's okay, we're just here for Godzilla, right? Just kidding, he's in the movie less than Cranston was. This movie is all about Kick-Ass playing Private Corporal Henry Ford Prefect or whatever Ford's full name was. Ford has the emotion of a IRS tax collector. He was a cardboard cutout, yet somehow we were supposed to care whether this one guy got home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen!? Really!? There are more Olsen Twins out there!?) and his son, who I swear was Kristen Stewart dressed up as an 11 year old boy (like Bella from Twilight, the kid doesn't change his facial expression from “dull surprise”, not once). With all the death and destruction going around, people separated from their loved ones, and three monsters about to have a throwdown in San Francisco, why we are supposed to care about whether this specific guy gets back to his boring child is beyond me. But the emotionless robot is reunited with his family, thanks in part to him apparently being the world's only bomb disposal expert (not even the bomb disposal team specifically sent on that bomb disposal mission had a bomb disposal expert, it seems).
Part of the reason that Ford fails as a character to me is his goals. They are all over the place. From bailing his dad out of Japanese prison to helping him do the very thing that got Cranston arrested in the first place, to helping that Asian boy find his ungrateful Asian parents (not even a thank you nod?), to getting back to his family, to deactivating that nuke, to destroying the MUTO nest he just discovered. Jeez, why the hell was this person even in the Godzilla movie? None of his motivations and goals have anything to do with Godzilla. Compare that with Broderick's character, whose goal is straightforward: Find a way to kill Godzilla and destroy his nest.
I'll never understand why they killed off Cranston's character. He had a compelling character and clear cut motivation. He could have been tasked with finding a way to kill the MUTO, and in his desire to take revenge on the monster that killed his wife he could have been reckless and ultimately been the one to suggest the nuclear option, putting him at odds with Ken Watanabe's character. A nuclear engineer trying to keep his cool and fight for humanity but being consumed by the need for vengeance? That's a character we could have gotten behind.
Who else was in this movie? I don't remember. Everybody was boring. At least the 1998 film's characters were memorable, for better or for worse. Honestly, the only other two characters who exhibited any sort of emotion in the film were Ford's wife and Godzilla. Godzilla! When the barely-present CG Godzilla is better at emoting than your main protagonist, it's time to reevaluate your casting choices.
I think I remember Watanabe saying some dramatic things about something. Right? That did happen, correct?
I don't even know what to say about these two films' stories. They are all over the place. How and why did the 1998 Godzilla get to New York? He was in Asia, and then all of a sudden he's on the East Coast? At least the 2014 film had the monsters go from Asia to San Francisco. That makes sense, especially if you're the gay-hating religious extremist type who would believe that these monsters are God's punishment for tolerating homosexuals, in which case you've probably been predicting San Francisco's destruction for years.
Other than that, everything in the 1998 version makes sense. Godzilla is hiding out in the city because he's nesting, and he reproduces asexually because, well, why wouldn't he? If he is the first of a new species created by radiaton, why can't he reproduce asexually (a bigger mystery is how every single person seems to be completely blown away by the concept of asexual reproduction. Were biology classes not a thing in high schools until 2000 or something?). The French agents were there because they were the ones who created the monster in the first place. Nick's role as a biologist who examines species affected by radiation makes him a reasonable choice to be recruited by the military to help them study a new specie created by radiation.
2014's plotline rests on the idea that the US Armed Forces plan to use nuclear bombs to destroy creatures that eat radiation and have survived nuclear bombs before. It relies on Ford being the only person in the military capable of disarming a nuclear bomb. It relies on a jaded conspiracy theorist knowing more about the monsters than the massive organization dedicated to containing them. It relies on things happening, and yet it felt like almost nothing happened throughout the film. For a movie with three monsters about to engage in a giant monster fight, this movie was boring. Almost baseball levels of boring.
Despite being campy and goofy (though I'm sure it was taking itself dead serious and failing miserably), at least the 1998 version kept us engaged. The story was well paced and the action scenes kept us investe and connected. That's more than I can say for the 2014 version, where I sat waiting for a payoff that I soon came to realize wasn't going to happen. It offered an intriguing prologue and an admittedly awesome climax, but that didn't change the fact that the rest of the film was a non-medical alternative to sleeping pills. It's one thing to keep the number of action scenes low in order to maximize their impact, but then we need to have characters we actually care about to keep us entertained.
And what was up with all the superfluous morals and messages that the 2014 version kept throwing at us, about the dangers of nuclear bombs and man's hubris? Don't get me wrong, I think movies should have messages in them. But they should be worked in subtly and have something to do with the rest of the film. The 2014 Godzilla wasn't created by nuclear weapons or anything; he just came up to eat the two monsters that ate nuclear radiation and that mankind was actually doing a fairly decent job of keeping contained. Not only were nuclear weapons not the problem, they were the only proposed solution. Outside of Watanabe's “We should let the giant monsters fight in the middle of a city populated by millions of people” solution. If Watanabe were in Armageddon, he would have told Bruce Willis that the nuclear bombs were too dangerous to use and that man should let nature take its course by letting the asteroid hit.
I can support an anti-nuclear weapon message in a film and I generally prefer a movie that tries to tell us something as opposed to a “mindless action movie”, but the message has to be connected in some way to the rest of the movie. If nuclear weapons not only not the cause of the problem but are the only possible solution, then a message about the dangers of nukes just doesn't work.
I could go on and on pointing out the silliness of both these films. In the 1998 version, how the hell did the military keep losing Godzilla in a city filled with millions and millions of people? And how were the soldiers never, ever able to actually hit him? Did Zilla mess with the sights on their guns when they weren't looking? Considering how often they lose him, that seems possible. In the 2014 film, how did no one notice the MUTO escape from the nuclear waste facility in Nevada? It's not exactly like it was able to just sneak past the guards. It left a giant hole in the side of the mountain! Even the most lazy, inept worker would have noticed that. And when they introduced Rear Admiral Stenz as he's walking around the bridge issuing commands and giving the audience an update on the situation, did you notice that all the other officers on the bridge were either communicating through their headsets or delivering situation reports to other members of the crew? Who was Stenz talking to? Literally no one was listening to him.
Sure, I can go on, but I'll end it with what may well be the most popular opinion ever uttered about an American film: Not only was the 1998 Godzilla not that bad (not that it was really all that good), it certainly wasn't the atrocity that was the 2014 film. The 1998 version at least knew it was an action film about a giant dinosaur destroying a city and treated it as such. I watched it a few days ago and was entertained just enough to not be angry at its existence. It had good action sequences spaced evenly throughout the film, just enough so that you don't get bored but not so many that you get overloaded with them.
The 2014 film was boring. Boring. I understand that they wanted to focus on the human characters and take a quality over quantity approach to the titular monster. But if you're going to do that, make sure you don't kill off your most interesting character in the first act. Don't have the main protagonist being a walking doorknob with no clear goals, motivation, or even a personality. Don't make the big giant CG monster—who audiences paid to see and who you barely showed—one of the only two decent actors in your character-driven story.
And that is the primary reason as to why the 2014 film is, in my eyes, way worse than its predecessor. At least the dumb action movie delivered on the action, and at least that Godzilla movie delivered on Godzilla. But the character-driven drama fails when you don't care about the characters (or when the characters don't even care about each other, as seen by Ford's almost total lack of a reaction to his father's death). Cranston and Godzilla were the only two reasons to see the film, and neither of them are in it for any noticeable length of time.
But for those who still think the 1998 film is the worst Godzilla movie of all time, just be thankful that there was no Godzooky, Manilla, dancing Godzilla, or aliens in it. Just a lot of fish.
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