Sunday, April 12, 2009

Made In America: Godzilla(1998)

There have been, in my own lifetime, perhaps a half dozen or so events that managed to get me excited. I'm a deliberate person, one who generally maintains and applies an even and/or slightly pessimistic and guarded perspective to everything and everyone I encounter in life. Movies are no different: I react to them in generally the same fashion.

One of these events that managed to get me excited was the impending theatrical release of an American Godzilla movie. My anticipation began back in late 1997 when, watching a VHS rental of the film I Know What You Did Last Summer(1997), I saw an advance teaser trailer for Godzilla(1998): it was the "museum" teaser where a group of students viewing a T-Rex skeleton have their tour interrupted by the gargantuan foot of Godzilla, which crashes down through the museum roof.

Seeing this advance trailer for the first time, I was fired up, no doubt about it. The months passed by and in early May, 1998 I managed to buy two tickets to an advance theatrical screening of Godzilla, the first showing of this film in Atlanta(GA), on May 19, 1998. I bought the additional ticket in order to take a friend of mine, who had expressed interest in watching the movie.

At the time I was between full time employment and was working for another friend, helping him get his small lawn care business up and running. I took the day off to see Godzilla(1998). On May 19,1998 me and my friend entered the theater and took part in some promotional giveaways that were part of the movie. The theater was crowded but not filled to capacity. I won a t-shirt and a cap. I gave the t-shirt to some nearby kid who appeared ready to cry because he hadn't won the shirt. He accepted the shirt from me without even saying thank you. I kept the cap and other item I won(I still have but don't know what it really is) and settled into my seat to watch the film.

After the film ended I was relieved...and fairly disappointed. I gathered from the reaction of others during the movie that it was generally well received, but there was no applause at the end.

Over the years that have passed since Godzilla(1998) first aired in theaters here in the U.S. I have read countless internet message board debate about the movie. I gather from what I've read that the movie has a far greater number of detractors than those that like it.

Godzilla(1998) generated $398 million dollars in worldwide receipts. Made on a budget of $125 million(with another $25 million spent to promote the film), Godzilla obviously turned a profit. It also was expected to be the summer blockbuster of 1998 but it wasn't. The film suffered a colossal drop off in box office revenue after its first full weekend in theaters, an anomaly that afflicts many films. Any hopes that Tri-Star had for a financial blockbuster in the $500-600 million dollar revenue range were quickly dashed by the film's sudden drop off in gate receipts.

As a result of the film's disappointing box office return many retailers lost a lot of money due to the lack of sales of merchandise tied in to the 1998 film. The film itself was generally assailed by movie critics and blasted by die hard Godzilla fans. The producer of the movie, Dean Devlin, was lampooned by long time Godzilla fans, death threats allegedly made against Devlin as well through large internet message boards like "CHUD". Dean Devlin exascerbated Godzilla fan backlash by allegedly responding to criticism of the film with responses like "If people don't like the film they can go to hell".

Tri-Star(Sony) had, contractually, a five year "window" by which to opt to produce a sequel to Godzilla(1998). Based on a number of factors, perhaps none more so than negative fan reaction to the film and disastrous $ losses by merchandisers tied to the '98 movie, the studio allowed it's five year sequel rights to lapse. Result: no sequel film.

Perhaps the most damning, and lasting legacy of Godzilla(1998) came after a man named Richard Pusateri coined the phrase "GINO", an acronym for "Godzilla In Name Only". This acronym has been, and still is, commonly used to reference both the film and the monster that appeared in the movie.

As to the film itself, I will repeat some of my general observations -

Thumbs up:

1. the suspense that was created in the film about the monster. Done very well, I think. We don't see the creature, only its footprints and the aftermath of its encounter with a large Japanese fishing vessel. It certainly made me want to see what the monster looked like.

2. the performance of various cast members in this film, particularly Jean Reno as French secret agent "Phillipe Roache" and Matthew Broderick as "Nick Tatopolous". Broderick conveyed the role of the unassuming but clever and highly intelligent scientist very well. Reno was also quite good as the mysterious "Roache", whose gruff demeanor was matched only by his frustration and ongoing struggle to find a good cup of coffee.

3. various effects shots looked solid, especially Godzilla's initial landfall in NYC and the first military engagement with the monster in the city.

4. the comic relief in this film, especially from the gruff and portly mayor vs his milquetoast assistant.

Thumbs down:

1. the overall design of Godzilla in this film: it looked IMO too much like an overgrown lizard and not nearly enough like a monster

2. the overall demeanor of Godzilla in this movie: the monster's actions appeared to be motivated more by curiosity, the exception being the final scene after it discovers its young dead and scattered about outside the demolished remains of Madison Square Garden. I think fans wanted to see an aggressive Godzilla, not a creature that flees from the military

3. the concept of Godzilla being asexual and the resulting "baby" Godzillas that are produced from this characteristic of the adult monster.

4. the absence of an enemy monster in the film.

I have seen the original concept art and a model of the Godzilla that would have been used in the originally conceptualized American Godzilla film, which would have been directed by Jan DeBont. It looked much truer to Toho's Godzilla and would have IMO been very well received by American audiences. The "Gryphon", the enemy monster of this failed movie project, also looked impressive and formidable as a potential adversary of Godzilla.

The 1998 American Godzilla film did produce a very decent cartoon series. The film itself has been released to both VHS(I actually have a widescreen copy of it on VHS) and Region 1 DVD(I have the DVD also). Not too long ago a "Monster Edition" R1 DVD release of Godzilla was released but it offers little if anything in the way of additional extras and is IMO ot worth buying.

Godzilla is tentatively scheduled to be released to Blu-Ray DVD but no specific release date has been announced yet.

More than anything, this film conjures up a lot of "what ifs" and "what could have beens" for me and, I suspect, a whole lot of other Godzilla fans. We have Dean Devlin to thank for that. I'm glad the film got made because I still think this film has its place in Godzilla history and fandom.

As many Godzilla fans have said, the film entertains to some degree as a giant monster movie but it's not accepted as a "Godzilla" movie. This sentiment is one I share, wholeheartedly.

The trailer for Godzilla(1998):