'Pacific Rim' Countdown: 'Godzilla' and the Modern Hollywood Kaiju

'Pacific Rim' Countdown: 'Godzilla' and the Modern Hollywood Kaiju

Jun 13, 2013

Of all the big movie genres Hollywood has utilized to show off its state of the art special effects, the giant-monster picture has been the most woefully underrepresented. Hopefully that will change with the impending release of Guillermo del Toro's Kaiju vs. Robot extravaganza Pacific Rim. In the buildup to that event, we'll look at some of the few English-language Kaiju films we do have in an effort to ascertain how they live up to the genre and how they differ.

Part One - Godzilla (1998)

All we really want from a Kaiju film is to see a massive monster destroy cities and/or fight other gigantic monsters in a believable fashion. Even if the film in question consistently lacks all normally important narrative qualities, it's okay so long as the film contain enough good monster action to even things out. Of Godzilla's over two dozen adventures, very few of them actually stand on their own as good films. We judge them not in relation to the same broad film landscape, which includes films like Casablanca and Lawrence of Arabia, but rather in relation to other Kaiju films.

Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, which came out 15 years ago and was thrashed and taken down as soon as it landed, has never enjoyed a good reputation. It's not only regarded widely as a bad film, but as a bad Roland Emmerich film, a much more damning criterion to fail. But if we strip Godzilla of its responsibility not only for providing a real film but a summer tentpole release as well, maybe we can find something worthwhile underneath, especially now that enough time has passed to turn some of its more surface faults into nostalgic kitsch. Perhaps if we grade it solely on its ability to be a big monster movie, we can find an acceptable place for Godzilla within the wider Kaiju cannon.

Unfortunately, no. Revisiting it for the first time since its release, Godzilla does not reveal a hidden gem or even an overly picked on bit of mediocrity. Godzilla is not just a bad film or a bad Roland Emmerich film. It is a bad Godzilla film, period.

Godzilla's core appeal as a big Hollywood movie was the promise that we'd see some truly state of the art Kaiju action on the big screen. And when Godzilla operates at its very best, Emmerich does realize that promise, albeit in a typically Hollywood fashion. The film is not a total waste. Godzilla's redesign was a curious choice since it robs the character of his recognizability. But the design isn't awful in and of itself. And we still have a big lizard loose in New York, so the fact that he looks different is really more a snag than a deal breaker. Were the film truly well done, Godzilla's drastic makeover would hardly be a point of contention at all.

Godzilla is also a character rendered completely with CG (there may be aspects that aren't CG, but I couldn't distinguish them). Despite the age of this CG, Godzilla actually looks fine, especially in comparison to CG Godzilla stuff used in Japan around this time. The problem comes with compositing him onto a real New York. An ugly green-screen outline plagues this film -- particularly in its sewer scenes -- that not only dates the film badly but probably didn't look that good even when it came out.

Most scenes of Godzilla running through the streets of New York still do their job, however. He doesn't feel as real or heavy as he should, but Emmerich makes up for it with some creative choices. He seems particularly fond of top-down views of Godzilla's back and shots which follow Godzilla as he runs through a labyrinth of skyscrapers.

But there's sort of an arrogance both to Emmerich's unwillingness to put a man in a rubber suit and to the film's unnecessary bombast of CGI, which fails to capture what makes the creature stuff in these films really work in the first place. One can see how Hollywood would be afraid of the man-in-suit approach, but Japanese filmmakers had been using it for decades at this point, and with each passing film developed more techniques to get the most believability out of the process. One of the best and simplest of these techniques, one utilized as far back as the 1954 original and ignored by Emmerich, is just a simple wide shot, something to give us a sense of scope. Emmerich finds many ways to highlight his Godzilla's size but none which inspire the same kind of awe we find in even the most mediocre Japanese Godzilla films.

Again, we're not really dealing with Godzilla here, but a wholly original Kaiju who happens to share his name. So it's probably a little oversensitive to see all the stuff with eggs, little Godzillas, and asexual breeding as a betrayal of the character. But it is appropriate to see them as indicative of Godzilla's bigger problem: rather than take Toho's films as inspiration, Emmerich has instead opted to ape Jurassic Park.

I want to be sympathetic to the Godzilla's much maligned "Baby Godzillas" section. As some of the only real practical monster effects in the film, these scenes have more in common aesthetically with the Japanese originals than a lot of the big Godzilla stuff. Furthermore, Godzilla movies always need to have some extra bit of business going on. It's very hard to just have a film where he breaks stuff and battles the military. That's why he's always fighting other monsters.

The problem is that Godzilla just exits the film for all this stuff. Supposedly taken out by some missiles (yeah right) we cut from what we actually came to see to all this Godzilla-Raptor stuff, and it lasts a lot longer than it should. Maybe it would be forgivable if the clear time-stalling tactic were not utilized for a film that runs over two hours. This is yet another part of the Emmerich's hubris. A Godzilla film, even a big-shot Hollywood version, should never be this long. The fact that its bloat comes thanks to an artificial story extension is borderline infuriating.

One nice result from all this Jurassic Godzilla nonsense: when it's finally over and all Godzilla's babies are dead, the film at last gets a bit of focus as Godzilla begins specifically hounding Matthew Broderick and his merry band of idiots in pursuit of vengeance. This motivation offers Godzilla a bit more character than when he was just wandering around getting shot at earlier in the film. I don't think any of the Japanese Godzilla films would choose to have Godzilla chase a sole taxi cab for a climax, but this sequence works better than any other part of the film.

It's too bad Godzilla never catches that cab, however, because Godzilla's human characters are awful. That's nothing new for a Kaiju film, so judging them on that level should be out of bounds. Even the stupid Mayor Ebert stuff seems cheesy enough to live comfortably along side Japanese Kaiju attempts at humor. Still, they are a spectacularly hard group to watch. Broderick and a leering, broad Hank Azaria seem especially embarrassed to be involved. The only human element that works at all is Jean Reno and his bizarrely out of place platoon of French secret service agents. Maybe because watching people struggle with English is part and parcel with these films, but I found these guys to be the only bright spots in an otherwise dull cast.

The nicest thing that can be said about Godzilla is that it's a shame they did not go on to franchise it. Increasingly low budget, B-movie style American Godzilla entries would have been fun to see, particularly if they found some way to bring in other Kaiju for him to battle without losing too much quality special effects-wise.

But it was not meant to be. Moviegoers somehow found the good sense to keep this from being a hit. The film failed to supply the fun giant-monster film we all wanted, and instead offered a Hollywood disaster film so tame and turgid that no one got on board.

Unfortunately, Godzilla's failure kept Hollywood cold on the idea of American Kaiju films for quite some time. Only recently does the taint of Godzilla appear to be wearing off, finally allowing us the opportunity to get the kind of films it should have been in the first place.


Next Week: Cloverfield

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