As far as I can tell, the 1998 American version of “Godzilla” is about a contest between the U.S. military and a giant monster to see who can destroy more of New York. And honestly, Godzilla is hardly even trying. In fact, he mostly just wants to be left alone. The military is ostensibly interested in killing Godzilla, and Godzilla occasionally shows mild interest in fighting with the military, but you can tell the real focus is on turning New York into a smoldering pile of debris.
Speaking of smoldering piles of debris, how about that 1998 American version of “Godzilla,” eh? Man alive, what an insufferable swamp of idiocy. “Look how BIG everything is!” the movie shouts. “Isn’t it HUGE?? AREN’T YOU IMPRESSED??” If this movie were a man, it would be driving a giant Hummer and making a lot of casual references to how much money it has.
The film’s opening footage suggests that nuclear testing in French Polynesia caused a Komodo dragon to turn into a Godzilla. Once it is fully grown, it attacks a Japanese cannery ship. (That’s it, Japan! That’s all the representation you get in this Godzilla movie!) The sole survivor, an elderly Japanese man, whispers the word “gojira” to investigators. This is something of an inside joke to Godzilla fans, who know that “Gojira” was the Japanese title of the original Godzilla film. But here’s the thing. “Gojira” is a combination of the Japanese words for “gorilla” and “whale.” Even if we accept that an old man who has been traumatized by a monster would spontaneously devise a portmanteau to describe it, why would he choose to reference two animals that the monster looks nothing like? Pardon me for saying so, but the film is starting to seem a little far-fetched.
The far-fetchedness increases when we are introduced to the hero of the movie, and he is played by Matthew Broderick. Matthew Broderick is a lot of things, but the star of an action movie he is not. In fact, now that I think about it, he isn’t really even a lot of things. He is one thing, and that thing is Ferris Bueller. In any event, here he plays a scientist named Nick who gets recruited by the U.S. government to help investigate the strange occurrences worldwide that would seem to suggest the existence of a very large animal. For example, giant footprints, and things being stomped, and cannery ships being sunk, and terrified Asian seniors talking about gorilla-whales. You definitely need to bring in a scientist to figure out what THAT all means.
Meanwhile, Godzilla swims to Manhattan and starts wrecking the place. He isn’t malevolent about it, though. Godzilla takes no delight in squishing people or knocking down buildings. He’s just so BIG, you know? You try being a hundred feet tall and having a giant tail and strolling through Midtown without jostling anything. I’m the size of a normal human and I still bump into a lot of people in New York. That place is crowded. Shoot, yo. So I feel bad for Godzilla, who gets a lot of blame even though he’s no more at fault than a Chris Farley character trapped in a small suit coat.
The sequences of Godzilla inadvertently smashing stuff are clearly the reason the movie was made — ME WANT SHOW THINGS BREAK! ME WANT BIG ANIMAL HURT CITY! — yet they demonstrate the difficult position that director Roland Emmerich is in. He apparently doesn’t want us to be frightened by Godzilla, because he keeps the tone light and glib and goofy. Like a guy will say, “I got a feeling something bad is gonna happen!” and then Godzilla’s foot smashes a car. Doh! But Emmerich apparently also doesn’t want us to be entertained or amused, because none of the action is funny or exciting. And with “scary” and “entertaining” off the table, Emmerich settles on merely being loud and big.
The military is summoned to deal with the Godzilla situation. Fighter jets pursue the beast through Manhattan’s streets, firing missiles and bombs willy-nilly, inflicting very little harm on Godzilla himself but obliterating numerous buildings. All of New York is what they call “collateral damage,” though usually that term refers to injury that befalls something in addition to the intended target, not instead of. Impartial observers could witness the spectacle and very reasonably surmise that the military is trying to tear down New York City and this giant lizard just keeps getting in the way.
Eventually Godzilla runs and hides somewhere. Lots of places in New York for a hundred-foot monster to lie low. The mayor orders all residents to evacuate the city and head to New Jersey, which they do in about an hour (New Yorkers are very efficient), so now they’re safe from Godzilla but they’re in New Jersey, so it’s really a lateral move.
While all of this is happening, there’s a woman named Audrey (Maria Pitillo) who works as an assistant for a fatuous TV news reporter but wants to be a journalist herself. Audrey also happens to be the ex-girlfriend of none other than Nick the scientist, who has arrived in New Jersey just in time to confirm that yes, indeed, there is a very large animal around here somewhere. Nick and Audrey have a pleasant reunion, reminiscing about old times and catching up on each other’s lives. You’d hardly know that just across the river was a Cthulhian monster that threatens to uproot all of civilization. Nick has a secret government tape of Godzilla wreaking havoc elsewhere in the world, incidents that have been hushed up and kept from the news media, which wouldn’t have been hard, as I believe at this point everyone was focused on talking about Bill Clinton’s sex life. Audrey steals this tape in order to get her “big break” in the news business, whereupon her fatuous boss steals the tape and the story from her, whereupon the military is angry that someone leaked the tape, whereupon Nick is blamed, whereupon Nick is hurt that his ex-girlfriend would betray him like that, whereupon everyone goes Wait a minute, isn’t there a &@*!@ DINOSAUR TRUNDLING AROUND NEW YORK?!
Somewhere in all this, Nick determines that Godzilla is asexual and has probably laid eggs in the city, even though Manhattan is no place to raise children. Of course, nobody in the government believes him about the eggs. The governments in these movies never believe the scientists, even when they specifically asked the scientists for help. “Scientist! You’re the only one who can explain it! What’s happening here?” “Well, this and this and this is happening.” “You’re crazy! Who asked you?” It’s the circle of life.
Now that Nick’s services are no longer required, the military goes back to its original plan of just blowing up as many things as possible, in the hopes that one of them will accidentally be Godzilla. They dump a bunch of fish in Central Park to lure the creature into firing range, but Godzilla — who is smarter than the military — figures out it’s a trap and doesn’t get too close. Their plan now thwarted, the Army figures, aw, hell, let’s start firing missiles and bombs anyway, and once again Godzilla is unscathed while the city is annihilated.
The Army does manage to chase Godzilla into the river, though, where submarines are waiting to shoot torpedoes at him. You may have already guessed that the submarines succeed primarily in torpedoing themselves. At this point the wisest choice would be to sit quietly and let Godzilla do whatever he wants. Nonetheless, the military officers think they’ve killed him. Crisis over! Even though there’s no trace of a Godzilla corpse or anything, they figure they’ve won, so New York is immediately un-evacuated, and life gets back to normal. All of this has happened in the course of one day. Ha ha, remember earlier today, when there was a gigantic mutant lizard rummaging through town? Glad THAT’S over!
But what about those alleged eggs that Godzilla allegedly deposited somewhere? The U.S. government doesn’t believe Nick, but some French dude named Philippe does! He’s played by Jean Reno, your go-to guy for French dudes named Philippe. The French are keenly interested in eradicating Godzilla and his offspring — not for noble humanitarian reasons, but because they’re the ones who created him with their nuclear testing and would like to keep that fact out of the papers. Philippe and Nick discover that Godzilla’s nest is in Madison Square Garden, and that even though Nick predicted Godzilla might have laid as many as a dozen eggs, it turns out there are HUNDREDS, because hundreds is bigger than a dozen. I bet Roland Emmerich had to be talked down from a million.
The eggs hatch immediately — wow, Godzilla must have laid them just in time — and out pop velociraptors, similar to those you might remember from such films as “Jurassic Park.” The building is now infested with them! Philippe’s French soldiers are being eaten right and left! It’s the worst disaster in Madison Square Garden since the 2002 Knicks, amirite?
Now that the li’l Godzillas are out and about, the U.S. military starts to believe that Nick may have been right about the whole egg thing. But how can they be killed? You’ll never guess what the Army comes up with. Ready? Missiles and bombs! To be fair, it actually works this time, and Madison Square Garden is turned into a crater in the process. All the babies are killed just as the unsurprisingly not-dead Godzilla shows up again, and now Godzilla is ANGRY, and sure, let’s have the heroes get in a car and drive through Manhattan while Godzilla chases them, why not? The people who paid money to see a Godzilla movie definitely want the film to include a car chase.
Yes, they finally manage to kill Godzilla for real. They destroy the Brooklyn Bridge, too, although now it seems like they’re just running up the score. But the thing that really had viewers on the edge of their seats was this: Will Audrey get her big break in the news business, and will she reconcile with Nick?? You may rest assured that the film spends many, many precious minutes establishing that yes, thank goodness, Audrey’s future in TV journalism is bright thanks to her coverage of Godzillapocalypse ’98, and that yes, she and Nick have ironed out their differences, praise Godzilla. The film ends leaving the door open for a sequel, though for some reason no one has gotten around to making one yet.