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The Godzilla we deserved: 1998’s “Godzilla” in Context

May 21, 2014

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Well, the new Godzilla movie has stomped all over the US box office to the tune of 90+ million bucks, but his arrival hasn’t been a smooth one—and I’m not just talking about the property damage. Godzilla has turned out to be  a polarizing film, with some audiences considering it one of the most nuanced and well-crafted blockbuster in years, and others frustrated that the titular green guy isn’t in the movie enough. That and the characters are boring. What we can all agree upon—what seems to be common ground in any discussion of the film—is that the 1998 version sucked. Now, I’m not going be one of those hipster contrarians who likes to challenge the popular opinion of roundly despised films just to show how much more insightful they are (“Sure Pluto Nash was a massively expensive flop that decimated Eddie Murphy’s career, but when looked at in a different light it’s also one of the boldest films of the post-9/11 era…”) No, I too think the 1998 Godzilla gulped down rhino shlong in epic proportions, but I would suggest that we probably weren’t going to get anything much better. Why? One reason: the 1990s.

It ain’t exactly a Nobel-worthy observation to point out that films are informed by their times, but summer blockbusters, and other pop culture films tend to be more prone to this than lower-key dramas and the like. I suspect this has to do with their central operating systems—blockbusters are about the world impacting a hero, whereas dramas are about human interaction and telescoped in scale. This isn’t to say that those films exist in a vacuum, just that their cultural influences are more subtle.

The 1970s action thrillers tapped into a rich vein of post-Watergate paranoia and urban decay. Movies like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor are perfect examples of the former, while the Dirty Harry and Death Wish installments (and their various, multitudinous clones) show the latter.

The 8" S&W .44 Magnum goes a long toward making up for the sweater-vest

The 8″ S&W .44 Magnum goes a long toward making up for the sweater-vest

The 1980s saw a rekindling of Cold War tensions, and so we got Rambo: First Blood Part Two, Red Dawn, War Games. Worry about urban blight hadn’t abated, so the Dirty Harry and Death Wish installments still went pretty strong for much of that decade, and with the sudden surge of Middle Eastern terrorism targeting US citizens and embassies in the early and mid-‘80s we also saw Delta Force, Wanted: Dead or Alive. Even Die Hard was heavily influenced by a sudden acknowledgement of international terrorism–this also went a long way toward making Rambo a success (it used Cold War elements, but released, as it was, the summer of  a series of hijackings and hostage-taking, it also provided a welcome, cathartic scenario in which asymmetric warfare was defeated by the most asymmetric of warriors).

 

Rambo: Protecting us from a warlike Vietnam since 1985.

Rambo: the reason we’re not speaking Vietnamese since 1985.

And that’s why ‘90s movies are so weird. Not bad, mind you, but weird. The ‘90s were by-and-large a period of relative peace and prosperity. The Cold War was done, and it took with it the larger-than-life existential horrors that had permeated everyday life for the past half-century. A humming economy saw urban renewal and a return to urban living (New York City was the standard bearer for this, going from urban hellscape to playground for newly upwardly mobile 20-somethings in about three years).

Consequently, action movies of this era have a strange, ersatz quality to them. The villains were usually generic, baddies, unaffiliated and vaguely-motivated. They seldom had any real anchor in everyday life, and as such, the movies themselves have a weird unspecific quality. I’m not criticizing them—not saying their bad–but there’s a weightlessness to them, as if they don’t believe anything—even on a base level. Where Rambo and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 can be pinpointed to an exact moment in time, Con Air, The Rock, and even Heat (one of the best movies of that decade) could take place any time. Correct for fashions and technology and there’s little else that would have to be changed to remake them today—current anxieties and political realities would have to be imported, but they’d simply fill the void.

Some things are just timeless...

Some things are just timeless…

And that brings us to Godzilla. The original film is freighted with cultural and political anxiety—terror of a nuclear age, terror at man’s powerlessness sin the face of cataclysm, terror of humanity’s ability to create more and more world-annihilating weapons. The 1990s were a spectacularly bad time to remake this movie.

Instead the movie trades in Roland Emmerich’s patented brand of disposable apocalypse. Two years earlier he had a smash-hit with the (still enjoyable) Independence Day. That film saw flying saucers, alien attacks that lay waste to most of the world’s cities, and a fist-pumping triumphant ending that totally ignored the fact that the population has been reduced by about 80% (and likely dropping post-credits, now that there is no infrastructure left in world to deliver food, fresh water, shelter, or health care).

In the 1990s all our action heros doubled as gay backup dancers.

In the 1990s all our action heros doubled as gay backup dancers.

I think you see the problem here. This is precisely the opposite of what Godzilla means. You can set a giant lizard loose in Manhattan and watch it wreak havoc, while one-dimensional characters make mildly-funny sarcastic comments, but it’s not going to be a Godzilla movie. This movie–a Godzilla movie without consequences–is like remaking King Kong and forgetting to throw in a sympathetic woman for him to protect on top of the Empire State building. I mean, shit, even the cruddy 1979 remake understood that.

And yet, how could movies of the ‘90s grapple with a realistic devastation of New York? What context did we have for that? The closest thing would have been the 1977 New York blackout, and, ick, who wanted to think about that in Giuliani’s Fun City (hell, with the influx of non-natives, who’d even remember that?)

"Hey, I just sat next to SPike Lee!"

“Hey, I just sat next to Spike Lee!”

Even if somehow you found a screenwriter who could dredge up some contemporary anxiety to pin to Godzilla’s scaly hide; even if you found a director who would put on screen a realistic depiction of a destroyed New York; and even if they had managed to offer the studio execs enough blow and hookers to get them to make this movie, who’d want to watch it in 1998? The movies of that era were all about the comforting tales of imminent disaster being averted and our minivan-driving, brownstone-restoring, latte-slugging lives remaining unperturbed.

Sure, 1998’s Godzilla had its share of problems unrelated to a lack of subtext. Emmerich’s movie is criminally-slow for what it wants to be, and inexplicably shoe-horns a subplot about a character’s ambitions to break into the new biz into the action (because, yeah, that’s way more interesting than a giant lizard attack). His stable of actors are decidedly-subpar (Matthew Broderick’s film career had dried up and he’d decamped to Broadway at that point, while costar Maria Pitillo was best known for headlining NBC sitcoms that mostly blew up on the launchpad).  And whoever’s idea it was to make Godzilla look like the love-child of a T-Rex and Bruce Campbell should be fed to a radioactive monitor lizard.

"And in act 3....ah fuck it, let's just rip off Jurassic Park."

“And in act 3….ah fuck it, let’s just rip off Jurassic Park.”

All this aside, though, a 1990s Godzilla was simply never meant to be. Wrong iconic monster, wrong place, really wrong time. Maybe a better giant monster movie could have been made out of the ingredients Emmerich had at his disposal (plus, you know, add some more appropriate actors), but it would have been just as featherweight and forgettable.

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