In 1953 Eugene Laurie crafted one of the best American giant monster movies of all time. This film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, was based on a Ray Bradbury short story (The Lighthouse), featured a kick-ass monster designed and animated by Ray Harryhousen, and introduced Spaghetti Western regular Lee Van Cleef to the world.
In 1993 Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the hacks behind big-budget/small brain “big kaboom” movies Stargate, and Independence Day, remade The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and inexplicably named it Godzilla.
The sordid and convoluted history of the American Godzilla is relatively well known in the kaiju-fan community, but for those of you outside that little sphere of rubber suits, kooky-helmeted alien invaders, and atomic mishaps, let me give a little of the background that leads to this most awful film.
Toho wanted to retire the Godzilla franchise at the end of the Hesei series, that is, the series that ran from 1984-1994 culminating in Godzilla Vs. Destroyah in which The Big-G meets his maker. Sony Pictures/Tri Star bought the rights to make a Godzilla film with an American budget, featuring an American cast. See, Godzilla was rather shabbily treated here in the US during the 60’s and 70’s and was most often relegated to short run drive in theater double-bills, or Saturday afternoon television.
Monsters were passé’ in the US of A.
When Godzilla 1985 tanked at the theaters in the summer of 1985 and the extremely entertaining Godzilla Vs. Biolante (1989) could only secure cable TV and direct to video rights via HBO pictures, Toho had given up on the American market. This left several later films in the can, and though they made scads of money in the Japanese market, Toho was reluctant to release them stateside.
It was believed that an American production would reinvigorate the franchise and restore some of the credibility of Godzilla, as a brand, in the largest consumer market on Earth.
Toho places several restrictions on the American production team to ensure that the monster conformed to established standards. These were that the creature had to have three rows of spines along its back, had to have the trademarked Godzilla voice, and had to breath atomic fire. I am not certain but I also think they stipulated that Godzilla had to spring from atomic testing.
The first director pegged for the franchise was Speed director Jan de Bont, who offered a treatment pitting Godzilla against another new monster known in preproduction as The Griffin. Clips of his trailer are available online if you know where to look. de Bont was ready to rock and roll with the title but could not secure the eighty million dollar budget required to make the film. de Bont was also, by his own admission, a fan of the Showa series (that is, the series of films between 1954 and 1979).
He dropped off the production to direct Speed 2 which sucked worse than a fangtoothed whore. I think Jan de Bont works as a photo counter guy at Wal Mart now... That will teach him to make movies with Sandra Bullock.
So with de Bont off the picture it was time for Sony pictures to find a hot new director for the project. In 1996 Devil and Emmerich scored big dollars with the brainless alien invasion film IIndependence Day, a film based so obviously based on War of the Worlds that H.G. Wells’ body climbed from its grave and demanded royalties.
These guys were hot. It didn’t matter that literacy was not a trait shared between them. Emmerich and Devlin, via their production company, Centropolis, were the kids to beat in science fiction filmmaking, so attaching them to Godzilla was a sure bet for a blockbuster.
They even secured a hundred million dollar budget, which was much more than de Bont wanted, and got to work. The first thing they did was hire two writers who’d never seen a Godzilla movie. Then they hired their pal Patrick Tatopaulous (a Frenchman who’d also never seen a Godzilla film) to spearhead the creature design and special effects team, then they got down to casting and rewriting the story treatment offered by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio.
I don’t know which one of these assholes rented The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms from their local Blockbuster and figured, “hell, it’s a giant monster... no one will notice that we’re cribbing a flick made in 1953...” but that seems to be exactly what they did.
I’ve read that Toho was unhappy with the creature designs presented by non-Godzilla fan Patrick Tatopaulous, but I can’t confirm it. At any rate, the necessary guys at Toho signed off on the Devlin/Emmerich treatment, and all was go for reinvigorating the franchise.
The advertisements began to appear before the film was even out of production. “He’s longer than this bus... His foot is larger than this cab... He’s taller than this window” etc... Billboards featuring the slogan “Size does matter” sprung up across America like poison ivy. Trailers appeared online and took potshots at the status quo of big monster films at the time Jurassic Park (A film I hate with the intensity of a billion white suns).
Unlike Japan where prepress features extensive pictures of the production and monsters, Emmerich and Devlin clamped the lid down on Godzilla. We fans were frenzied and consumed any set news that managed to escape their lockdown. But the Holy Grail of leaks would be a picture of the monster. No one had seen even a single shot of the American Godzilla until a tiny plastic statuette found its way onto the Internet.
This little statuette, which Emmerich and Devlin insisted was a phony, turned out to be a production sculpture for one of the toys that crap-toy company Trendmasters would release later (they would release no less than 25 tie-ins. Most are now available at clearance prices at your local comic book shop).
The fan’s first response, “that isn’t Godzilla!”
Uh oh, pre-release bad press isn’t a good thing, and Devlin/Emmerich had to spin the fans hard to keep the hype machine in full swing. Devlin sent e-mails to several Godzilla fan sites in the US demanding that images of the creature be taken down, and soon the images were gone.
During this time the fan community learned that:
Godzilla would have no atomic breath (uh oh...)
Godzilla would be the sole monster in the movie (double uh oh...)
Godzilla would occasionally walk on four legs (triple uh oh, and a holy shit just for good measure)
Godzilla would be entirely computer animated save for a few throwaway shots of his head that was a giant animatronic (quadruple uh oh and double holy shit)
Godzilla would follow neither the Showa or Hesei timelines (triple holy shit)
Rumors of a fan boycott were starting to surface, and the film that we’d all anticipated for over a year, was fast becoming the black sheep of the franchise. We’d all see it, we said, on opening night, then post our thoughts online.
I was particularly exhausted by the relentless Godzilla tie-in crap offered on television. Everything from Taco Bell meals to children's books bared that single obsequious foot.
For many of us that advanced screening (one day, big whoop) would be the watershed of our fandom. Some crumbled under the weight of glossy CGI and gave the flick a middling two and a half stars, but the vast majority of us started calling potential film goers and asking them to see something else this weekend. On opening night we were given pre-release doo-dads that not only sucked, but were little more than additional advertisements for a film we’d JUST BOUGHT TICKETS TO SEE. I ended up with a film cell (hey, a foot... big deal...) and some Taco Bell coupons that still languish somewhere in the detritus of my apartment.
Devlin and Emmerich’s Godzilla made a heap of cash on that opening weekend, but it wouldn’t last. By the third week it was out of the top ten, by the fifth it was out of first run theaters. It didn’t make back its budget, not in the US anyway.
So, pencils down, the history lesson is over, let’s look at the gargantuan monstrosity that is the American Godzilla.
We begin with some grainy footage of a French nuclear test... French? What the hell is that! Hey, stock footage of the Bikini atoll hydrogen bomb test! Cut to some Galapagon iguanas eating moss from rocks. One looks up as a wave of radioactive stuff washes over the island.
Cut to a Japanese factory fishing vessel in a storm. Something attacks the ship but we can’t see it.
Cut to Dr. Nick Tataupulous (Matthew Broderick) driving around Kiev in a Russian minivan. He studies radioactive worms to measure the effects of the Chernobyl meltdown on local wildlife. A chopper lands and whisks him away to...
Panama this is where the sucking starts, so brace yourself... Tatopaulous is in a helicopter flying high above Panama on his way to the shipwreck and FAILS TO SEE several enormous footprints and hundreds of military guys milling around them as he flies over. As he meets the rest of his intrepid Godzilla Detection and Countermeasures Team (I made that name up, so sue me) consisting of Dr. Elise Chapman (Vicky Lewis) and Dr. Mendel Craven (Malcom Danare) and the erstwhile military moron Colonel Hicks (Kevin Dunn) who lead Tatopaulous down into a big divot that, when the camera pans upwards, becomes a massive footprint.
Any director worth a nickel could have made this scene suspenseful and fun. Devlin/Emmerich botch it completely. But then, they aren’t worth a nickel between the two of them.
Cut to the inside of a jeep in Jamaica where Dr. Chapman and Tatopaulous engage in the SAME CONVERSATION THEY WERE HAVING IN PANAMA!). In Jamaica the hulk of a fishing vessel has run aground. The ship appears to have been ripped apart. In the nearby dirt there is another massive footprint.
Stil no one has taken the time to fill Tatopaulous in on the whole wild goose chase. This is to give us a character to identify with, but it fails, like everything else in this movie.
The lone survivor of the Japanes boat is relaxing in the hospital and utters “Gojira... Gojira... Gojira...” to the out of frame Jean Reno. This footage comes back a little later as part of a news story.
Cut to a group of scallop draggers being pulled under by some unseen monster. It appears, to the CDCT that whatever is causing these distasters is heading towards New York City.
Why? Who cares... There is some inane discussion of an ancestral breeding ground that makes no sense at all. We get a whole lot of the trailer material as Godzilla makes landfall. This is pretty good, which is probably why it was used in the trailer in the first place. We get a guy who catches something big in the Hudson river, Godzilla’s dorsal spines cutting the water like the dorsal fins of a shark as he moves towards the fisherman. Godzilla attacks a loading dock and smashes boats, trucks, and cargo containers. Cars start bouncing as the creature moves into Manhattan.
That’s where the coolness ends.
Until now we’ve only seen glimpses of pieces and parts of Godzilla. A foot here. A tail there. Some spines here. The roar is heard.
We won’t see the whole creature for a while yet. This gives us time to meet some asinine supporting characters who have no doubt stricken this film from their resume. Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo giving perhaps the worst performance by a female in any film ever made) Dr. Tatopaulous’ old flame and now cub reporter for asshole newscaster Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer) and partner of “The Animal” (Hank Azaria) a cameraman who will go anywhere to capture exciting images for the nightly news. Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) a character named after the famous film critic who not only didn’t recommend this film, but shit all over Emmerich and Devlin’s other work too, and rightly so, his assistant Gene, a reference to the now deceased counter reviewer Gene Siskel. Hey, just like on “At the Movies” these two guys can’t agree on anything...
You know what, they did agree on Godzilla. It sucked and they both thumbed it down, waaaaaaaay down. It’s never nice to take potshots at the most influential film critics in America is it?
We also get some French secret service agents charged with destroying the Francophone monster. None of them matter except Phillipe Roache (Jean Reno looking embarrassed as hell to be anywhere near this film, yet still manages to be watchable), and in keeping with the gimmicky second rate bush league piss poor ass clownery of the screenplay, Roache can’t get a good cup of coffee in Manhattan.
If this creative writing 101 character development exercise doesn’t make you start saving up for a flame thrower to take to your local community college, nothing will.
Godzilla disappears after not showing himself to the audience. This lets us suffer through some of the most puerile and barely literate dialogue ever committed to film. Nick and Audrey run into each other and it’s sparks aplenty as neither of them have an interesting moment together. I wanted them both to die. I wanted them both to die horrible slow deaths, or alternately, be crushed beneath Godzilla’s foot.
Anyway, the military attacks Godzilla at his next appearance as most of New York has been evacuated to New Jersey (no doubt tripling the property value of the entire state). Many people appear at Audrey and The Animal’s house. Why? Who cares... They both return to the city against military orders so that she can “scoop” Charles Caiman. See, Caiman stole her footage of the Japanese fisherman so she’s pissed.
Do you care? Didn’t think so.
Pitillo delivers all of her lines just like she’d been through a half semester of community summer theater. If she is not in full-on Shatner mode, then she’s flatter than a diving board at a public pool. No wonder Matthew Broderick interacts with her almost like he was meeting her for the very first time regardless of the fact that she was supposed to be his college love interest.
If you give him nothing to work with, he gives nothing back.
That night Godzilla again makes landfall and engages several helicopters in combat that displays the same sort of tactical nonsense that action filmmakers have when it comes to anything military. What do we get? We get:
No ground troops at all
CGI Apache helicopters that have a flight ceiling of about two hundred feet
Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles fired at random so they destroy much more of New York than Godzilla does
A chase sequence that is so goddamn awful it will render you speechless as first the choppers chase Godzilla, then through keen chicanery, Godzilla chases them and eats them all
By now we have seen all of Godzilla. He’s big alright, but because it’s a CGI monster, has none of the lumbering weight we get with “suitmation”, he’s agile too, JUST LIKE THE RAPTORS in Jurassic Park, has a massively heavy under slung jaw that gives Godzilla a decidedly Pete’s Dragon-esque profile. His scream is wrong too, it’s pitch is too high and lacks the resonance of the Japanese monster. His arms are modeled on human arms and look completely out of place. His weight alternates between heavy enough to crush things, and not heavy enough to crust the same things later. He is small enough to sneak into the New York sewer system, then later, much to large to escape it. He’s gray. He has stubby little teeth. He eats fish. He also has one or two other traits that I will save for later in the review.
If any of the above make you think, “gee, that doesn’t sound like any Godzilla I’ve ever seen...” you’d be right on target. This is what happens when you hire people who have no idea what the property is to continue the franchise featuring that property. Would the producers of the James Bond franchise hire Chris Rock to don the title 007, or hire a Bollywood director who specialized in wedding themed musicals to direct?
Of course not!
So whatever the Hell Sony/Tri Star was thinking is lost on me, and was lost on every other Godzilla fan in America too.
Okay, Dr. Nick (Hi Dr. Nick.... Hi Everybody!) and his new friend the Roache plunge into the sewers after Godzilla. They find a whole mess of fish, put two and two together, and decide to lure the monster out with... um... a pile of fish.
Inexplicably THIS WORKS! Devlin and Emmerich give us a shameless ET moment too as Godzilla and Dr. Nick stare at each other before the monster begins to feed. Maybe he isn’t all bad... Maybe there too is room for him in the big apple... Maybe if I try really hard I can vomit my shoes right off my feet.
Anyway, the military decided to attack again and drives Godizilla away. This provides ample time for more asinine dialogue as Dr. Nick and Audrey relive their halcyon days of college where she was more intrigued by... who friggin' knows... wet t-shirt contests, jello shots, and fraternity date rape while Dr. Nick was interested in his studies.
Godzilla vanishes for a long time and the movie sags to the breaking point as everyone argues about what to do next. Dr. Nick determines VIA A HOME PREGNANCY TEST that Godzilla is pregnant and about to spew offspring all over the city. How did Godzilla end up heavy with child? Dr. Nick suggests that the creature is asexual, that is, can reproduce without a mate. It’s convenient, silly, laughably silly, and just goes to show that hairy palms and blindness are not the only consequences of masturbation if you are an irradiated Galapagos Iguana.
That’ll teach you.
Before you can say Raptor chase sequence from Jurassic Park, he, The Animal, Audrey, and Roache and his soon to be eaten French-henchmen are surrounded by leathery eggs in Madison Square Garden. How a creature of such measurable size as Godzilla laid an acre and a half of eggs is anyone's guess, but nonetheless there they are.
They all hatch in one great Pop Secret moment and start chasing the characters around and alternately being killed by, or killing the French-fries that hang around with Roache. The baby Godzilla’s even slip and slide over gumballs. It elicited shrieks of horror when that happened, not because it was obvious, telegraphed, and convenient, but because it was so obviously CGI...
Meanwhile a submarine (yes a submarine) engages Godzilla in the depths of the Hudson River and after firing two torpedoes, figure “he couldn't have survived that!”
Roache calls in an air strike on MSG to wipe out the baby Godzilla infestation.
MSG goes BOOM in Emmerich/Devlin fashion just as Godzilla, quite alive regardless of the torpedo, arrives to see all its children consumed in a fiery hell. This is, of course, very very bad and Godzilla gets right pissed off as our heroes leap into a nearby taxi and speed away.
Godzilla gives chase (YAWN! FUCKING YAWN!!!! WHEN WILL THE ERA OF THE MANDATORY CAR CHASE END!!!). Our heroes lead Godzilla onto the Brooklyn Bridge where he is tangled in the suspension wires then killed by two missiles fired from F-16s.
GODZILLA DIES!!!!!! GODZILLA CAN’T DIE!!!
Nick and rest of the idiots file out of the car, listen to Godzilla’s last fading heart beats a-la King Kong and all is right with the world. Pan down to an egg in the sewer hatching.
Yay. It’s over. Kill me now. This movie is so bad, so goddamn frickin' awful that no amount of kicking and screaming will ever convince me to add it to my collection, let alone watch it again. I’d rather sit through a John Hughes teen coming-of-age story/Lifetime my husband beats me because I’m a bulimic lesbian home wrecker marathon while being injected with massive amounts of estrogen until I actually grow working ovaries just as my kidneys fail than sit through even a moment of this movie again.
Dead Devlin and Roland Emmerich have secured a nice piece of real estate in Hell for creating the monstrosity known as Godzilla.
Rumor has it that there is another installment of the American franchise on the drawing board somewhere. All I can hope for is a massive fire that guts whatever building the preproduction material are stored in.
There were two bright spots to all of this Emmerich-Devlinian effluent.
1. Toho realized that Godzilla was not something best left to hack Americans, and reinvented the franchise themselves with the fair to middling Godzilla 2000, and the stateside unseen Godzilla vs. Megaguiras and Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah film known as GMK.
2. Sony/Tri Star home video released all of the Hesei series on VHS and later DVD (save one... come on guys, where’s the DVD of Godzilla V. Mechagodzilla 2??) as well as the new series of Mothra kiddy films.
Still, all things being equal, if they had instead called this film “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” I might have liked it more, but you know, probably not much more.
The DVD has extras on it, but I have no idea what they could possibly be. Maybe it would be something nice like Dean Devlin giving out his credit card number and expiration date so we could charge refunds, or maybe during the commentary Roland Emmerich could break down into tears, or perhaps even, instead of their film spooling out at the recording, both men could be forced to comment on an ACTUAL GODZILLA movie.
That’d teach em...