In “If You Can’t Say Something Nice,” I try to take a work of “art” that is widely (and justifiably) scorned and try to see the bright side of things.
Ever hear of Maria Pitillo? There’s no reason why you should have. She was an up-and-comer, someone to look out for – in short, a future star. Her acting credits included “Chaplin,” “True Romance,” and “Natural Born Killers.” She was climbing up the system, getting larger roles and honing her camera presence. Then something tragic happened.
She was the leading lady in 1998’s “Godzilla.”
It drove her to TV roles. She fled mainstream blockbusters; or more to the point they fled her.
Let’s be fair to Pitillo: Meryl Streep couldn’t have made a likable character out of what she was given. The character was a whiny, cheap manipulator whose contrition felt fake. The whole thing was a typical Roland Emmerich disaster movie: the script, effects, direction, and basic ideas were all disasters.
It didn’t help that it seemed like her acting choice was to sell it like “Phoebe” from “Friends.”
But I am getting ahead of myself. In this edition, I present the 1998 American version of “Godzilla”, starring Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno. There are other people (like the aforementioned Pitillo), but they are not “starring” so much as “existing as solid objects in front of the camera.” But there I go again.
The Bad News
The United States has a long, proud history of remaking foreign films. Sometimes it works out really well, like with “The Seven Samurai” remake “The Magnificent Seven.” Most of the time, not so much so. “Godzilla” is a fine example of that. It was a remake that never needed to be made.
Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, hot off of the success of their movie “Independence Day,” could write their own checks. Special effects heavy, light on substance, never lingering on the story, and crowded with characters – it was an excessive (and annoying) movie, but it came out when there was a dearth of science fiction, big-boom movies. There wasn’t anything to compare it to in the 90s.
“Independence Day” got the studios interested. It was a money maker, Roland Emmerich was a new directorial “genius”, and with Dean Devlin, they could smash the box office once again. However, what could they do?
Something half-assed apparently.
Enter “Godzilla.” There are so many problems with the movie. For instance, the CGI is ridiculous. It’s like the designers knew that they had a mess on their hands, so they flooded the animation in black to hide as much as possible. They made the right decision.
The creature design was classic Godzilla by way of the cartoon character “Fearless Fosdick” from Al Capp’s “Lil’ Abner.”
To be fair, 1998 CGI was not generally good. Why does the CGI in “Jurassic Park” hold up so well while “Godzilla” looks like the cutscene to a video game I don’t want to play? Many reasons, but I suspect the main one is that the artists in “Jurassic Park” gave a &%@#.
If this were the only problem, this would merely be a forgettable movie. But oh no… no, no, no.
Matthew Broderick stars as Dr. Ferris Tatopoulos; Jean Reno is a highly-trained Elvis impersonator; Maria Pitillo stars as a rather unlikable, fairly dim Machiavellian with a heart of plated tin; Hank Azaria and Arabella Field star as the hokiest of New York City cliches, and Harry Shearer stars as an actor who really should have known better.
Then there’s the nasty-minded Siskel and Ebert clones who serve as the comedy… relief? No, certainly not relief. Comedy agony. It’s a cheap shot against film critics who were utterly right about “Independence Day.”
“Independence Day” taught me to dislike Roland Emmerich. “Godzilla” taught me to hone that feeling and turn it into a way of life. Emmerich is a bad director, and very possibly a bad person.
It was also more than a little obvious that they wished they could have made “Jurassic Park.” They went so far as to make their own chubby velociraptors.
There are so many plot conveniences and things that were just dead wrong that it would be an utter bore to list them. So here’s one:
It was during the “escape” scene at the end of the movie, the one where they are following the bizarre twists and turns of the road trying desperately to make their way to the bridge. Didn’t anyone realize New York City is laid out on a grid? They just needed to count the numbers on the street signs and they’d get to the bridge easily, especially with no traffic.
So in summary, unlikeable things all around!
But Is It All THAT Bad?
Hooo boy, I might have painted myself into a corner here. But let me power through this.
I won’t damn it with faint praise, writing things like “wow, the outdoor shots really looked like they were outside,” or “they wore the hell out of their costumes.” The movie doesn’t deserve that, and you don’t deserve to read it.
I’ll say this: no one phoned it in. As undeserving as this movie was, the actors all did their best to make the most of things. No matter how uninteresting or unsayable their lines were, they sold them. I can’t think of a single actor pulling a “Bruce Willis” here.
The cast is filled with excellent actors. Jean Reno is spellbinding in “Nikita” and “Leon: The Professional.” Matthew Broderick is a very charismatic actor who can do comedy, tragedy, and even Broadway. Harry Shearer is not only hilarious, he is also one of the few people on earth who has seen Jerry Lewis’ “The Day the Clown Cried” in its entirety, which I think makes him a demigod.
Hank Azaria, Kevin Dunn, Vicki Lewis are all extremely competent supporting actors. A really good cast assembled for a profoundly bad movie. I’ve already mentioned poor Maria Pitillo.
There are actually some good scenes. I particularly liked it when Godzilla smashed through a building to take out some helicopters. It was a nice touch. The cinematography was pretty good; particularly when they were outside the city. Once they entered the city, everything was gray and black. If that was stylistically meaningful in some way, the message was not communicated to the audience.
Shoot, back to the bad. Sorry.
Anyway, the suspension built well at the beginning of the movie. The dominos were set up well. It built the anticipation for the big reveal, when suddenly “Fearless Fosdick” shows up and
Good, or Awesome?
Neither. I tried. Lord, how I tried. I can’t imagine any time I would voluntarily sit through this mess again. But I mean to look at this in a positive light, so here goes:
In the main, the structure of the movie is clean. It makes sense; action follows action, and at no point are you wondering “how did we end up here?” So far as an action/sci-fi movie from the 1990s is concerned, it isn’t forgettable. It succeeds in making a mark on the viewer. Sure, it’s only disaster porn, but you get a sense of location in space and time.
But in the end, Emmerich made an unwatchable bad movie. If I were to summarize my experience watching the movie, I could do it in three sounds: blah, yuck, and meh.