For months, I had May 20th circled on my calendar. It was a sort of ironic holiday, the 20th anniversary of the first American Godzilla movie, the critically reviled flop that starred Matthew Broderick and a Puff Daddy song, and I wanted to write an oral history of the thing. I'm a huge fan of Godzilla and all his kaiju pals, and this fallen attempt to turn the iconic Japanese monster into an engine for American pop culture consumption stood as a perfect time capsule of that slightly ditzy moment in time.
So I reached out to the people involved in the project, figuring that enough time had passed that they'd be willing to talk about it. I was wrong. I never heard back from director Roland Emmerich. Matthew Broderick's publicist seemed to consider it for a moment, but ultimately passed; the star, who played a tragically unhip scientist in the movie, didn't have any time to chat with me. I got a hard no from reps for Jean Reno (who played a French military agent) and Hank Azaria (a TV cameraman), and Maria Pitillo's publicist said she wasn't doing any interviews whatsoever.
Ultimately, the only yes came from Dean Devlin, who wrote and produced the Godzilla movie. He was willing to chat about the film as part of a larger interview about his new movie, Bad Samaritan, a conversation we had on my podcast earlier this month. His candidness about Godzilla — which, I'll say right now, is not nearly as bad as people remember — was appreciated during the interview, and even more so after his collaborators all declined to chat with me about their film.
TriStar Pictures had been trying to develop an American Godzilla movie for years, and had a script from screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Devlin, a lifelong Godzilla fan, was brought aboard to further develop (and then rewrite it), with Emmerich signed on as its potential director. It wasn't green-lit until, however, until the monstrous success of Devlin and Emmerich’s Independence Day, which made nearly a billion dollars and at that moment sat as the second-highest grossing film of all-time. It made the proposed Godzilla film — which was to be the first of a trilogy — a no-brainer, but also put impossible expectations on it from the start.
"There was enormous pressure," Devlin says. "That was probably the biggest problem in making Godzilla, this assumption that it was going to be as big or as original or as strong as Independence Day. I don't think it ever had that chance."
Devlin, who would go on to produce shows like The Librarians and run his own production company, identifies a lot of sore spots as "the biggest problem" with the movie. It's clear that he's thought a lot about this over the years. Notably, all of the "biggest" problems are overarching regrets he has about the plot, structure, and soul of the film — all things that he, as the writer, can call his own fault.
Zoom out a bit, and all those regrets boil down to this: Godzilla wasn't enough of a real Godzilla movie. Which is ironic, considering his childhood devotion to the King of the Monsters.
"I think part of the biggest problem was that I pushed Roland into doing the movie because I was a huge Godzilla fan," Devlin reflects. "I grew up with Godzilla and it wasn't something that Roland had grown up with. He didn't have a giant passion about Godzilla. He was able to find a story with me that he could get passionate about and he was passionate about the movie we made, but this was his take on it as opposed to honoring the Godzilla legacy in a way that would make the people who loved Godzilla happy."
Perhaps some of the disappointment stems from the way the movie unfolds, with deviations slowly pushing tradition aside for new, modern and American wrinkles. For the first 15 minutes, the film plays out exactly like the first-ever Godzilla movie, with a Japanese fishing boat rocked by a mysterious monster. An old man whispers "Gojira," and then we're off to the races, with a mix of scientists, newspaper reporters and government officials fight to figure out what kind of calamitous beast is lurking beneath the ocean.
That's textbook Godzilla, as are some of the character archetypes. Matthew Broderick is a shy and emotionally scarred scientist, a modern (and less haunted) version of Akihiko Hirata's Serizawa. The press act like vultures, the military like overly aggressive lunks.
Still, longtime Godzilla fans were not happy with the movie, to say the least, and Devlin acknowledges that there were plenty of changes made to their beloved "traditional" concept of Godzilla… never mind the fact that the monster changed drastically over the course of the 20+ Toho Godzilla films that had been released up to that point.
The monster was not physically reminiscent of the towering beast from the original 1954 film, the recycled rubber suit from the later original "Showa" era, or the reconstituted indomitable monster of the second series of Japanese movies. Instead, it was a bit like a giant Tyrannosaurus rex, hunched over as it chased down prey in between buildings and down city blocks in New York, which was never a traditional Godzilla haunt (minus that one scene in Destroy All Monsters when he attacks the UN). The dino-monster's size was fungible, and it felt more like it belonged in Jurassic Park — the only movie that had to that point made more money than Independence Day, as it so happens.
"Roland and I made an intellectual idea that was interesting but not compelling filmmaking. We said in real life, a lizard is neither evil nor good, it's just a lizard," Devlin says. "So what if one got to that size and in its effort to survive, it threatened us, but it wasn't mad at us? It was just simply doing what it did and it causes this problem for us. Well, that's interesting, but that's not Godzilla. If you go to the very first movie, Gojira, it was an evil monster. Movies after that, it was a hero. We didn't choose either."
He's a little harsh — in Gojira, the monster was definitely a terror, but had no actual agenda. And yet, as Devlin notes, when it is killed in the end by the oxygen destroyer, the audience can't help but feel sympathy for the radioactive beast. On the other hand, the ending of the ‘98 movie doesn't deliver the same impact.
"I think what we tried to do made sense, but isn't very fulfilling," Devlin says. "There's this big sequence at the end of our Godzilla where you hear his heartbeat and he's dying and it's supposed to be emotional, but it's not because we're not sure how we're supposed to feel about Godzilla, whether we were supposed to be rooting for Godzilla or scared of Godzilla. The film did not make a commitment to how you should feel about the character. And I think that was at its heart the bigger mistake than the baby Godzilla."
The baby Godzilla in question represents another big deviation from the traditional Godzilla film. He's had "sons" before, including the ugly-cute Minya, but the little guy was only brought in late in the original series, when the movies were made explicitly for children. In the ‘98 Godzilla, one of the monster's main aim is to lay a massive number of eggs, which definitely twists the fundamental biology of the monster.
By putting the nest inside a wrecked Madison Square Garden and trapping the main cast inside the World's Most Famous arena, the second half of movie winds up playing more like James Cameron's Aliens… just not nearly as scary. It also swaps Matthew Broderick in for Sigourney Weaver, which is a downgrade in an action movie, even before you get to what Devlin considers the massive problems with the characters in the film.
"All movies are set-up, conflict, resolution, so we thought what if we just throw you into the movie and we wait for the lull of the second act to expose you to who the characters are?" he explains. "An interesting idea, but if you wait that long, the audience has already made up their mind about what they feel about the character. The reporter [Pitillo], she just seemed like a dingbat in the first act and so everyone hated her. So even when we gave you the real backstory, it was too late. Even Matthew Broderick's character, I think he did a great job in his acting, but we didn't know enough about him to really root for him until we learned about him later."
There were plenty of little nods to the original Toho Godzilla movie, but only later did the filmmakers realize that few people had actually seen the Japanese version of that film in 1998 — the re-cut version, which placed Raymond Burr into scenes opposite the original stars was most Americans' touchstone. Instead, the movie was summarily dismissed by fans and critics alike, with a 16 percent Rotten Tomatoes score and $329 million at the box office, a disappointing figure. And even more disheartening was the fact that Toho has distanced itself from the movie, going so far as having the ‘98 Godzilla killed in the 2004 flick Godzilla: Final Wars.
"It is a heartbreak for me that I'm going to all these sci-fi conventions, promoting Bad Samaritan, and I always see these stands with Godzilla and they always leave our Godzilla out. It's so heartbreaking," he says, laughing. "It's like, really? This is a place to celebrate the cheesiness of Godzilla and we're not even good enough to be cheesy?"
Devlin clearly learned his lessons from the experience, and now is happy enough to discuss the film. There's no obvious bitterness left. And in hindsight, in an era filled with bloated CGI blockbusters, Godzilla actually stands as more of a quaint, human-driven story.
"I think in one regard it was judged overly harshly and in another regard, we didn't live up to what we needed to do in taking on something as iconic as Godzilla," he reflects. "Some of it was our failings and some of it was a perception problem. When people see the movie now where they have very low expectations that they tend to go, oh, that movie's actually pretty good."