Some may regard the use of a line like “We’re in his mouth!” as an indicator of a film’s less than stellar quality. The sort of on-the-nose dialogue, they would say, that should be nowhere near the final cut. The fact the same line is immediately repeated for wholly unnecessary added emphasis, considering it comes from a character quite obviously in the jaws of 300ft radioactive reptile, is, to those same joyless people, an even more egregious indictment. To me, however, it’s exactly this kind of silliness that makes the 1998 Roland Emmerich film Godzilla, much better than almost everyone would have you believe.
What the scathing critics at the time – who variously described it as “idiotic” and “overblown” – failed to understand was that it is clearly not supposed to be taken very seriously at all. We’re talking about a lizard the size of a skyscraper battling it out with Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno. You’d be quite disappointed if it wasn’t at least a little bit idiotic and overblown. Incredibly, one critic even complained about the “inaccurate science and basic implausibility”, which is a bit like complaining about the wetness of water. Criticism like that never seems to take into account the fact the film-makers might actually be intelligent people too, who know exactly what they’re doing. The mouth line and cartoonish scenes like the one where Dr Niko Tatopoulos (played by Broderick) emerges from an elevator to find some murderous baby godzillas munching on popcorn before wryly muttering “wrong floor”, aren’t there by accident.
They are funny, very deliberate, winks to the audience that the makers know just as well as you do how ridiculous the whole enterprise is and a green light to sit back, not think too much and enjoy the ride. And helicopters chasing a giant monster around the skyscraper gorges of New York is some ride. Emmerich has even said himself that he never took the original Godzilla films seriously stating “they were just the weekend matinees you saw as a kid, like Hercules films and the really bad Italian westerns. You’d go with all your friends and just laugh.” If you view the film the way the director himself seems to, then Godzilla is uncomplicated entertainment of the best kind. Mindless isn’t always an insult.
The plot, such as it is, sees the biologist and radioactive worm enthusiast Dr Niko Tatopoulos drafted by some important-looking government guys on to a taskforce hoping to work out what in the hell could have made some giant footprints in Panama. His expertise and unique insight prove priceless as he shrewdly observes that the city-block sized animal “is much too big to be some kind of lost dinosaur”. For some reason they continue to keep him around, which is just as well because after the beast makes a dramatic landfall in New York, he discovers that it is nesting in Madison Square Garden. And worse than that, it’s gone and laid 200 Volkswagen coupe-sized eggs that are seconds away from hatching. There are some subplots involving the French secret service, a long-lost college girlfriend and a sleazy news anchor but much more important than a trifling thing like the plot for a film like Godzilla, is how it makes you feel.
Simply put, it makes you feel like a stupidly excited 11-year-old. It’s basic but there is just something about really big animals, mythical and real, that thrills like nothing else. It must be some deep atavistic fear that films like this, or indeed the diplodocus in the Natural History Museum, tap into. The scene in the film where Godzilla scares some fisher witless as it approaches a New York pier obscured by a wall of water does this magnificently. A tsunami hiding a monster. It’s a classic Emmerich moment and brings to mind the first appearance of the alien spaceships emerging through ominous rolling clouds in Independence Day. Emmerich is the master of that spine-tingling transition from everyday life to end of days that keeps people flocking back to his disaster movies by the millions.
Godzilla is too long, the characters are sketchy at best, Broderick is weirdly miscast and at times it feels like the script never got past the first draft. But it’s exactly this recklessly slapdash energy that makes it so entertaining to watch. It hasn’t been polished to within an inch of its life and there is something very likable about that. Perfect films, like nutritious food, are great but sometimes all you want is a cheeseburger. Godzilla is a whopper.