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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin have had, on the whole, successful careers in Hollywood. There’ve been a few flops here and there for sure, but for the most part the two have been able to make studios money on most of their film projects. Stargate, Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012 all grossed quite a bit of money, and Stargate even spun off several successful television franchises. Though their films don’t particularly stand out from the crowd, Emmerich and Devlin have had enough success in Hollywood to pretty much do whatever they want. Even their last film, 2013’s underperforming White House Down, was liked by more than a few people despite its box office failures (which can probably be more attributed to poor marketing and a crowded release schedule).
But still, none of their projects have been all that good, with the possible exception of Independence Day. Independence Day is a competently crafted movie for the most part. I don’t think anyone could argue that it’s poorly shot or acted in most respects. The script could have used some work, sure, and the project feels outright dated in 2014. But in 1996, Independence Day was a smash hit, the summer’s number one blockbuster, and an incredibly entertaining roller coaster ride of a movie. It grossed an obscene amount of money and most people seemed to be genuinely interested in it. So how exactly could Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s very next film project, a remake/re-imagining of the classic Japanese product Godzilla that they personally handpicked as their next project go so very wrong?
I remember going to the theaters in May 1997 to see The Lost World: Jurassic Park, the heavily hyped terrible sequel to one of my favorite childhood films. Before the film, the audience was treated to an incredible teaser trailer for a film that wouldn’t be released for entire year. That film was Emmerich/Devlin’s Godzilla, which was produced by Columbia Pictures, who had the marketing muscle to do something as audacious as previewing a movie still a year away from actual domestic release (something that’s more common nowadays but was basically unheard of in 1997). I remember being super excited, so excited that the teaser for Godzilla basically ended up being more entertaining than the crappy Jurassic Park sequel I was watching. I couldn’t get my mind off of how awesome a new Godzilla with amazing special effects and an enormous budget would be. It was going to be a long wait.
The film was finally nearing release at the end of my freshman year of high school. A massive marketing blitz hit America by storm, with tie-in merchandise in stores everywhere. Taco Bell’s were transformed into advertisements for the film. Hype surrounded Godzilla in every corner of the culture. Puff Daddy, an enormously popular entertainer at the time of the film’s release, even had the audacity to re-record Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, with actual guitar backing by founding Zeppelin member Jimmy Page, which was then and still remains awful. But it didn’t matter, because we were all so heavily invested in how awesome this movie was going to be. Everything about Godzilla was huge, and it was destined to become the greatest summer movie since Jurassic Park, and possibly of all time. And then, it was awful. It was just downright awful. A million things have been written about how bad Godzilla was, and none of them comes close to just how fucking dire the movie was. It was just such a huge letdown. So, what exactly went wrong?
Expected to be the biggest film of the summer, Godzilla opened with a disappointing 44 million dollars during its Friday to Monday span. The film was expected to flirt with and/or destroy the weekend box office record set by The Lost World: Jurassic Park the previous year. Godzilla didn’t come close to breaking that record, as word of mouth sank the film after its first day in theaters. Reviews were atrocious – the film scored an aggregate 25% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The worst of the worst was reserved for Maria Pitillo’s pitiful performance, as has been discussed on this site in the past. The film quickly petered out at the box office, leaving other 1998 projects like Armageddon and Rush Hour to pick up its slack. Ultimately, Godzilla grossed 136 million domestically against a budget of 130 million dollars, an obscene film production budget for 1998 (but sadly pretty normal for 2014).
Godzilla might just be the most incompetently made massively budgeted summer blockbuster ever. Poor special effects, recycled shots, a dreadfully dumb script, characters with no motivation, plot points obviously ripped off from more successful sources… there are a multitude of problems with the film. The human characters, anchored by a bored Matthew Broderick and an awful Maria Pitillo, are uninteresting and outright unlikable. There is no protagonist worth rooting for, unless one counts the English-speaking French Special Forces soldier played by a slumming Jean Reno. So Emmerich and Devlin went from having the audience root for the good old USA in Independence Day to rooting for the French in Godzilla. That’s just kind of ill conceived. Whereas audiences found themselves genuinely intrigued by the characters and plot of Independence Day (no, ID4 is not a deep film, but Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith are pretty awesome in it), no one cared what happened to anyone or anything in Godzilla.
It is actually kind of difficult to put into words just how much Godzilla sucked. Most bad films still have some redeeming quality to them. The recently discussed Super Mario Bros. has a genuinely interesting set design to it. The Lost World: Jurassic Park at least still had cool special effects and a great character played by Jeff Goldblum (even if that character wasn’t quite strong enough to be the lead). One year after Godzilla, Fox and Lucasfilm released The Phantom Menace, a film that many despise, but it has a fantastic lightsaber duel with a cool villain set to a fantastic score at its climax. There is nothing redeeming whatsoever about Godzilla. It’s not even so bad it’s good. It’s just flat-out bad. I have no idea what Emmerich and Devlin were thinking. Godzilla was so bad that the Japanese were downright embarrassed by it, and the reputation of Toho, the production company behind the films, took a hit that likely lingers to this day. I have no idea if the upcoming Godzilla film will be a good movie, but it has a 100% chance to be better than this piece of crap.