It’s a comfort to us DVD buyers that in this credit crunchworthy world, retailers are making their wares available for next to nothing. ‘The 199 Club’ covers movies I bought for £1.99 or less. Some of them are great, others considerably less so and in many cases I haven’t even seen the film before purchasing it. After all, two quid isn’t much of a gamble, is it? I’m about to embark on my annual attempt to stop smoking, and it humbles me to think that I could buy nearly three bargain basement movies for the price of a single 20-pack of Lucky Strike.
Still, that’s the mess up that is modern economics for you, and let’s kick off with a flick that I actually picked up as a stocking filler for mine son, one that was entirely overlooked in the wave of excitement that came with unwrapping a Nintendo Wii. Quite understandable too, particularly when you imagine that even a nine-year old has enough good taste to avoid a stinker like Godzilla, the disastrous disaster movie helmed by Roland Emmerich and released in 1998. Thinking about it, 1998 wasn’t a great year for blockbusters in general. We went to the pictures quite frequently in those pre-parenthood days, which means we got to take in the full horror of Lost in Space, the ‘when’s the meteor going to hit?’ tedium of Deep Impact, and the slightly underwhelming experience that came with seeing a movie spin-off of the ace X-Files. I don’t think it matters how affectionately you remember the general craziness of Michael Bay’s ear-splittingly loud Armageddon; nothing changes the fact that it simply isn’t a very good film. And it was one of the better ones, certainly in the eyes of cinema audiences who made it the second highest grosser of the year.
Flopping in apologetically at ninth is Godzilla, now reduced to a £1.99 purchase from play.com and virtually forgotten. The $136m gross it took at US theatres just about covered its lavish production expenses. It did precious little for the careers of anyone involved and turned off both critics and audiences. Roger Ebert, lampooned in the movie after slating some of Emmerich’s previous works, called it ‘a sterile exercise’ and it’s hard to disagree. At whom is Godzilla aimed? Fans of the Japanese kaiju were alienated entirely. Kids struggled to make out the 300-foot monster amidst the inky, rain-soaked Manhattan cityscape and no doubt everyone else just felt like they had been patronised by a film that has virtually no sense of style and makes little attempt to crank up the tension. Godzilla turns up, fights some toy soldiers, lays some eggs and gets offed. And that’s it. There’s a romantic sub-plot that isn’t developed enough to make it interesting. Jean Reno shows up as a French secret service agent and knocks several points off his own kudos by putting on a terrible impression of Elvis. According to the IMDb trivia pages, Godzilla is laced with in-jokes, homages and subtle gags, but it’s as though all the creative work has gone into these, the main plot going through the most predictable of motions as it lurches towards a conclusion that can be predicted by any viewer with a passing knowledge of movie monster mythology. And yes, I include in that remark the bit with the egg just before the credits.
Two years previously, Emmerich directed the critically unloved but commercially successful Independence Day, indeed it was the millions raked in by his alien invasion movie that greenlit the twenty-story high budget for Godzilla and gave him the freedom to do what he wanted with the concept. Like many others, I enjoyed Independence Day as a bit of sci-fi trash, cringed over some of the intentionally hopeless dialogue and marvelled at the special effects work. But garbage it was, saved as it might have been by the unlikely pairing of Jeff Goldblum’s nerdy scientist and Will Smith playing the Fresh Prince in military get-up. Godzilla has no such luck. Matthew Broderick takes the lead role of Dr Niko ‘Nick’ Tatopoulus, leading to moments of ‘hilarity’ as character after character gets his name wrong. Brilliant in Ferris Bueller’s Day off and excellent in the more offbeat Election, Broderick is nevertheless lost here. It isn’t really his fault, more his character has the thankless job of finding out what Godzilla is all about and therefore progressing the narrative. To give him something else to do, the writers shoehorn in a shallow bit of plotting that involves him getting back in touch with his childhood sweetheart, Audrey (Maria Pitillo). Now a struggling news researcher, Audrey is working for a terrible, mysogynyst boss and sees Nick as her way towards getting a scoop. Helping her cause is happy go lucky cameraman, Animal (Hank Azaria), who is actually far better value than either of the bland leads but is still forced to come out with some horrible dialogue - ‘Cool, threesome’ - for which he was presumably well paid.
And then there’s Reno, who frankly leaves all his credibility at the door. When not complaining about the state of American food and coffee, he somehow realises something that all the experts have conveniently overlooked - that Nick knows more than anyone else about what’s going on - and kidnaps him in order to set up the encounter with Godzilla’s brood in the guts of Madison Square Garden. Reno leaves no cliche about the French unturned in his toe-curling depiction, again not so much his fault as that of the script, but you hope he was well paid.
The silly plot - Godzilla is the result of French nuclear testing in the Pacific; fully grown at 300 feet (I think), he travels to Manhattan island to lay his eggs (where else would you go, after all?) - is in thrall to the only reason you would have gone to the cinema to see the movie in the first place. Independence Day featured some awesome visual effects, and Godzilla is no different in this respect. The permanent nightscape of a Manhattan in which it’s always raining might have been cited by critics as an excuse to cover up for the fact that any amount of CGI can’t make the lizard look real, and perhaps there’s something in that, though the overall effect is impressive. Even better rendered are the ‘Godzookies’ who show up later in the film, though by this stage the similarities in dinosaur encounters between this and the altogether superior Jurassic Park can’t be avoided. Godzilla’s babies are clearly the velociraptors; the main man doubles for T-Rex even if he’s a far cleverer beast than Spielberg’s monster. One of the keys to Jurassic Park working so well was that the dinosaurs, for all their otherworldly scariness, behaved like animals. The Tyrannosaur’s memorable attack on the kids’ car was frightening because you could imagine it happening exactly like that. Far from this stab at realism is Godzilla, who can use the labyrinth of skyscrapers in New York to fox pursuing helicopters, and knows enough about heat-seeking missiles to guide one straight into the path of a submarine. Had they frozen the movie at one stage in order for Graham Chapman’s major to enter the foreground, wielding his baton at the screen and demanding ‘Stop that, it’s silly!’ I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised.
All this makes worse the death of Godzilla. Having shot at the poor bugger for the duration of the picture, once he actually croaks the rest of the cast remember their King Kong and start feeling sorry for him. There seems to be no reason for this than the fact it happened in King Kong and there’s a chance that audiences’ sympathies may lie with the lizard. The scene is a rare stab at pathos, one in which we are invited to share thanks to engineers cranking up the sound of the rain and sparing us David Arnold’s overblown score for a moment.
Elsewhere, Godzilla plays for laughs.Whereas Independence Day kept its tongue in its cheek whilst telling its story more or less as straight, in this one everybody involved seems to be fully aware that none of it should be taken the least bit seriously. The consequence is a complete lack of any real threat whilst Godzilla trashes Manhattan, because why should anybody watching be bothered when the characters plainly aren’t? Indeed, even when half their city lies in ruins it appears most New Yorkers would come out with a cheeky quip rather than get upset, something that oddly enough wasn’t the case when a real-life devastating incident rocked it several years later. Now, where do I go to get my £1.99 back?