In the South Pacific, a Japanese fishing vessel is sailing through rough waters when suddenly things get a whole lot rougher as something massive hits the ship. Whatever it was, it sank it with all hands bar one: a survivor who is so traumatised that he can barely speak and when asked what he saw, merely repeats the word "Gojira". Meanwhile, in Chernobyl, scientist Nick Tatopolous (Matthew Broderick) is conducting experiments on worms, which he has found to have grown more than normal worms due to the radiation in the area, when he is interrupted by a U.S. Army helicopter landing nearby and whisking him away. There is big news...
"Big" being the most important word, as the ads had it "Size does matter" and this, the American version of the popular Japanese giant monster movie franchise, was intended to be the biggest movie of the year. But then something odd happened, and although it was no dumber than many of the blockbusters out there, here it couldn't shake the reputation forced upon it that this was a flop, and a worthless flop at that. To this day, even though it made its money back Godzilla is regarded as a misfire, neglected by the fans of the originals and never taken seriously by those who, in 1998, queued up to see Armageddon and Deep Impact which feature a comparable amount of destruction posing as spectacle.
Was it really that bad? Actually, if you put aside the absurdity of the plot, which granted is something the team of Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich never got to grips with, then this was no more blatantly awful than many more successful moneymakers, and indeed had a sense of humour about it that may not have been witty, but was warm-hearted. The main bone of contention appeared to be that Devlin and Emmerich, on script duties, went out of their way to overexplain what in the sources had been taken on trust: sure, there's a big monster, but the science of it need not concern us more than accepting that it's all an allegory for the evils of nuclear war.
Here, however, the science seems to have been a sticking point, as the plot goes out of its way to come up with reasons for a hundred foot high creature wandering the streets of Manhattan, which is where the beast ends up, though with a lot less emotional kick than King Kong. So there's a lot of mumbo jumbo about Godzilla being an "incipient lifeform" thanks to the atomic bomb testing, and his behaviour is detailed by Nick who for a while looks as if his main role is to make excuses for the special effects sequences. He does get to New York City, following the lizard across the world (it's migrating, apparently, nothing to do with the fact that Emmerich wanted to destroy famous landmarks), and bumps into an old flame.
She is Audrey, played by Maria Pitillo in a role which effectively stopped her movie career dead in its tracks, as she was often singled out as the worst performer in this, chiefly because she was required to be as perky as a chipmunk which never goes down well with audiences in this sort of thing. Audrey is a television researcher looking for her big break, but told she is too nice to get ahead - hmm, I wonder if there's a big story upcoming that might give her that leg up to success? Faring better is Jean Reno as the French Secret Service agent Philippe Roaché, a pleasingly wry and "in on the joke" reading of what really should have been the villain as it is the French bomb testing that has kickstarted Godzilla's rampaging evolution.
But another reason why this was not the hit that, for example, Devlin and Emmerich's Independence Day was, is that the gung ho, might is right, attitude of that film is inverted here as the military consistently let the public down, causing easily as much, if not more, destruction than the title character does, outsmarted by an animal whose brain is presumably the size of a walnut. Perhaps moviegoers preferred their blockbusters to rely on more basic, some would say empty, heroics and not have the veritable misfits like Nick and those he teams up with save the day? For those unimpressed with the kind of action that proliferated in those other, more conservative effects-filled movies, it was refreshing to watch one which switched the conventions and did so with an indulgent amusement, so this Godzilla might not have captured the spirit of its times quite as well as its rivals. Nevertheless, if you dispensed with the poor esteem too many judged this in, then you might find yourself actually enjoying it: it's no more daft than Godzilla vs The Smog Monster. Music by David Arnold.