AUTHOR’S NOTE: Before starting, I’d like to make a quick distinction. I see the American Godzilla and the Japanese Gojira as two separate entities. As a result I will be referring to them by their localised names whenever they arise.
A film’s marketing is as important, if not sometimes more important, than the film itself. Hollywood has seen as much good marketing as it has bad, with “good” and “bad” films fitting into both categories. A good film can be tonally misrepresented by the marketing or by spoiling a major plot element. For example, the marketing for 2011’s The Cabin in the Woods did both by touting the film as a generic horror film (despite actually being a sarcastic critique of the genre as a whole) while spoiling one of the film’s larger plot twists. Meanwhile, a bad film like 2017’s Justice League can have millions of dollars spent on it, and have brand deals with companies like Gillette and Mercedes-Benz. There has been some brilliant marketing in recent years like 2008’s Cloverfield (which refused to show you the monster) and 2009’s Avatar (which was all about the CGI) but, to me, the greatest marketing campaign ever devised was for 1998’s Godzilla.
It was decided by director Roland Emmerich, and later agreed upon by studio executives, that if Godzilla was the biggest draw for the film then it would benefit them to not show audiences beforehand what he looked like. This was the first time that Toho Studios had allowed anyone else to use the famous kaiju, and it was well-known that he had been given an American redesign, but in a time without social media, you would only see him in official marketing materials. If you wanted to see Godzilla, you would have to see Godzilla. However, this doesn’t mean that there was no marketing campaign, in fact it meant quite the opposite as you couldn’t escape the tagline “Size does matter”. It was attached to a huge number of banners plastered on public transport and on buildings like a bus with “His foot is as big as this bus” or a building that said “He’s as tall as this building”. This gave an impression of Godzilla’s size without giving away the specific details and it worked, with the film taking in $74million in its first week. This “Show less, not more” technique would be applied to the 2014’s Godzilla and the aforementioned Cloverfield, although without the signs.
Reputation is also vitally important when it comes to films, and with Godzilla there were two reputations at stake. The first was that of the titular character, and the second was of the film’s director Roland Emmerich. Gojira has been widely popular since his debut in Toho Studio’s 1954 film of the same name which had birthed a franchise 22 films strong in 1998. The character was conceived with the American Atomic Bombings fresh in the public psyche, as a warning about nuclear weapons and radioactive fallout, with Gojira himself born from overexposure to radiation. The Gojira franchise was distributed in America by entrepreneur Henry Saperstein, who was constantly asking that America be allowed to make a Gojira film of their own. After 10 years of pleading, Toho finally agreed and in 1992, the project landed at Tristar Studios where it cycled through several directors before coming to Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin in 1996. Their pitch featured a more realistic Godzilla in comparison to the much sillier and rubber-suit looking Gojira, with a design concocted by Patrick Tatopoulos. Supposedly, the reaction from Toho was one of bewilderment. After some executive deliberations it was decided that this film and characterisation kept the spirit of Gojira and would be allowed to continue. Regardless of how you felt about Godzilla‘s director, this was the very first Hollywood Godzilla film, with a brand new creature design that had been approved by Toho Studio. It was huge news.
Roland Emmerich, who had been assisted in script writing by Dean Devlin, also had quite the reputation by 1998 having already directed 3 Hollywood blockbusters. Universal Soldier, Stargate, and Independence Day had all released to mediocre reviews, as would Godzilla and all the films that followed but after 3 films, it was hoped he could break the cycle. The main criticisms of Emmerich’s work are that the characters are bland and that the writing is cliched, which is true, however nobody does either of those things as well as Emmerich does whilst still providing an entertaining film. He has said in interviews that he does not allow these criticisms to bother, him because he only aims to provide enjoyable “Popcorn Entertainment”, which is a view I can’t help but respect. I have always enjoyed that aspect of his work, with Independence Day being a 4th of July tradition for me despite being British, but there has always been a deeper meaning to his works too. Emmerich uses his work to spread awareness of Climate Change, and to expose how unprepared the government would be in response to a doomsday scenario. These would be key plot elements in later films like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 but it’s still present here in Godzilla. This may be a big, dumb monster movie, but it features a creature born of nuclear radiation and a US Army that causes more destruction than the Kaiju they’re trying to murder… so it’s clear that Emmerich has more on his mind than “big creature go smash”.
With the high reputation of Gojira, the not-yet terrible reputation of Emmerich and the stellar marketing, audiences flocked in that first week to see Godzilla, but ultimately, it wasn’t enough. People expected a serious movie akin to Gojira but they were instead greeted by high-octane popcorn entertainment. The audiences were packed in the first week, but once word got out about how “bad” the film was, box office dropped 59% in the second week. This kind of drop-off can be catastrophic to a film’s monetary intake, and reputation, with Batman and Robin suffering a worse fate at a drop-off of 63% in its second week. I think it’s definitely worth noting the similarity between these two specifically because Batman and Robin was also directed by a gay man, and was less gritty than audiences were expecting. I’m not blaming homophobia for how poorly these films did, but I think it would be ridiculous to rule it out as a factor.
The plot of Godzilla follows Dr Niko Tatoplous as he is hired by the US Military to investigate some colossal animal-like damage. This leads to a reunion with his ex-girlfriend Audrey who is attempting to become a serious reporter, and an encounter with the French Secret Service whose radiation led to the creation of Godzilla. It also leads to a tremendous amount of destruction in New York and a Maddison Square garden full of sequel-baiting Godzilla eggs. The most interesting aspect of Godzilla is that it really doesn’t need to feature the titular kaiju at all because this film would work better (and might have been received better) as just a regular monster flick, like Cloverfield. The message of Gojira (Nuclear Stuff Bad) is still there for sure, but Godzilla looks so different from his Japanese predecessor that he might as well be a completely different creature and, again, I wonder if the film would have been received better that way. Emmerich wrote a script specifically for Godzilla, so it wasn’t a script he was going to write otherwise, but if you took that script and changed the name of the creature you’d be greeted with a heck of a good monster movie. Of course, given the similarities to Gojira, Toho Studios could have probably sued and won but this is the movie they gave the greenlight to. I think that the portrayal of Godzilla is many people’s biggest issue with the film, Emmerich aside, and I can understand that. As a pretentious young teenager I certainly did my fair share off ribbing, but if you can get over yourself and see this as just a big monster movie, I think you’ll end up having a good time.
The other most interesting aspect is the portrayal of legendary film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. They do not appear in the film, however the Mayor of New York and his aide are modelled and named after them. Mayor Ebert is an angry, often impatient man who will say and do whatever is necessary to make himself look good while Siskel is his “Yes Man” who is too cowardly to disagree with anything Ebert says. It’s good satire, if not a little surface level, of the two men most critical of Emmerich’s work. In response to their appearances in the film, they claimed that the film doesn’t go far enough in criticising them, and that they should have been squashed or eaten. It’s an interesting point, but with the benefit of hindsight, there’s probably some justification for why their characters were allowed to survive. It’s possible, given this was supposed to be the first film in a trilogy, that their characters would have made a return to be humiliated further. I think it’s also worth noting that Toho Studios supposedly provided Emmerich with a dossier of “Do’s and Dont’s” for Godzilla, with one of those stipulations being that he couldn’t eat people- only fish. That’s right, one of the major criticisms people had came from a Toho decision. You can hate this film all you want (and people do) but Toho is not totally blameless.
The fallout from Godzilla is as interesting to me as the film itself. The film ends with the death of the titular character on Brooklyn Bridge, but with the survival of one of his many eggs. (He reproduced asexually, It’s a little bit Jurassic Park). There was a script treatment written for Godzilla 2 by Tab Murphy which featured Godzilla’s offspring battling a massive insect in Australia, but due to a lack of enthusiasm from audiences and the studio execs, the project was shelved. Godzilla 3 would never receive so much as a vague plot outline and the rights to a Godzilla sequel would eventually expire in May 2003. However, this would not be the end of Tatopolous’ adventures. As with so many 80’s and 90’s films, from Ghostbusters to The Mask, there would be a spin-off animated children’s series. Godzilla: The Animated Series aired on the Fox Kids network in 2000, which followed Tatopolus as he raised the final Godzilla child to defend New York from various threats. It is not a show that I have seen, so it is not a show that I will be passing judgement on, but it sounds like exactly the kind of thing I would have loved as a child.
This wouldn’t be the end of Godzilla’s Hollywood career either, as his rights were later picked up by legendary pictures who launched their “Monsterverse” in 2014 with Godzilla. It’s worth noting that the ideas planned for Godzilla 2 would find their way into this Monsterverse with Kong: Skull Island pitting the titular ape against giant insects although Australia and Godzilla Junior are yet to make an appearance. I’ve seen several reviews for Godzilla (2014), as well as watching it myself, and the general consensus seems to be that it was boring despite the final 15 minutes where Godzilla finally appears. A lot has been said of Godzilla (1998) and much has been done to distance it from Gojira, with Toho Studios referring to this iteration as Zilla, however you can’t tell me that it’s boring. I, and many others, have had a lot of fun watching this film and I’ll continue to enjoy it for years to come.
Until Next Time…