(Spoiler warning: Don’t read if you haven’t seen “Godzilla” yet. Either of them.)
“Godzilla” scored the biggest box office opening for a creature feature ever last weekend, and finally did the King of Monsters justice in the minds of the fans who flocked to theaters to see him stomp — then save — San Francisco. But that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect movie. Or even a great movie.
In fact, the majority of reviews — positive and negative — reflect that director Gareth Edwards‘ take on the giant reptile is flawed for a number of reasons. While director Roland Emmerich‘s 1998 movie, “Godzilla,” is generally derided for consisting of nothing but flaws, a comparison of the two very different adaptations reveals Emmerich’s vision did succeed in ways Edwards’ didn’t.
Don’t believe it?
Set aside 1998’s overly goofy tone, unrecognizable monster and cheesy dialogue and pay attention to five things Emmerich’s version did better than the product Warner Bros. distributed in 2014.
TheWrap‘s critic Alonso Duralde described Taylor-Johnson’s character in his review as “a very pretty blank.” Sure, the British actor passes for a handsome American with a muscular build believable enough for a capable marine, but his generally expressionless face and matter-of-fact delivery didn’t bring much to the table. He failed to command any presence on the screen, and didn’t provide sufficient entertainment while audiences eagerly waited for the titular monster to emerge from the Pacific.
Complain all you want about the campy tone of Emmerich’s “Godzilla,” but leave Broderick out of it. He did what actors are supposed to do, and created a character out of the dialogue he was paid to deliver. It’s pretty easy to remember that Broderick led the cast of the movie as a nerdy biologist specializing in nuclear mutations, but will audiences be able to remember that time Kick-Ass faced off against Godzilla a decade down the road? Or will they just remember Godzilla projectile fire-vomiting down another monster’s throat?
2. 1998 protagonist had a set of clearly defined objectives, while 2014 protagonist’s motivations were all over the map.
Broderick’s Dr. Niko Tatopoulos was recruited by the U.S. military to use his expertise to figure out what Godzilla is and why the giant lizard decided to emerge from the ocean now (well, in 1998). He eventually uses a blood sample to discover the creature is pregnant, and preparing to lay eggs on the island of Manhattan. Once the military relieves him of his duties and he learns top military officials are ignoring his discovery, he sets out with a merry band of Frenchmen to find the nest himself, and destroy it.
Now let’s review Marine Man’s role in 2014 “Godzilla.”
He leaves his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) at home in San Francisco to bail his “crazy” dad (Bryan Cranston) out of jail in Japan, and tries to convince him to stop stalking around a nuclear quarantine zone, but then inexplicably decides to come along for more illegal trespassing. The two get caught, and they end up at the top secret location crazy dad has been trying to discover for 15 years. This monster called a Muto — which Crazy Dad kind of, sort of, knew existed all along — escapes from its holding cell, and turns Crazy Dad into a casualty of destruction. After being interviewed by a scientist (Ken Watanabe) who basically knows next to nothing about the monster he’s been studying for 15 years, Marine Man decides he needs to get home to see his family. He catches a flight to Hawaii, where he intends to catch another home, but big bad news comes quick when the very same Muto starts wreaking havoc on the tropical island. He survives the assault, and hitches a ride with the military to northern California. He hears talk of a train carting a nuclear bomb heading toward San Francisco, so he uses his bomb-defusing expertise and the sympathy card to join the mission. The mission goes awry, the bomb gets swiped by the Muto, and Marine Man is once again the only survivor. After being rescued by the military, he ditches the plan to find his family and signs up for another mission, which is now to find and disarm the bomb in San Francisco. When the soldiers find the bomb, Marine Man is not actually able to disarm it, but he does stumble upon a nest of baby Mutos and is able to disarm that. When he meets his brothers in arms down by the bay, they’re all dead, and it’s up to him to become a martyr like Batman by transporting a nuclear bomb a mile or two offshore so it won’t hurt anybody (wait, what?). Fortunately for that family he loves so much but never really made much effort to find, he’s airlifted off the tugboat carrying the bomb into the ocean at 10 MPH, and lives to fight another day.
Phew! That took a while to explain. Did you happen to spot a clear objective? Or just get the feeling that Marine Man goes wherever destruction blows him. The only thing he actually accomplished was destroying a nest he accidentally stumbled across.
Let’s talk about that nest.
3. The nest mattered in 1998, and characters went to great lengths to neutralize it. In 2014, it was discovered and destroyed in the blink of an eye.
2014 “Godzilla” establish that the two Mutos were trampling society to get it on, and even showed the female being pregnant, but humanity didn’t seem to worried about finding those babies before they hatched. While the soldiers who accidentally discovered it were busy worrying about deactivating the nuclear bomb nursing the fetuses, Marine Man was the only guy who thought, “Hey, maybe I better destroy this thing quick.” And he did. Very easily. In fact, he may have put more effort into the staring contest he had with Godzilla just after adding gasoline to the fire that swallowed up the Muto eggs.
1998 “Godzilla” sent the protagonist and his crew on a mission to bypass military security just to get to the nest, then once they discovered it, a few of those eggs started hatching before they could set off carefully placed explosives. After avoiding becoming Godzilla’s children’s first meal, they actually take advantage of a skillset (broadcast journalism) a character demonstrated in the first act of the film, and are able to send a newscast to the military in order to inform them of the 200 eggs beneath Madison Square Garden that are about to hatch. The mission didn’t end there, though. Then the gang of unlikely heroes had to escape the blast zone before a military air strike.
Whether audiences know it or not, obstacles are an important part of storytelling, and Emmerich made sure his characters had to overcome plenty of them.
4. Matthew Broderick’s love interest had a storyline and even contributed to saving New York City from Godzilla. Elizabeth Olsen did what again?
Actress Maria Pitillo’s female lead (above) was an aspiring broadcast journalist who took advantage of Godzilla’s attack to make her big break in the field. She accidentally screws over nerdy ex-boyfriend Broderick, by stealing top secret information after an awkward reunion, but then she makes it up to him by following him into that nest with a cameraman, and ends up using said cameraman to alert the authorities to the dangerous beasts lurking beneath them. Furthermore, she’s present for the entire climax, and is riding in the taxi cab that leads Godzilla across the Brooklyn Bridge, where the monster gets tangled in suspension cables and is finally shot dead by the military.
Elizabeth Olsen’s character was a concerned wife. She put her kid on a bus to get him to safety, and waited for her husband to rescue her. When he didn’t show up, she ran through the streets while Godzilla’s tail crumpled buildings, and then she found shelter. She survived. Somehow. Then found her husband and kid. Somehow.
Details in her limited storyline didn’t really matter, and neither did she.
5. The Gojira name drop was WAY cooler in 1998.
In 1998 “Godzilla,” the lone survivor of a mysterious monster attack in the opening scene first uttered the title monster’s iconic name, and he’s clearly disturbed by what he saw. It might be the most memorable scene from the film, and amped up audience anticipation to see that giant lizard in all of its glory.
In 2014, Ken Watanabe’s character tossed the creature’s name out there somewhere in between a dozen dramatic close-up shots on his worried face.