Godzilla 1998 20th Anniversary: #JusticeforPitillo

Godzilla was the first real disappointment of the summer of 1998. Not because I had any attachment to Godzilla. I hadn’t seen a real Godzilla movie yet, not even the original. I didn’t even have big expectations from the makers of Independence Day. I’d felt Independence Day a letdown based on the amazing teaser campaign, but working as a projectionist that summer it grew on me.

I actually thought Godzilla was kind of fun when I saw it.  As summer 1998 disappointments go, Godzilla merely lived down to expectaions. Armageddon was when Michael Bay let me down after The Rock, and Lethal Weapon 4 sidelined my favorite character and didn’t really have a script to string together its action sequences.

Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla follows the ID4 model with an ensemble of characters who will become relevant to Godzilla. Nick Tatopoulos is a scientist whose name no one can pronounce (seriously, were there no Greeks in the 90s?). Audrey (Maria Pitillo) is his ex-fiance who he still pines for, now working in a newsroom for sleazy anchor Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer).

Audrey’s cameraman Animal (Hank Azaria) is there to get shots of the creature. Philippe Roache (Jean Reno) is French intelligence tracking the monster. Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) listens to the Colonel Hicks (Kevin Dunn) to evacuate New York, but makes other shady political decisions that don’t help matters.

The biggest giveaway that this was the ‘90s was the freewheeling sexual harassment culture. Caiman is supposed to be an A-hole asking Audrey to dinner when she’s married and complimenting her looks when he should really be rewarding her professionalism. Animal suggests a threesome when Audrey stays with his wife, and he’s a good guy. Wasn’t it just hilarious for guys to immediately suggest sex in the ’90s? Animal’s wife calls him the R word too which fortunately we don’t use anymore.

The buildup to Godzilla was good with giant foot prints, claw marks, pulling boats under the water. The cars on the street jumping with each Godzilla footstep is a good practical effect, a big city equivalent of Jaws pulling the barrels.

He actually shows up 20 minutes in which was right quick. It was 50 minutes before the aliens blew up the White House in ID4. The first appearance is glimpses of body parts but you see his face. By the time you see a full body shot, it looks like there’s no way that creature could actually balance and walk on two feet, a design eventually mocked in Godzilla: Final Wars.

Boy, they did not get the lighting right in 1998. We knew they were playing with new CGI for Godzilla, but the dead giveaway is his lighting never matches the live-action, which is usually overcast and rainy. Godzilla always looks like he’s pasted in from a different scene than the rain soaked NY streets. It’s weird. There were two Jurassic Park movies before this. They could do reptiles.

The baby Godzillas are basically raptors. They’re more effective than the big one but still look pasted in.

There is a lot more action than ID4 which mainly had three big set pieces. Godzilla is more of an action movie where every 10 minutes something happens. So the pace keeps up to distract you from other problems.

Military misfires cause more destruction than Godzilla. As for body count, Godzilla kills hundreds of military. Yeah, they were overly aggressive but they were just following orders. Hicks survives after leading all his men to their deaths.

The wrecked subway station is a great set. Madison Square Garden as a nest is too. Just filming in the empty stadium hallways is cool. Also check out Len Wiseman’s name in a phonebook near the end of the movie. He was Assistant Props so he probably wrote himself into the prop, and now he’s a big director himself.

The ideas of the set pieces are good even if didn’t pull them off. Godzilla eating a taxi cab is fun, and running on the Brooklyn Bridge is cool. Maybe what undercuts the action the most is that Emmerich has the actors mugging at all the monsters. That’s not exciting. It’s like a whole movie full of Randy Quaids from Independence Day.

Killing the babies is brutal. I know you can’t have kaiju running around New York but maybe the filmmakers didn’t consider impact of slaughtering 200 baby animals whose only crime was having been born.

For better or worse, the generic characters in ID4 worked. People reconnected with estranged loved ones, families were torn apart and repaired, disgraced people found redemption. Godzilla tries to repeat that to much lesser effect.

I don’t think Godzilla needed Nick and Audrey pining for each other. Or if there was room for a love interest to be rekindled, this was not it. She turned down his proposal when they were too young to get married anyway, big deal. Now they’re grown-ups.

Perhaps the biggest oversight is there’s no Will Smith in Godzilla. Nick is generously the Jeff Goldblum but no one is the action hero. I guess Jean Reno is supposed to be but he doesn’t kick ass. He helps them sneak around places. He repels out a window and shoots chandeliers but that’s about it. I did think having the idiot Caiman misunderstand Gojira was a fun way to explain why Americans call him Godzilla.

There are some fun ‘90s artifacts unintentionally making Godzilla a time capsule. Disposable cameras, videotape jamming in a camera and Blockbuster Video signage in Madison Square Garden are all things we’d have to explain to people born in 1998.

The failure of Godzilla was relative. It made $136 million US and $242 mil worldwide to break about even, but it was not the franchise starter it was expected to be, nor the ID4 follow-up Sony was hoping for. Almost everyone recovered from it just fine.

Emmerich kept making big budget disaster movies. Broderick still headlined studio movies like Inspector Gadget and Deck the Halls while focusing mainly on Broadway. Azaria always had reliable work as a character actor and his Simpsons gig kept him from having to go back to waiting tables. It wasn’t even Reno’s last American movie, but he was always going to be more prolific in France.

I’m dismayed to find out that Pitillo seemed to stop working a few years later. Of course, all her male costars rebounded. Granted, the others were more established going into Godzilla but none of the actors should have been blamed for this. They took a gig on a big summer movie. Pitillo pretty much turned to television, and even that didn’t last past 2003. There’s absolutely no reason Pitillo should not have been in more movies. I want #JusticeforPitillo.

Written by
Fred Topel also known as Franchise Fred has been an entertainment journalist since 1999 and specializes in writing about film, television and video games. Fred has written for several outlets including About.com, CraveOnline, and Rotten Tomatoes among others. His favorite films include Toy Story 2, The Rock, Face/Off, True Lies, Labyrinth, The Big Hit, Michael Moore's The Big One, and Casablanca. We are very lucky and excited to have Fred as part of the We Live Entertainment team. Follow him on Twitter @FranchiseFred and @FredTopel

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