[Already read this part? Find the other parts of this series at: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3]
An American Godzilla film had been in the works for awhile. The movie went through a couple different incarnations before it took its final shape. It started in 1983, when Steve Miner of Friday the 13th Part 2 and 3 fame optioned the rights from Toho to direct his own 3D Godzilla film. Studios balked at the estimated budget, so the project was shelved until the rights were picked up by Tristar Pictures 10 years later. Screenwriters Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, famous for penning Aladdin and the Pirates of the Caribbean films worked on a script. They reimagined Godzilla as a slumbering creation of Atlantis, waiting to be reawakened to battle a giant monster called The Gryphon (a similar origin would be used for a reboot of giant monster rival Daiei Studios’ Gamera in 1995). Special effects legend Stan Winston, who created the effects work in landmark films like Aliens, The Terminator, and Jurassic Park signed on to bring the monster to life in full animatronic glory. Just as the designs and look were nailed down, Tristar pulled back on their support, again weary of the film’s budget. Some years later, the project would fall into a new pair of hands, ones who had a huge record of box office success behind them and all but assured profitability in their take on the character.
Godzilla’s new creative team was none other than producer/screenwriter Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich, whose box office success with Independence Day gave Tristar confidence Godzilla was in good, profitable hands. The pair decided to ax all preexisting ideas and scripts and take their Godzilla in their own direction. This would involve stripping the King of the Monsters of many of his defining features in service of realism. Their Godzilla was a creature of speed, not power; not a towering, unstoppable force of nature, but a cunning animal. The new Godzilla was an iguana mutated by French nuclear tests, hunched over and fast, feeding on fish, and most controversially, rising to turn Manhattan into its nest to breed offspring. What it lacked was the atomic breath, invulnerability to conventional weaponry, and sense of unstoppable menace and power that made the original so iconic. Fans and critics didn’t like it one bit.
Reception was venomous, and speaking from my own perspective, the movie was no good. The script was braindead and heavily derivative of better blockbusters (especially Jurassic Park), the characters were annoying, the acting was flat, and the jokes were eye-rollingly corny. More than anything though, people took issue with the complete and utter disdain the filmmakers seemed to show toward the Godzilla character and the very things that made him an iconic monster. Fans christened the new creature GINO (Godzilla in Name Only), a moniker that’s lasted through the ages; Heisei Godzilla suit actor Kenpachiro Satsuma famously walked out of a Japanese screening of the 1998 film and told reporters “That’s not Godzilla, it does not have the spirit.” Opening weekend box office figures were tremendous, but they quickly dipped. Even though the numbers were strong enough to warrant a second movie, Tristar opted not to make it, as audiences, critics, and licensors no longer trusted their vision.
Toho meanwhile, was left with a conundrum of their own. The American gravy train they were hoping to ride was no longer viable, and though they planned to shelve their Godzilla for an indefinite period of time, the last thing bearing his name was an unpopular dud. In the wake of all this, Toho decided to dust off their Godzilla once again and bring him back to cinemas to reclaim his title.
Part 4- The Millennium Series
Toho’s Godzilla returned to Japanese theaters in 1999, just shy of a year after the release of the American film. For their new series of movies, Toho decided to do away with the continuity that defined the Heisei Series and frame every movie as a standalone adventure having no connection to any previous Godzilla films save for the original. The objective was to give filmmakers the opportunity to tell their stories afresh, free from the burden of continuity and having to reference older films. As the Millennium Series began a mere few years after the Heisei era ended, a lot of the same creative teams remained onboard. Heisei screenwriters Hiroshi Kawashibara and Wataru Mimura penned most of the scripts, and directors Takao Okawara and Masaki Tezuka, an assistant director on several Heisei films, helmed a number of the new entries. Music and special effects crews though, were changed up quite a bit between movies.
Reboot movies are tricky. In order to really work they have to effectively tell their own stories while providing the audience a sort of mission statement: a rationale for rebooting a property and a new sense of direction to expect of it. This movie does neither well. It’s boring, dramatically flat with bad pacing on par with Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla. There’s a reason that most of these movies, even the ones that retool continuity, anchor themselves to at least one previous film in the series—it provides context, a sense of the world the movie occupies and a history that grounds the monster action. This film however, thrusts us into the middle of an ill-defined narrative landscape where Godzilla has apparently been at stomping cities for years with no explanation or development given. Here, he squares off against the military and a UFO piloted by a disembodied alien entity seeking to harvest his genetic material to regenerate itself. Trust me, it comes across far more interesting on paper than it does in the film.
The movie attempts a more serious tone than usual, but the flatness of everything else pretty much negates any weight it might earn. Ditto for the script’s several attempts to define Godzilla as an unstoppable punishing force. Godzilla’s durability and deliberate vendetta against humanity, all ignored in the 1998 film, are important plot points, or at least given lip service, but it really fails to hit as Godzilla really just feels like more of a plot device to get action scenes going and blow things up on cue. The monster stuff is also a mixed bag. Special effects are directed by series newcomer Kenji Suzuki, who thankfully finds a nice balance in the kaiju combat between animalistic tooth and claw fighting and beam attacks, but makes some god-awful use of CGI and composite effects. While Toho’s effort to reestablish Godzilla as an unbeatable force of nature was a noble one, it failed to hit home with critics and audiences and opened to a meager Japanese and American theatrical release.
The next Godzilla film really hammered home the full implications of Toho’s decision to rewrite continuity with every new movie. While Godzilla 2000 tried for weight and melancholy, Godzilla vs. Megaguirus goes the goofy route. Delightfully absurd concepts like creating a black hole gun to kill Godzilla give this movie a nostalgic kick; it really feels like something that belonged in the early 70’s. Despite the more old-school feeling you get from this movie though, it only really comes across with half the fun. The story plays with some cool concepts. The lack of history that plagued the last film is corrected here, and in the opening five minutes the movie lays out an alternate history where Godzilla continually surfaces to feed on nuclear energy, prompting the government to move Japan’s capital to Osaka and try switching to a “clean” plasma energy that won’t attract Godzilla, (it doesn’t work). A lot of that freshness goes out the window quickly though, as we’re forced to follow a gang of one dimensional humans who don’t provoke interest in the slightest. Things pick up a bit when a prehistoric species of dragonfly, the Meganula, and their queen, Megaguiris enter the fray though. The final battle between the two titular creatures is really fun, even though it’s 70’s era goofiness might put some viewers off. Aside from that sequence, and a wonderful soundtrack from Michiru Oshima, I can’t really recommend much about this movie.
Between 1995 and 1999, director Shusuke Kaneko, a lifelong monster fan, helmed a rebooted trilogy of films starring Godzilla’s long time box office rival, the giant turtle Gamera, for Daiei Studios. Even today those films stand as a shining example of Japanese kaiju cinema, with their accomplished special effects work, drama, characterizations, and music. Following the completion of the trilogy with the lauded Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris in 1999, Kaneko turned his sights toward a Godzilla movie of his own. After a bit of schmoozing to Toho, he finally got the ok and proceeded to make one of the most unique and celebrated Godzilla films ever.
GMK takes some risky turns. It’s one of the few Godzilla films to venture into straight fantasy territory, and makes some pretty ballsy revisions to traditional Godzilla mythology. Godzilla is portrayed as a manifestation of the anger of dead World War II victims, and the usual paragon of cosmic evil and destruction, King Ghidorah is recast as a straight up protagonist. Despite what you might thing, all these risks pay off in spades. Godzilla’s revamped back story allow for a more pronounced sense of personality to the creature, and he’s a monster this time around. Vicious, ruthless, intelligent, and outright sadistic, GMK’s Godzilla is the scariest and most menacing incarnation of the character ever, and the “World War II spirits” angle is given just enough emphasis to make dramatic sense, and little enough to not feel intrusively revisionist or distracting.
The drama and characterizations aren’t substantial, but they’re there enough to get you dramatically invested and provide a real sense of physical and emotional impact when peril strikes. The destruction and monster effects are spectacular, and there’s a real sense of impact and weight when things get hit or blow up. There’s a great balance of dramatic weight and good old fashioned monster fun. The storyline is serious and thematically and emotionally charged, but there’s a real reverence at play when the monsters show up. Bottom line, this is one of the best in the series and the true standout of the Millenium era.
Unlike the two films proceeding it, GMK was a box office success and convinced Toho the Big G could stick around a little longer,. Rather than move forward and continue pushing boundaries though, Toho opted for a far more “back to basics” approach with the next movie, again opting to recycle an old foe with market power. Godzilla vs. Megaguirus director Masaaki Tezuka returned to the director’s chair, and thankfully his work here was much stronger than his last film, even if it did ultimately represent a step back after GMK’s two steps forward.
Godzilla vs. Megaguirus’ chief detriment was the leaden, lifeless plot and characters carrying it. Thankfully, Tezuka was able to imbue his film with a lot more energy this time around. Dramatically, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla pretty much functions like a live action giant robot anime. The melodrama is turned up to 11 here, complete with stock giant robot tropes like a chief pilot dealing with emotional trauma and a sense of empathy for her machine, a semi-sentient giant robot that goes berserk in the heat of battle, a rival pilot with a grudge, and a dramatic focus on the titular giant robot and the people involved in its making and operation with the monster as a one dimensional antagonist to overcome in the climax. This unfortunately, means there’s little room to really develop Godzilla as anything more than a plot device.
There are a lot of cool ideas buried in the script though. For once, the political implications of Japan being in possession of a destructive giant robot are actually explored. There’s also the gleefully absurd revamped Mechagodzilla (rechristened as “Kiryu,” or “Machine Dragon”) origin story, with the robot being physically constructed around the skeletal remains of the 1954 Godzilla and the beast’s spirit lying dormant within it. Even though this angle isn’t explored too heavily, it gives a real sense of drama and character to Mechagodzilla, who is framed as a victim and unwitting slave to humanity’s scientific arrogance.
It’s far from a perfect movie though, as mentioned before, the monsters get pretty dramatically short-handed, with Godzilla only really showing up to give Kiryu an excuse to be dispatched, and Kiryu’s possession by the 1954 Godzilla being dropped midway through the movie (until the next one anyway). The special effects from director Yuicki Kikuchi are also a little uneven. It’s still a fun ride though, and one very much worth watching.
The first and only direct sequel in the Millennium Series! Picking up about a year after Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, Kiryu is about to be completely repaired, and Mothra is making ominous appearances in Japan’s skyline, angry that the bones and dead soul of the 1954 Godzilla are being repurposed as a weapon. If the previous movie suffered a bit from the lack of focus on kaiju, this one compensates. Godzilla is an appropriately vicious destroyer again, and Mothra is her good old fashioned determined, selfless, and noble self. The special effects from Godzilla veteran Eichi Asada are the visual highlight of the Millennium films, with destruction having the perfect amount of mass, scale, and impact, Mothra’s wing and flight movements looking especially lifelike, and the balance between practical and computer effects seamless.
Dramatically though, the movie is flat, though not to the insanely boring degree Godzilla 2000 and Godzilla vs. Megaguirus were. The storyline is also heavily derivative, essentially a remake of Mothra vs. Godzilla with the bones of the original Godzilla being substituted for Mothra’s egg and a couple fights with Kiryu being added to the mix. The sheer number of recycled beats and moments really speaks to how hackneyed and stale the series was becoming at this point. The sluggish pacing doesn’t help this much either. The action takes a little too long to start with too little being accomplished dramatically by the time it does, and when things do kick off, the action actually overstays its welcome a bit. Still a fairly entertaining watch, but signs of franchise fatigue are pretty apparent throughout.
For Godzilla’s 50th anniversary film, Toho made it clear they were pulling out all the stops. This film was going to be a blast, an epic story with an unprecedented cast of monsters, a story international in scope, and a host of foreign talent including rock icon Keith Emerson and title designer Kyle Cooper working on the film. As publicity began to roll out, it became clear what Toho’s focus was, and it was ambitious. They were looking to make this an international smash, hiring Ryuhei Kitamura, a cult director whose Hollywood breakout prospects were looking promising, along with the aforementioned familiar foreign talent, and staging an epic world premiere right in the middle of Hollywood. Among fandom, the hype built like a volcano waiting to erupt. The ambition was big, the talent reliable, the monster roster (including returning favorites like Anguirus and Gigan) was great, and the monster action was going to be fast, kinetic, epic, and surely something awesome.
What actually came of all this was….something no one was expecting. Viewers hungry for a kaiju epic to end all kaiju epic had to confront a remarkable lack of Godzilla screen time, an action heavy/brains light script that ripped off half a dozen Hollywood blockbusters, an incoherent directorial style invoking a sleep deprived Michael Bay, inconsistent special effects work, and a music score flat as three day old soda.
But heck, I like it.
The 70’s era Godzilla films are like those old friends whose life never quite took the direction you hoped for or expected, and while your paths might have diverged and they enjoy a Pabst while you drink a Sierra Nevada, your hangouts are still full of that old spark and energy you had in childhood. Godzilla Final Wars belongs right in that camp. It’s a failure to be sure, but it at least has the decency to be interesting about it. I would watch this over Godzilla 2000 any day, even though that film is far more cohesive, I would much rather watch stock action hero types fight leather-clad aliens with wire-fu and bullet time while monsters jump around than boring characters slog through a dramatically inert film until they stand around while a couple monsters hit each other for awhile and blow things up.. While the monster action is sparser than I’d like to admit, the fights are still entertaining. King Seesar kicks Anguirus around like a soccer ball while Godzilla dives toward him like a goalie looking to block the shot; the American Godzilla gets knocked into the Sydney Opera House and obliterated by the real Godzilla’s heat ray in seconds; Rodan swoops into New York and blows up a cop and pimp arguing about a car getting towed. If you know exactly what you’re getting into when you start this film you might actually have fun with it and laugh at it over a couple drinks. I enjoy it a lot.
Unfortunately for the Big G and his supporters, the film was a box office flop in Japan, earning back about half its production cost and earning lower numbers than the series had seen in decades. Before Godzilla Final Wars was released, producer Shogo Tomiyama announced his intention to send Godzilla into another indefinite hibernation, and the movie’s box office performance was more than a proper assurance that his call was justified. Audiences had grown fatigued with the Godzilla franchise, and it was time to send him back to sleep until time had done its job and provided some fresh eyes and fresh minds to unearth him again.
While the Millennium Series gave audiences a host of fun moments and monsters, it largely failed to connect with them. All in all, the box office performance of this collective era is pretty mediocre, and with the exception of Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack, many fans consider it a low point in the series’ history. If I had to pick a reason why, I would say it’s because the space in between this era and the Heisei films was too short to really allow serious reconsideration of Toho’s goals and direction for the series. The Return of Godzilla (1984) felt like a fresh start, like a whole new slew of minds were coming together to bring Godzilla to a new generation. Godzilla 2000: Millennium feels like more of the same, but without a real sense of purpose. Many of the same creative minds behind the Heisei Series worked on this one too, and in terms of tone and direction, many of the Millennium films feel like a continuation of the market and formula driven mindset behind the later Heisei fims.
I like most of the movies on this list. I think they all have value and are fun to watch. I can’t deny though, that there’s a feeling of fatigue and staleness throughout most of them. I’m a diehard fan and I’ll enjoy most any Godzilla movie as long as it hits the basic beats. I like to see monsters destroy cities, naval fleets, and each other, and if there’s an interesting enough human story to take us to that place, all the better. GMK and its thoughtfulness and creative retooling of expectations and conventions really puts into perspective how much room there is still to play with the King of the Monsters, expand his world, and rethink his place in culture.
Now that we’re hopefully about to see a new franchise kick off with the release of this year’s Godzilla (which as of writing this article I’m hours away from seeing), the Big G will get some fresh new ground to stomp on. Judging by the level of hype and anticipation that I’ve seen build over the new film, I think audiences are ready for Godzilla to come back, and I think they’re eager to be wowed. I want Godzilla to be talked about again, I want him to be relevant, and I want people to get excited and curious about the rich history I’ve tried to cover in this retrospective and explore it. Bring on the new Godzilla. Long live the King.
And for the record, here’s my top five.
Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)
Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (2001)
Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster (1964)
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)
Check out the other parts of this series: