That seems to be the question, and it's a hotly contested one, not only by fans of the classic Godzilla, but also by the media and the moviemakers themselves. Before we get into a weighty discussion of such philosophical issues, though, let's take a look at the film itself.
After a classic preliminary "Japanese guys on a boat get attacked by an unseen monster in a storm" scene, the film gets down to business. Godzilla begins with Dr. Niko Tatopolous (Matthew Broderick), a scientist with an interest in irradiated animals. The U.S. government approaches Tatopolous with a problem they've been having: some sort of giant animal has crossed Panama from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and it's apparently the result of some French nuclear testing in the southern Pacific. Tatopolous, in a fit of brilliance, deduces that the lizard is, in fact, an irradiated, mutated marine iguana who has grown to giant size.
Sure enough, the lizard appears on the island of Manhattan, where he begins stomping buildings, roaring really loudly, and generally advancing the plot. Tatopolous and his band of merry soldiers follow the monster, now dubbed (ta da!) Godzilla, to New York. Why New York? Why not? Unfortunately, this movie isn't Ghostbusters, so there's no one around to come up with a really funny reason that a giant monster might choose the Big Apple.
"OK, I've done the scientific
calculations. I've determined
that tickets to Cats will set us
back $78.50, plus service charges."
Eventually the army/navy/whatever manages to hunt down Godzilla and kill him. (Sort of.) Here's where the movie takes a serious left turn. Rather than capitalize on the fact that this movie features a big mean dinosaur-like thing larger than anything of which Spielberg ever dreamt, the filmmakers instead choose to re-present material from Jurassic Park. Tatopolous and friends (his pretty tv-journalist former girlfriend, her cameraman, and some guys from the French intelligence agency anxious to right their wrongs) discover that Godzilla laid a zillion eggs in Madison Square Garden, and of course they all hatch just as our main characters arrive. Velociraptor-like Godzilla babies come after our heroes until they contact their soldier friends and have the stadium blown to bits.
After that, the only thing left is for the original Godzilla to reappear and (you guessed it) chase our heroes one last time before being killed by a pair of fighter jets. In a meant-to-be-poignant final scene, Godzilla and Tatopolous share a moment as the Big G's heart slows and then stops. The End.
Despite its obvious summer action movie flaws (poor script, worse acting), we actually liked Godzilla. It did manage to deliver in several crucial areas, most importantly in the area of special effects. Godzilla, despite being half-covered in darkness and rain for most of the film, is quite an impressive monster. The redesign wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been, and the computer animation used in these films just gets better and better. Maybe we're just sold on the idea of a huge, city-stomping monster, but darn it all, we felt some affection for the new Godzilla. (Which is more than we can say for other such monsters.)
Other places in which the new film shines: the occasional joke. Although the humor in general flopped about miserably (see our comments about Mayor Ebert below), some performances made us laugh ...in a good way. Kudos to Reno and Azaria for making something out of nothing. Also catching our eyes were the action sequences. Again, the computer animation made it possible to show swarms of helicopters attacking Godzilla, which at least conveyed the feeling that the military was really trying, darn it all.
Now to the more philosophical portion of our review...
"...either that, or it was a giant chicken!"
Philosophical Issue #1:
Is this really Godzilla in Godzilla (1998)?
This has been a greatly debated issue on the net, and frankly we don't quite understand the parameters of the argument. If it's a giant, vaguely reptilian monster that trashes cities, and Toho says it's Godzilla, it must be Godzilla.
Is the Tri-Star Godzilla the same as the Toho Godzilla? Of course not. Godzilla now joins an extensive list of pop culture characters that has gone through many, sometimes radically different versions. Characters who have done this would include Dracula, Tarzan, Frankenstein's Monster, Dr. Frankenstein, Zorro, Batman, Sherlock Holmes, Superman, King Kong, Mulan, Gamera, Hercules, Dr. Who, the Mars Attacks aliens, Ultraman, and The Incredible Hulk. And those are just the ones we thought of by looking around the room. Heck, even the Toho Godzilla has gone through multiple versions, seeing as how the Godzilla in Godzilla vs. Biollante can't possibly be the same Godzilla who fought the Smog Monster.
We don't see what the big deal is. The new Godzilla doesn't replace the old one. The 22 films Toho made are still there, and it seems likely Toho will make more films. Plus, if we're lucky, Tri-Star will make at least one more film with their Godzilla.
Philosophical Issue #2:
Is Godzilla a male or a female?
This is a bit of a thorny issue. All of the characters in Godzilla refer to Godzilla as "he," for no particularly good reason. On the other hand, Godzilla lays eggs. So which is he? Or she?
Now we aren't experts on what kind of bait and tackle a lizard might have (if we were Dave Barry, right now we'd say, "Wouldn't Lizard's Bait and Tackle a great name for a band?"), and frankly we're not willing to do the field research. However, we do live in central Florida, where lizards are pretty darn easy to find. The following is a fictional conversation that might result from an attempt to determine lizard sexuality:
Chris: Hey! I caught one! Scott: Is it a boy or a girl? Chris: I don't know. It just peed on me. Scott: Did it have the toilet seat up?
That being said, we understand that male lizards impregnate females internally, so we should expect male lizards to have some sort of organ in that area. Put another away, lizard size does matter. In the movie, Godzilla did seem to have some sort lump in that area. Moreover, our trusty Godzilla action figure would seem to bear this out:
Our Godzilla figure.
It's a boy!
So how did a male creature become pregnant? As bizarre as it sounds, sex is not quite so fixed among other creatures in Earth's biosphere. We're not used to this because we humans don't change sex spontaneously, unless we happen to be Michael Jackson. However, we were assured by a scientist who saw Godzilla that under extreme conditions some reptiles can become pregnant without the help of another member of their species. As we write this we couldn't verify that any species of male reptiles could become pregnant, but that would also not be unknown among higher vertebrates. Certain fish can change sex spontaneously. One little burst of hormone and Boom!, dude looks like a lady. Granted, in all these cases, the species in question has to have the attributes of both sexes built in when born. So in that case, is the creature really "he" or "she"? If we assume that this is the case with Godzilla, isn't whether we call him "he" or not really just a matter of semantics?
Summer 1998: Open
Season on the Chrylser building.
Philosophical Issue #3
The original Godzilla was a metaphor for nuclear destruction. What is the new Godzilla about?
Not much, really. Despite the early indications on the official web site, the movie was certainly not a scathing indictment of our nuclear policies, or even France's nuclear testing. If one believes screenwriter Dean Devlin, it's about Animal vs Technology -- and wow, it looks like technology wins. What a surprise.
However, every movie is a product of its times, and Godzilla is no exception. For instance, the large amount of destruction that the US military cause to New York is a direct result of our current awareness of "friendly fire." Also, for whatever reason, destroying the Chrysler building is really popular this year (Deep Impact, Armageddon). Filmmakers may be afraid to destroy the World Trade Center out of respect for the people who were hurt in the World Trade Center bombing a few years ago.
And of course there was that whole bit with Mayor Ebert and his assistant Gene. Obviously, Devlin and Emmerlich were not amused by the multiple bad reviews that the critical duo gave Independence Day. But all things considered, Mayor Ebert should have really been smooshed by Godzilla's foot. As it stood, it felt like a joke without a punchline.
Philosophical Issue #4
As of this writing, it doesn't look like Godzilla is going to make enough money to be considered a mega-hit, so sequels are not a sure thing at this point. But if a sequel is made, we would like to make a couple of suggestions.
Godzilla loooves trucks!
(A behind-the-scenes picture.)
First of all, the next movie has to have Godzilla fighting another monster. Watching Godzilla fight the army is OK once, but the next Godzilla movie needs to give the audience something more. The other monster should have a fairly unique origin, and hopefully shouldn't be part of an alien invasion. And while some people would like to see another classic monster done American style, we would prefer a new monster.
Also, Godzilla should be more powerful and invulnerable in the next movie. Seeing Godzilla portrayed as an animal was interesting in one movie, but should probably be jettisoned for next time. Here's our idea: While Godzilla appeared to be dead, it turns out that he is really just dormant. While the army tries to move Godzilla's body out of New York, an accident occurs and Godzilla's body is irradiated again. He is then reborn in a new armored form capable of projecting rays from his mouth.
Before any sequel comes out, though, we will be treated to a new animated series next season. Rumor is that the series will feature some classic Godzilla monsters, but not Mothra or Ghidorah (because Toho is still planning on making films with them).
Although this latest Godzilla movie is perhaps not the Big G's triumphant return to American cinema that fans had hoped, it is at least a return. The 1990's Japanese movies are at last being released in the U.S., and a resurgence of interest in our favorite movie monster has happened. Whatever the shortcomings of this film, it's a great day to be a Godzilla fan.