Friday, May 22, 2009

CULT MOVIE REVIEW: Godzilla (1998)

With Star Trek successfully -- for the most part -- re-imagined and re-booted (and make no mistake, J.J. Abrams' film is a re-imagination...), I thought it might prove an interesting and illuminating exercise to turn our gaze here on the blog towards other movie re-imaginations of recent vintage.

Unlike Star Trek (2009), most such efforts (almost universally big-budgeted...) have met with fierce resistance from critics, audiences and the fan base alike. That fact makes this year's Trek re-imagination success the exception rather than the rule.

Consider some of the infamous titles that leap to mind here: Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes (2001), Will Smith's The Wild, Wild West (1999), the movie version of Lost in Space (1998). Even last year's Speed Racer (which I thoroughly loved...).

Yet perhaps the most universally reviled of all the recent re-imaginations/remakes remains Dean Devlin's and Roland Emmerich's 1998 extravaganza, Godzilla. The movie made a huge profit worldwide, but was despised by critics and hardcore Godzilla aficionados.

Indeed, we should recall that before Ron Moore's re-imagined Battlestar Galactica came along, there was another production derided by fans as "GINO:" Godzilla in Name Only.

As for me, I screened Godzilla -- a film advertised with the tag-line "Size Does Matter" -- upon theatrical release in the summer of '98. At the time, I felt intense disappointment. My initial complaints were that it was overlong, inconsequential, and a betrayal to the noble legacy of the legendary Toho monster. Although I disliked the film vehemently, something about it still nagged at my mind. I purchased the laserdisc for one dollar in a clearance bin roughly a year after the theatrical release, and have kept it on my video shelf ever since.

So I wondered: has ten years of "distance" from the Devlin/Emmerich film ameliorated my initial dislike of Godzilla? Taken on its own terms, is this ultra-expensive re-imagination a worthy film in any light? Are there good qualities present in Emmerich's film, ones that might successfully rehabilitate this particular work of art? Or was my initial assessment the correct one?

Blame The French: A Dishonest Betrayal of Godzilla's Heritage


For all its various and sundry flaws, Godzilla (1998) actually opens with a series of canny and memorable visuals, not to mention a driving narrative pace.

We begin our journey with grainy yellow film footage, cut in overlapping, successive form as a montage. We see, in short order, various views of nuclear tests being conducted on a lovely island in French Polynesia.

On the soundtrack, we are treated to a countdown to detonation...in French.

The resonant images of total destruction -- of nuclear mushroom clouds -- are soon super-imposed over images of several hapless iguanas blinking and reacting to the searing light and heat of the deadly atmospheric blossoms.

The final shot included in this brief credits sequence is of an iguana egg perched upright upon a sandy shore. We push towards the nest with a sense of dawning anticipation, and the clear implication is that the nuclear testing has mutated the very nature of the creature within. This is the birth of the movie's Godzilla.

Again, this brief sequence is quite adroit and accomplished in terms of imagery and visual presentation. In terms of meaning, however, the scene's other implication is staggering: the fault for Godzilla's creation rests with those pesky and immoral Frenchmen; those bad, bad cheese-loving, Old Europeans who conducted dastardly and dangerous nuclear tests, opening Pandora's Box in the process.

Although post-911, it has certainly become fashionable to blame the French for everything we don't like about the rest of the world -- and this Godzilla was surely ahead of its time by featuring this perspective -- this plot-point is such a blatant and craven example of "let's blame the other guy" hypocrisy that the thoughtful audience member will shudder at the sheer audacity of the conceit.
So let's just do a little factual tally here, and let the numbers speak for themselves. In our long history, America has test
detonated nuclear weapons 1,054 times. And France has done so...a meager 210 times by comparison. And let's see, which nation is the only one in the world to ever use atomic bombs against a civilian population?

Let me give you a hint: It isn't France.

The original Godzilla films, of course, understood this fact very, very well. When Godzilla: King of Monsters (1954) was imagined by Ishiro Honda, it was forged as a cautionary tale, as an allegory for the very real dangers of the Atomic Age. Between 1946 and 1958, America conducted 20 nuclear tests at the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific, for instance. Critic J. Hoberman, writing in the New York Times, describes the context of the original film this way: "
After a 15-megaton American H-bomb test on Bikini atoll irradiated 7,000 square miles of ocean, the entire crew of the Japanese tuna boat Lucky Dragon developed radiation sickness."

So, in his native country, Godzilla represented nothing less than an atomic bogeyman, a symbol of the arrogant West laying waste to Tokyo and other cities just as America's bombs had laid waste to Nagasaki and Hiroshima. And the threat -- as evidenced by the Bikini Atoll tests -- was spookily ongoing. The brilliant original film also dealt with the idea that the world would soon see even more destructive weaponry arise during the nuclear age, in this case, the fictional "Oxygen Destroyer."

Given this history of symbolism and social responsibility, for the 1998 film to brazenly point to the French as the progenitors of "the nuclear monster" is not only hypocrisy...but pandering of the worst order. One senses that the filmmakers wanted to avoid -- at all costs -- confronting the core American audience with such unpleasant truths. I mean, if people were really to stop and consider America's role in this life-and-death matter, they might not feel like visiting Taco Bell after the movie. Or buying the movie soundtrack (featuring a hit by Sean "P. Diddy" Combs!)

But imagine, just imagine, that the makers of the American Godzilla had decided to be truthful and even just a little bit courageous instead of pandering and dishonest. Then their movie would have concerned something important, the idea of America suffering "blow back" from its bad behavior. Godzilla -- rightly a product of American nuclear testing -- would have literally been a representation of our international "sin" come home to roost: angry, destructive and all-but unstoppable.

This cogent, powerful idea (which would have carried even deeper resonance after 9/11...) would have granted the U.S. version of Godzilla a larger, overarching purpose, and a corollary seriousness to the brilliant (and searing...) Japanese masterpiece. But by taking instead an easy and dishonest route, by making the French (!) the culprit in dangerous nuclear shenanigans, this Godzilla succeeds only in passing the buck. As a result, the entire film is built upon an intellectually dishonest and shady foundation. Accordingly, it is wholly lacking in any sort of deeper or relevant meaning. Godzilla's reign of destruction in Manhattan means absolutely nothing now...America is just a random victim of a random destructive spree.
Again, the Japanese Godzilla films -- for all their miniature city scapes and men-in-monster-suits -- often boasted a powerful sense of social commentary or responsibility, whether the issue was the Nuclear Age or even, in the 1970s, environmental pollution (Godzilla vs. Hedorah [1971]). By shifting the blame to France for Godzilla's creation, the 1998 film makes two grievous mistakes. First, such a shift betrays the very legacy of the original Godzilla film (missing an opportunity to be interpreted as "faithful" to what came before and thus garnering the support of existing fans...). And secondly, the U.S. film cuts itself off from the possibility that its narrative could carry a larger, more relevant sense of meaning and importance.

Welcoming to the dumbing down of Godzilla...a world where point A need not connect with Point B. Or C. Nuclear weapons testing is the cause of Godzilla's birth in the U.S. film, but by movie's end, nobody even remembers or cares about the test. The ashamed French don't vow to stop testing in the future; and the U.S. has no accountability for Godzilla, so it certainly isn't going to stop testing. The nuclear testing of this Godzilla is not a legitimate plot point, nor a carefully considered "context," just a gimmick by which a giant Iguana can be born.



Mass Destruction as a "Once in a Lifetime Opportunity"

Following the opening credit montage (and shifting of the blame to the French...), Godzilla quickly transforms itself into a fast-pace, globe-trotting "mystery."

In short order, we see a Japanese fishing vessel in the South Pacific Ocean attacked by a deadly beast of gargantuan (but unseen) proportions. This sequence, in particular, appears faithful to the spirit and content of the Toho series, as it features a sort of ocean-going "early warning" that a monster is fast approaching civilization. Often times in Toho's Godzilla films, the productions would similarly open with a lonely ship at sea and an encounter with monstrous terror.

Then we're whisked off to Chernobyl to meet our hero, "Worm Guy," Nick Tatapoulos (Matthew Broderick), a scientist (and former anti-nukes activist...) who believes that nuclear mutations are responsible for the creation of new species the world over. The epitome of bravery and daring (not!), this hero works hard to effect "change" from within the system, from inside a nuclear regulatory agency.

Nick's introduction in the Ukraine serves as an opportunity for the filmmakers to extrude an unfunny joke about his foreign-sounding name (and the continued inability of the people around him to pronounce it correctly). This joke (the mispronounciation of "Tatapoulos") is repeated four times in approximately twenty-minutes, and adds nothing to the story, characterization, or overall entertainment in Godzilla. It's an in-joke, since Patrick Tatapoulos is the artist who created the design of Godzilla for this film, but one might rightly ask: what's the point?

If you were going to craft an in-joke such as this, why not one related to the Godzilla franchise's history (which fans could have appreciated a bit more). Nick Tatapoulos could have been Nick Raymond (after Raymond Burr...), for instance. If the makers of the film so desperately required an in-joke about "funny names," they could have even named Tatapoulos "Steve Martin," since that was the moniker of Burr's character in the Americanized version of the original 1954 film. This way, you could have had people cracking up over a nuclear scientist named after that "wild and crazy" comedian and star of The Jerk. Again, not really necessary in a Godzilla movie, if you ask me...but better than the masturbatory and pervasive references to Patrick Tatapoulos.

Regardless, Next stop Tahiti. Then off to Panama. Then to Jamaica. Then to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. We find ourselves following -- again and again, with great anticipation -- Godzilla's progress from French Polynesia to Manhattan. These tightyl-edited sequences are brief, sharp, and portentous, fully engaging our imagination as we see "evidence" of Godzilla's handiwork and presence (footprints, claw-marks, etc.), but don't actually get a view of the monster. Honestly, these scenes were economical and worked for the film, overall. Nothing to complain about.

By the thirty-minute point, however, the movie has landed in Manhattan permanently, and the pace suddenly slows to a crawl following all the international action. After about fifteen minutes in NYC, the sense of anticipation, pace and excitement drains away and a feeling of malaise sets in. Instead of focusing on the mystery or origin of Godzilla, for instance, the film lingers on 1990s workplace sexual politics as an aspiring reporter, Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo) attempts to advance her career, but must deal with the sexism of anchorman boss, Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer). Her friends, including receptionist Lucy (Arabella Field) and Lucy's camera man husband, "Animal" (Hank Azaria) tell Audrey she is just too nice to make it in New York.

The arrival of Godzilla in the Big Apple, however, provides Audrey just the ladder-climbing opportunity she has long sought, since she once dated Nick and so has an "in" to interview him again. She does so, and illicitly steals Nick's top secret cassette-tape of a Godzilla survivor...which she promptly airs on television. Afterwards, because of Audrey's behavior, Nick loses his job hunting Godzilla, and must team with a French group of secret agents (led by Jean Reno).

Concerning Audrey -- As Mick La Salle put it, writing for The San Francisco Chronicle --
"in the '90s, the apocalypse is just another career opportunity..."
Now, I'm not a firm believer that movie characters need be of high moral fiber or do "good things" to be worthwhile or interesting to watch, but Audrey is just...an awful, petty human being. She betrays Nick's trust, and she transmits secret information that could jeopardize soldiers in the field and citizens too. I mean, the world is falling apart around her (the Chrysler Building is destroyed! American citizens have died by the dozen!), and she's just jockeying for a superior position at work. Audrey has no sense of loyalty to anybody outside herself; not even the man she ostensibly "loves."

In generations past, such qualities would have assured that such an immoral, selfish character pay dearly for her considerable trespasses. Think about the fate of the Charles Grodin character, Fred Wilson, in the 1970s remake of King Kong (a film I admired, despite the ubiquitous bad reviews...), Or for a more contemporary example, remember the fate of Saffron Burrows' "Frankenstein"-style character in Deep Blue Sea (1999). Monster movies have almost always boasted a sense of cosmic justice and morality, but again, this Godzilla plays as a betrayal of genre history. This film wants Audrey to be Nick's love interest, after all. So after she sins, Audrey spends the film's last act whining and wallowing in self-pity about what a lousy person she is.
But, importantly, the film doesn't even seem to believe that Audrey has really done anything wrong, or even unusual for that matter. She's just a good person who made a "mistake," according to the dialogue. Yes, but quite a pre-meditated one: Audrey deceived Nick by playing on their intimate relationship, waited till he left his tent, and then stole his top secret property. Then she recorded her own video introduction to the taped material (in which she was the "star reporter") and then passed the tape off again to her superiors at the news station. Then she waited for it to air with excitement. Not until Audrey saw Nick again (leaving the city in a cab, tail between legs...) did Audrey even consider the possible negative ramifications of her behavior. It's one thing to make a little mistake, but if Audrey was just a good person, why didn't she -- at any time during the shooting, editing or waiting for broadcast of her report-- reconsider her actions?

Personally, I think Godzilla should have stomped the shit out of Audrey...


The film's other protagonists are also difficult to like. Take Nick. He is a brilliant scientist dedicated to studying new species...but not once does he seem to recognize how amazing, or how wondrous, Godzilla is. Not once does Nick stand up to the military and state that at least one of the Godzilla hatchlings should be preserved from destruction for future study.

Nick is smart, but like Audrey (and like the film itself...) he seems to boast no moral compass. Nick figures out a way to attract Godzilla (with a pile of smelly fish...) but never stops to consider that he is leading a new species to total annihilation. At least in the monster movies of yesteryear, a wrong-headed scientist (an egghead communist, usually...) would speak-up and talk about the importance of alien contact, or preserving the last representative of a species before he was dismissed out-of-hand as a pacifist Russkie by military heroes. The point was that -- even if you didn't agree with the scientist -- at least the viewpoint was heard. This Godzilla doesn't even offer that much. Nick seems to have no perspective at all on Godzilla, his reign of terror, or the monster's place in the modern world.

Finally, yet another grievous character miscalculation. Two major characters in the film are "Mayor Ebert" (Michael Lerner) and his balding campaign advisor, "Gene." Famously, these men are named after popular film critics Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel. Indeed, the characters are cast especially for their physical similarities to the two film reviewers. Apparently, the characters are included in the film as sort of filmmaker's "revenge," since both critics gave thumbs down ratings to previous Emmerich-Devlin pictures, Stargate (1994) and Independence Day (1996).

I must stress, these are not throwaway characters who appear once or twice, or only briefly. These are supporting characters in the film with flourishes of dialogue and a presence in numerous scenes. Despite this, they are merely one-note jokes, offering thumbs up, thumbs down and little else of value. The Godzilla screenplay takes cheap shots over Ebert's weight (two of his scenes involve the mayor's love of candy). But again, what's the point? Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel don't like your film...so you make fat jokes? Is this really the best way to deflect attention from your detractors...by putting them up on a pedestal and featuring them in major roles in your movie?
Do you know what might the best way to get revenge on Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel for their negative reviews? Make a good movie,of course; one that they would have had to acknowledge as a superior example of the form. Instead, we get Roger and Gene as cardboard figures of ridicule, and the whole thing is just ugly, not to mention exceedingly juvenile. Again, this Godzilla settles for the stupid and obvious when a degree of wit is called for. Put bluntly, when the filmmakers introduced these Ebert/Siskel characters for purposes of revenge, they weren't thinking about the history or tradition of Godzilla. They were thinking about themselves; about ego. Again, not really a great way to show fans of Godzilla that you are taking their cherished icon seriously.



Size Doesn't Matter If It's "Only an Animal"


I realize that some long-time original Godzilla fans are going to be upset (or perhaps enraged...) with me for what I write next, but this Godzilla does feature some rather remarkable special effects (indeed, the best ever in a Godzilla movie up to 1998). And I don't, by reflex, disapprove of the new design of the titular monster, either.

In essence, this is like arguing that the revamped design of the Enterprise in the new Star Trek invalidates that entire film. General audiences in America in 1998 would simply not have accepted a man in a suit as the movie's Godzilla. It made sense to change the monster's appearance. And though certainly different than Toho's design, it seems to me that the monster design of the 1998 film is entirely serviceable and even borderline interesting. For instance, this Godzilla does boast a rather heroic jaw-line, one even more square than Superman's. What I'm arguing, perhaps ineloquently, is that Godzilla here can look "different" from the Japanese original, and the film can still be judged a success. Assuming were true to the spirit and history of the franchise.
Of course, it isn't true to the spirit and history of the franchise.


Indeed, that's the very reason this Godzilla fails so egregiously and thoroughly. It does not in any way, shape or form respect Godzilla's past. There seems to be no respect on the part of the filmmakers -- or the characters in the drama, for that matter - for the titular "monster." Indeed, there's even a line spoken at some point in the film that suggests "he's only an animal."


Yes, but a rather remarkable animal, wouldn't you say? Measuring 400 feet tall and all...
The shark in Jaws was only an "animal," but look at the myriad ways Steven Spielberg successfully mythologized it utilizing shark lore, the true story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, and his careful presentation of the beast.

Unfortunately, the only thing this Godzilla gets from Jaws is one line of dialogue. "We're going to need bigger guns," instead of "we're going to need a bigger boat."


Damningly, the screenwriters here provide their movie not a single moment of wonder; of characters expressing awe or even real horror at the presence Godzilla in the modern world or his destructive actions. This is the one flaw the film simply cannot overcome: it doesn't know what to think about Godzilla, and therefore the audience doesn't know what to think about him.
In King Kong, Carl Denham (and later Jack Prescott) had a viewpoint about Kong: he was dangerous, but ultimately pitiable...he was taken from his land and defeated. The Jurassic Park films boasted an opinon about their monsters too (genetically engineered dinosaurs...): that the beasts were simply doing what dinosaurs would do; and that the destruction they caused was the fault of man, who had foolishly resurrected the beasts. Going back to the original Godzilla in Japan -- depending on the point in history -- Godzilla was either a fearsome representation of the Nuclear Age (a villain to be destroyed), or later, Japan's savior from even more grave threats.

Without exaggeration, you could remove Godzilla (the lizard) from every scene in Emmerich's film and replace him with a swarm of killer bees, a Category 5 Tornado, a giant robot from outer space, global warming or absolutely any other threat imaginable...and it would make virtually no difference at all to the characters or storyline. In the final moments of the film, you have no idea if you should root for Godzilla, or for the U.S. Military. Are we supposed to like Godzilla? The human heroes? What should we feel?
Your guess is as good as mine.
Unforgivably, this film candycoats Godzilla's reign destruction so that he doesn't seem "evil" or villainous (as he did in King of Monsters), and yet no human character ever stands up for Godzilla and proclaims, "he's just a parent trying to protect his young," either. The beast is neither fish nor fowl, apparently.

In one scene, the Godzilla offspring are played as silly comic relief, tripping and stumbling all over gum balls and basketballs, and yet in the next moment, they are being viciously blown apart by American bombers without a word of sorrow or regret. Again, there is no coherent attitude towards the creatures. Not even, "I hate to fire these missiles, but it's them or us. And I choose us...!"

This is what Salon Entertainment's Gary Kamiya thoughtfully wrote about the presentation of violence in the film: "They [Emmerich/Devlin] have perfected the depiction of consequence-free violence, suitable for all ages: ApocalypseLite: All the thrill of Death (TM) with none of the finality! "Godzilla" features the biggest and most realistic collisions of all time, with nary a drop of icky and disturbing blood. No corpses are seen, barely even an anguished shriek is heard as Godzilla runs wildly through the streets of Manhattan, smashing 20-story holes in the Pan Am building. The team's universe is as utterly artificial as that of Wile E. Coyote..."
In the original Godzilla, viewers might quite rightly have felt overcome or sickened with the lingering horror of the monster's attacks (the survivors looked positively agonized...) Here, the filmmakers can't be bothered to feature a single death in terms human beings would recognize as realistic. But here's the thing that they missed in blanderizing the beast: take away Godzilla's violence and amazing might and he becomes just a...galloping nuisance -- Johnny Depp wrecking his hotel room, writ large. A nuisance, but not a villain, and certainly not a grave threat. This empty hole in viewpoint and directorial perspective leaves Godzilla to dwell in a strange, uninteresting place: neither villainous nor heroic; neither good nor bad; just a big lizard tearing up jack because...well...he's big and unwieldy.

When Godzilla's radioactive eyeballs finally fade out in close-up at the film's finale, we feel nothing at all -- not even relief -- because the film has never bothered to develop a coherent point of view about the creature. All the good special effects mean nothing in light of this thematic void. We might as well have watched two hours of a hurricane toppling skyscrapers.

Size does matter, and thus we must conclude that the Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla fails on a colossal scale. Some scenes in the film are quite accomplished -- like the giant lizard's chase of a taxi cab near the finale -- but because we don't care about the humans or monsters in the drama, much of this good work is just the equivalent of a train wreck. And we're the rubberneckers, slowing down to watch.

I realized, this time around, that's the very thing that has occasionally nagged me about the film. The extreme technical proficiency in the face of a total lack of immediacy or human feeling.

Hey, there's a huge lizard over there eating helicopters!
There's this almost irresistible (but momentary...) desire to stop and gawk at the sights of Godzilla, but nothing that legitimately holds up as art. Or entertainment, for that matter. Again, for the mighty, long-lived Godzilla to be reduced to the equivalent of a meaningless amusement park ride is a direct betrayal of the monster's history and tradition.

If nothing else, this movie succeeds in making me want to watch two better monster movies instead. The original Godzilla, and 2008's Cloverfield. Those movies aren't afraid to let their monsters (and our monsters) be...fearsome.

9 comments:

  1. I liked the Godzilla remake better when it was called "Q: The Winged Serpent"

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  2. Anonymous1:32 AM

    I remember being hopeful when this massive Godzilla remake was announced... I was thinking of the new effects technology and remembering "Twister"... I thought about the horrifying storm sequence from the original "Godzilla" and considered how utterly terrifying it could be to depict with some realism the human impact of a sentient tornado.

    Well. Now there's "Cloverfield" which has it's own problems but is a whole lot better than this plastic creation.

    I prefer to remain anomalous.

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  3. Hi there. Concerning the "blame the French guy" stance on the origin of the modern Godzilla it is not specially antecipatory considering that Roland Emmerich is German born. Besides, the French made the nuclear testing controversy their own when in 1986 their secret services planted a bomb on Greenpeace's RAINBOW WARRIOR killing two of their crew. I believe that since that time - at least here in Europe - the French became the bad guys of nuclear testing.

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  4. OK, I'm going to say it:

    I liked this movie.

    Please don't hate me. I only saw it once, but enjoyed it for what it was. Maybe because I'm not a super huge Godzilla fan (although I do enjoy them when I watch them), or maybe it was just the mood I was in, but I didn't have a lot of problems with it. I don't know how I'd feel now, but the memory of it is pretty good.

    I have only met one other fan of this movie. We talk about it in whispers! :)

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  5. Amanda by Night:

    Have no shame...we all have our own likes and dislikes, and they don't always conform to the majority or critical establishment.

    I appreciate your honesty, to tell you the truth.

    There are plenty of movies that I love, but which are not well-liked by the majority (Alien 3, The Black Hole, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier).

    best,

    JKM

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  6. I remember how effective the teaser trailers for this film were and how they built up anticipation only to see the film and realize what a massive letdown it was.

    "Personally, I think Godzilla should have stomped the shit out of Audrey..."

    I almost did a spit-take reading this line but you're right on the money. In fact, I'd say that another problem with this film is casting. I love Matthew Broderick but he just didn't do it for me as the unlikely hero who gets dragged into this situation. And the less said about the actress who played Audrey the better. I know the script doesn't do her any favors but still...

    And don't even get me started on the P Diddy/Jimmy Page mash-up. *shudder*

    Incidentally, what did you think of Peter Jackson's remaking of KING KONG?

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  7. Hey J.D.!

    You are right about Broderick's character. Hard to tell if it's just the writing, or the writing with the performance, but Tatapoulos seems pretty disengaged from the events going on around him, even from the appearance (and activity...) of Godzilla.

    You know, I liked Peter Jackson's King Kong very much at the time (2005), but I don't know if it has "aged" well with me, if that makes sense. I know many people find it overlong and overblown, but I found it to be a potent experience theatrically.

    I should haul it out and watch it again...

    best,
    JKM

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  8. Anonymous3:56 PM

    I think that this movie would have worked, if they had changed one minor detail. The name of course, instead of Godzilla, call it Beast From Twenty Thousand Fathonms! Think about it. Next time you watch this movie don't think of it as Godzilla, think of it as the beast.

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  9. I love watching Godzilla series. Especially the Godzilla Final Wars is an excellent one. It was a great fun watching that movies. I started collecting the Godzilla Final War Toys after that. Actually am addicted to that.

    ReplyDelete