Ever since the 1950s the Japanese movie industry has produced a boatload of terrible, low-budget Godzilla (or Gojira) movies. They are characterized by men in rubber suits stomping around, and production values and acting so poor that only people who have a humorous attitude to this material can possibly love it. But I guess that is frequently how cult phenomena work: they acquire substance purely on the strength of having a cult following across many decades, and people come together in enthusiastic fandom to appreciate these “classics”; to participate in the vibrant culture that forms around them. It’s the same with Doctor Who, Star Trek or James Bond.
I have met many people who declared themselves big fans of Godzilla/Gojira, who love the Japanese movies and vehemently hates the American 1998 movie by Roland Emmerich. I guess there is a kind of symmetry in the fact that it is the other way around with me. I cannot endure much of the Japanese versions, but love the American version (which is currently rated 4.8 out of 10 at IMDb).
Why do people hate this movie? I doubt it is no other but the main: it does not give them what they expect from a movie calling itself a Godzilla movie. Cult audiences generally want what they expect, and nothing else will satisfy them. Whether it’s a good movie on its own, irrespective of its prior namesakes, is apparently not even worthy of being considered. What a crime.
Why do I love this movie? Mainly, it’s the (human) characters. I am a big fan of Matthew Broderick. Who cannot love Ferris Bueller? It’s true Broderick has gotten a bit chubby in recent years, and he has been a bit dull in some of his later movies, but he’s still ace here! He plays a really nice guy, and Maria Pitillo plays a really nice girl. Their performances and character histories ring so true to life that I can’t help loving these characters – they’re so adorable, and so right for each other. In combination with the highly engaging underdog/“nice guys finish last” theme, they totally make the movie for me. I wanna hug them!
In addition to the mains, we also have Jean Reno as a sympathetic (!) French intelligence agent, and Hank Azaria, one of America’s greatest showbiz talents, who’s great as whomever in whatever.
Then there’s the monster. I think it’s perfectly fine. It serves its purpose in the story admirably, and there’s even a touch of pathos in its demise. I find nothing to criticize about the action structure of the movie; it proceeds by the numbers and culminates in an appropriate climax. Great. Godzilla is quite simply Roland Emmerich’s best movie. Which is perhaps not saying a lot, but still.
Godzilla is a character-driven movie, not a monster-driven one, and I think this is the best choice. Like in the first Transformers movie (2007), the human characters were the more interesting ones. Because it is pretty damn difficult to make some monster or alien robot more interesting than a well-rounded human being.
My 2004 DVD version has a really nice bunch of varied special features, and a truckload of subtitles, so no problem there! It’s all good.