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Thoughts on Godzilla: The TriStar sidebar

That’s right, folks, I’m reviving my Godzilla review series in the interests of completeness. I’m working on a review of the remainder of the Shōwa series, but I’ve also been looking forward to an opportunity to revisit the 1998 animated series spinning off of the Dean Devlin/Roland Emmerich Godzilla movie from the same year. Since Netflix streaming is dropping the animated series at the end of September, I had to watch it before then, and I fortunately happened to find the movie on TV at a convenient juncture.

Yes, yes, I know that the featured kaiju in the ’98 movie is not recognized as actually being Godzilla (the creature is sometimes called Zilla, but apparently Toho considers that the name for the different creature of the same species that had a cameo in Godzilla: Final Wars). But as I discussed in my increasingly misnamed “Final thoughts” post, I do believe the movie can work as a side branch of the universe seen in Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-out Attack (or GMK), which actually alludes to the events of the ’98 film as a case of mistaken identity, and sets up a universe in which such mistakes are understandable. So I’m including it as a sidebar, just as I covered films like Mothra and Rodan in my initial post.

The ’98 movie opens in a surprisingly similar way to the 2014 movie, with an archival-footage montage of nuclear tests in the Pacific — except these are French nuclear tests, and there are a lot of shots of iguanas and Komodo dragons, presumably the ancestors of our featured monster. We then cut to Matthew Broderick singing a show tune and being instantly unlikeable. Turns out he’s Dr. Nico “Nick” Tatopolous (named in honor of the film’s production designer Patrick Tatopolous), and he’s a “worm guy” working with the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to document annelid mutations caused by nuclear radiation. Somehow this makes him a suitable expert to be called in when a giant reptilian creature attacks a large Japanese fishing vessel… which somehow ends up on the shore in Jamaica. (Do Japanese vessels fish in the Atlantic? Or are we supposed to think the creature dragged it through the Panama Canal?) The sole survivor calls the creature “Gojira,” and it’s entirely reasonable that he’d think that’s what it was, assuming this is a universe where the real Godzilla exists. Later on, there’s a news report explaining the name as a mythical dragon spoken of in Japanese lore — which, given the general ineptitude of Harry Shearer’s character Caiman, the reporter delivering the spiel (and coining “Godzilla” as a mispronunciation, or perhaps he came across an old-style Romanization written down somewhere), is marginally reconcilable with a universe where Godzilla really attacked Tokyo in 1954. The film implies that event never happened, but it isn’t overtly inconsistent with the idea that it did. (Even if we assume that, as in the Legendary universe, the 1954 attack on Tokyo never happened, it stands to reason that the Oto islanders could have still aware of Gojira and worshipped it, giving rise to the “myth.” Although that would be harder to mesh with GMK.)

Anyway, the creature makes a beeline for Manhattan, allegedly because it’s the perfect nesting ground to lay its hermaphroditically conceived eggs, but really because of movie monsters’ unerring attraction to landmarks. Most of the movie is a chase through Manhattan with lots of collateral damage by the military, with the running gag of “Godzilla” being extremely quick and good at dodging missiles and torpedoes, until it’s finally trapped in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. There’s a large digression in the middle of the movie where it turns into an attempt to one-up Jurassic Park, with the characters fleeing from 200 baby Zillas (gestated and hatched with absurd speed) inside Madison Square Garden. The main problem fans have with the movie is that it didn’t try to tell a Godzilla story so much as it tried to rework the concept into a conventional American-style monster movie, which ended up being sort of a mix of Jurassic Park and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (which, ironically, was a direct inspiration for the original 1954 Godzilla).

Still, that’s not the film’s only problem. The first time I saw it, I decided that it was a perfectly serviceable monster movie so long as you accepted that it wasn’t a Godzilla movie, just a movie about a monster that was called Godzilla by mistake. But I think I felt that because I was looking at it from the back end. Seeing it again, I’m reminded that the first half of the film is pretty lame. It suffers from the attempt to play up the comedy angle in a way that isn’t very funny, and to tell a character-driven story about characters that aren’t that well-drawn. The female lead in particular, aspiring reporter Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), is a weak and ineffectual character who only accomplishes things because others around her encourage her to — mostly her cameraman friend Animal Palotti (Hank Azaria), who’s a stronger protagonist than she is despite being nominally her comic-relief sidekick (though it’s hard to tell when most of the characters are supposedly comical). The film handles its destructive subject matter in such a frivolous tone that it carries little weight. This is exemplified in a scene where “Godzilla” destroys three fighter jets, and commanding officer Col. Hicks (Kevin Dunn) only gets a few seconds of pained reaction to their deaths before we cut to the buffoonish Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) getting a comedy beat. The other characters don’t fare much better. Jean Reno plays Philippe Roaché, a French secret service agent who works with Nick once the military kicks the scientist out (for unintentionally allowing Audrey to swipe a classified tape), and Philippe’s main personality trait is wanting a good cup of coffee. And Vicki Lewis and Malcolm Danare are introduced as Nick’s fellow experts Elsie Chapman and Mendel Craven, and then get pretty much forgotten for the rest of the movie. Nick himself has a poorly defined motivation; for a scientist faced with a new form of life, he’s oddly untroubled by the idea of participating in its destruction, and by extension that of its whole species.

The most worthwhile part of the movie, for me, is the third act. Usually that’s where I think modern movies tend to fall apart, as the demand for spectacle and pace overrides story logic and plausibility. But here, the amped-up action means there’s less time for cartoony characterization and unfunny gags, and with less annoying stuff going on, the film is more watchable. Still, it’s a weaker movie than I remembered.

One drawback to the idea of this creature being called Godzilla by mistake is that its roar includes the original Godzilla roar as one of its sound elements. But it wouldn’t be the first time in kaiju history that a roar sound has been used by more than one monster, I think. Also, the creature breathes fire — exactly once in the movie, and without a lot of weight given to it — but it is actual fire, not atomic breath. That part is so half-hearted that one wonders why they bothered. But then, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of care or thought put into this movie at all, let alone respect for the source material.

Godzilla: The Series, though, is an enormous improvement. It was developed for television by Jeff Kline and Richard Raynis, executive producers of multiple animated series from Columbia Pictures Television, also including Extreme Ghostbusters, Men in Black: The Series, and Jackie Chan Adventures (and Raynis has also been an executive producer on The Real Ghostbusters, The Simpsons, Futurama, and King of the Hill among others). Interestingly, and almost unprecedentedly, the series fits just about perfectly into the continuity of the movie, without having to make the kinds of continuity tweaks and cheats that most series based on movies need to do (for instance, Men in Black: The Series ignored Agent K’s retirement at the end of the movie). The opening scene of the series premiere does present the climax of the movie slightly differently, since it has to fit the whole thing into a much shorter time, but it still meshes pretty well (aside from the implausible speed with which landmarks like the Brooklyn Bridge were rebuilt — although there is one episode that shows the Chrysler Building spire still under reconstruction after its trashing in the film). The series picks up on the closing scene of the movie, where a single Godzilla egg survived and hatched. Here, we learn that, right after the climax on the Brooklyn Bridge, Nick (now played by Ian Ziering) convinced Hicks (Dunn reprising his role, though he’s been demoted to major in the series) to check Madison Square Garden for surviving eggs. Nick finds the intact egg just as it hatches, but he fell into a pool of amniotic fluid or something, so the hatchling imprints on him as its parent. He later discovers this when the creature resurfaces, already quickly grown, and studies and trains it, calling it Godzilla (and since that’s its actual given name, regardless of origin, I’ll use it without quotes). He assembles a team called HEAT — the Humanitarian Environmental Analysis Team — which travels the world dealing with the further giant mutant monsters that are springing up around the world, and Godzilla, who instinctually follows and protects Nick wherever he goes, becomes their main monster-fighting asset. (How Godzilla is able to track Nick even when he travels by jet is unexplained.)

The series focuses primarily on the HEAT group, so Nick is the only character who’s central in both the movie and the series (since the series’ Godzilla is a different individual). Minor film characters Elsie Chapman and Mendel Craven are part of his team; Malcolm Danare reprises Craven, but Charity James takes over playing Elsie. Also, for some reason Elsie is working for Nick now, when in the movie it was nominally the reverse. I guess that’s understandable since they’re operating out of Nick’s lab this time. The series also adds two original characters who add some much-needed diversity to the essentially all-white cast of the movie: Randy Hernandez (Rino Romano), a dreadlocked, wisecracking college-age hacker, and Monique DuPre (Brigitte Bako), a French agent of apparently Vietnamese ancestry (since Elsie calls her “Miss Saigon” in one episode), assigned by Roaché to shepherd Nick’s team and keep an eye on Godzilla. Audrey, Animal, Hicks, and Mayor Ebert (reprised by Michael Lerner) have recurring roles in the series, and Roaché appears a couple of times, played by Keith Szarabaika.

Right off the bat, the series is an improvement on the movie. Though still humorous in tone, it treats its characters as people rather than walking jokes, so that they’re (ironically) less cartoony and their personalities and relationships have more dimension. The characterizations are the largest departures from the film continuity, but since they’re pretty much improvements all around, I’m not complaining. The show’s Nick is much more of an authoritative action-hero type than Broderick’s, and this time he actually shows some scientific curiosity and empathy for the new species he’s discovered, bonding with the junior Godzilla and defending it from Hicks’s initial attack. Audrey (now played by Paget Brewster) is also a stronger character in the show, much more assertive in pursuit of a story; I suppose it’s a manifestation of the new confidence she gained at the end of the film, but it’s quite a wholesale transformation. Elsie is basically the resident wisecracker, and also occasionally in the middle of a vague romantic triangle where she’s into Nick but Mendel is into her. Mendel’s main job is operating the robotic probe NIGEL (Tom Kenny), which gets smashed by monsters on a weekly basis. He’s timid, insecure, and allergy-prone, but rises to the occasion when he has to. Craven has a rivalry with the younger, snarkier Randy, who constantly plays pranks such as reprogramming NIGEL with funny voices. Randy was meant to be a fun, witty young character for the cartoon’s audience to identify with, but he gets a bit annoying if you binge-watch the series, with his tendency to refer to Godzilla as “the G-Man” getting rather tiresome. Randy also has a hopeless crush on Monique, a no-nonsense ice princess who’s basically Seven of Nine with a French accent. There are occasional episodes where she seems to enjoy or even encourage his attentions, though. Animal and Hicks don’t get much development beyond their movie personas. (Animal is now played by Joe Pantoliano — surprising, since Hank Azaria has done plenty of voice work, particularly for Raynis’s The Simpsons.) All the characters have new designs by Fil Barlow, who also designed the monsters, though Patrick Tatopolous gets a consultant credit for the reuse of his Godzilla design, which works quite well in 2D animation. The designs help make both Nick and Audrey seem stronger than they did in the movie.

The show’s Godzilla differs from his movie parent in a couple of ways. Though he has the same design, he’s often more upright in his posture. He’s conveniently infertile, so there’s no risk of more eggs being laid, though the reason why is not explained. And he breathes atomic fire, a green flame preceded by a chaser-light effect of flashes moving up his spine plates from tail to head, and occasionally a flashing of his eyes. Plus the show’s introduction of other giant “mutations” for Godzilla to fight lets him play a role more like the real Godzilla does in most of his movies. All in all, the animated Godzilla is much closer to his Toho namesake than his parent was. (He also emits a purer, though usually shortened, version of the original Godzilla roar.) Although he’s still like the movie creature in some ways as well. He’s very much an animal, albeit a clever one — he’s more mortal and vulnerable, less a force of nature than his namesake, and though he’s far from tame, he’s submissive to Nick in a way the true Godzilla would never be.

The series also deals with a range of threats similar to those in the Toho movies: newly evolved mutant creatures, ancient mythic creatures like Quetzalcoatl and the Loch Ness Monster, technological threats like a runaway nanotech blob or a monster created by a dream amplifier, evil industrialists looking to profit from Godzilla and the other monsters, and even alien invaders and time travel. There’s a 3-parter called “Monster Wars” that’s basically a Destroy All Monsters remake complete with Monster Island, and even featuring a version of Mechagodzilla (though it’s actually more reminiscent of MechaKing Ghidorah, the reanimated cyborg corpse of the creature from the ’98 movie). It’s a nice, rich mix of stories, yet there’s also an ongoing focus on character development and conflict among the cast. It’s not without its occasional duds — for instance, there’s a Fantastic Voyage riff where the heroes travel through Godzilla’s bloodstream in a minisub to fight off macroscopic mutant germs, which is absurd because Godzilla is nowhere near that big in proportion to humans. And then there’s the bizarre one where they battle a monster that’s a fusion of a giant shrew and… a tornado. Huh? And there’s the one where Godzilla tears down the Sears Tower to get at a monster perching atop it, and nobody bats an eyelid, with the whole thing just being a passing action beat. Still, on the whole it’s a smart, well-written series with good character work, definitely much more so than the film it’s based on. A particular favorite of mine is “S.C.A.L.E.,” written by Scott Lobdell — a found-footage-style episode in the form of a documentary by Audrey about a terrorist attack on Monster Island. (Two other episodes are written by veteran comic scribes, one by Marv Wolfman and one by Len Wein.)

The proper episode order is a little unclear. The DVD/streaming order differs enormously from the broadcast order, and the episodes seem to jump randomly between episodes where Elsie is into Nick and doesn’t know Mendel exists and episodes where Elsie shows signs of reciprocating Mendel’s interest. But the broadcast order doesn’t seem to have a clearer progression for that relationship. And there’s a general lack of continuity in other respects; for instance, I had thought that the lawsuit in “Underground Movement” for damages inflicted by HEAT during a monster attack in Miami was a callback to the events of “S.C.A.L.E.,” which began after a Miami attack; but the monsters in the two cases were different. There’s also an “Area 51” episode in which belief in aliens is treated as a delusion even though it’s after the alien invasion from “Monster Wars” in both orders. (Turns out Area 51 is actually a secret mutation research facility and the alien stuff is just a cover story.) The only real continuity in the series is the reuse of familiar monsters in later episodes — which, I suppose, is another thing that makes it like the Toho series.

And yes, you can follow the series without seeing the movie; I did so when it first premiered. Seeing the movie first does provide additional insights, though, and makes the series even more enjoyable by contrast.

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