25 Years Ago, A Massive Sci-Fi Flop Missed a Big Opportunity

The most famous movie to open on earnest-looking iguanas is easily 1998’s Godzilla, although infamous might be more accurate. This iteration of the iconic Japanese monster is best remembered for having almost nothing to do with his Japanese origins. Instead, it’s an effective disaster movie that answered a question no one had ever asked: what if Matthew Broderick was an action hero? 25 years after its release, the real question we should ask is, “Wouldn’t this Godzilla have been way better if Sarah Jessica Paker had been in it, too?”

For fans of the Godzilla franchise, little in this film feels familiar. For starters, the origin story is bizarrely altered: instead of saying Godzilla is an ancient prehistoric creature awakened by nuclear testing, the big G is a giant mutated iguana. Over two decades later, this still feels like a typo. It’s like director Roland Emmerich was taking cues from a Rampage cabinet rather than Toho Studios.

The wacky origin of our monster is presented so earnestly that it’s tough to take seriously. Just two years after Emmerich dominated with the mega-hit Independence Day, his flavor of disaster movie should have produced another memorable hit. Instead, Godzilla doesn’t work, not in 1998, and not in 2023. This isn’t to say it’s horrible, because it’s not. But it certainly could have benefited from the one thing Independence Day had in spades: wit.

And it’s at this point where we should travel back in time and make Godzilla a low-key rom-com mashed up with Sex and the City. If Godzilla had some rom-com elements, or any self-awareness, some of its accidental silliness could have been much more effective. As it stands, the only real human tension is between scientist Dr. Nick Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick) and his ex-girlfriend, journalist Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo). Pitillo does nothing wrong here, but she’s burdened by being one of the few women in a male-heavy cast. A more fun story between her and Broderick, or perhaps any other female character, would have been welcomed.

Enter an alternate universe where Sarah Jessica Parker was also in Godzilla, and she too is a journalist. In real life, she and Broderick had just married a year prior, so making them co-stars would have been fun. Plus, the version of New York City that Godzilla destroys here is essentially the Carrie Bradshaw version of Manhattan. Sex and the City launched the same year Godzilla flopped at the box office, and had far greater cultural relevance. Picture it: we open with Carrie on her giant 1998 Apple laptop, smoking a cigarette and writing the beginning of her most thought-provoking column yet: can you date a guy who accidentally turned an iguana into a giant killer?

Maybe it wouldn’t have worked, but the point of this thought experiment is that Godzilla proved big-budget sci-fi movies need to be a little strange to succeed. Godzilla doesn’t mix genres, but also lacks the source material’s social commentary, making it painfully bland. It’s not as bad as its reputation suggests; the VFX holds up okay, and this specific redesign of Godzilla isn’t the worst. If anything, it’s the one chance the film took that feels like a creative risk, while the iguana origin just feels like a bad decision.

Broderick and Parker in 1998.

Steve Azzara/Corbis Entertainment/Getty Images

Historically, good Godzilla movies are good for one of two reasons: there’s either a thoughtful political message about nuclear war, or the movies are super goofy. The 1998 film is neither. There was no way this version was going to be made better by getting more serious, meaning the only way forward would have been stranger and sillier.

There have been several Godzilla films since 1998, and all of them have been better than this one. And yet, serious sci-fi or monster movie fans should rewatch it. Not because it’s good, not because it’s bad, but because it represents a strange time in American sci-fi history when a movie dared to make a mutated iguana its star, but didn’t dare to have a sense of humor about it.

Godzilla (1998) is streaming for free on Tubi.

The most famous movie to open on earnest-looking iguanas is easily 1998’s Godzilla, although infamous might be more accurate. This iteration of the iconic Japanese monster is best remembered for having almost nothing to do with his Japanese origins. Instead, it’s an effective disaster movie that answered a question no one had ever asked: what…

The most famous movie to open on earnest-looking iguanas is easily 1998’s Godzilla, although infamous might be more accurate. This iteration of the iconic Japanese monster is best remembered for having almost nothing to do with his Japanese origins. Instead, it’s an effective disaster movie that answered a question no one had ever asked: what…