My love for film extends beyond the critical gaze. Weaving in and out of my life, film shaped me, putting its own unique stamp on my experiences and beliefs. Whether its the era we first saw it, the people we saw it with, or simply the mood in which we saw it: film has the power to contextualize.
Welcome to my movie-watching life.
Sorry. Not the Godzilla you were expecting? Me neither.
There’s a misconception that the common movie critic spends the majority of their time up their own ass. Scientific studies have proven we only spend closer to 22% of our time up there.
In truth, critics must walk a finer line than most: always conscious that our love of film and the baggage we take into any given theatre threatens to impose on our unbiased analyses. The question reveals itself: how do we stay honest? How do we humble ourselves in the eyes of a movie-going populace that embraces our words one week and dismisses them the next?
There are those of us who simply choose not to, trading honest opinion for a shot at riling you, getting your goat or even, I dare say, your accolades. The truth, at least my truth, is that critiquing art has nothing to do with accuracy and everything to do the genuineness of one’s own belief. You’re not always supposed to agree with my opinions, but if I can help you articulate your own feelings on a film based on my interpretation, then I’ve done my job – and I’ve managed to stay out of my ass another day.
To that extent, I think of stories like the following and remember what happens when overreaching expectations meet crushing disappointment:
What: The dreaded Godzilla remake of ’98.
When: May 20th, 1998
Where: Chanhassen Cinemas in Chanhassen, MN
What’s anticipation but a promise that’s about to be broken?
The teaser’s what sold me. The visage of an obstructed beast crushing a T-Rex skeleton with his massive foot, leaving the patrons of a museum in terrified awe.
That’s how you teaser, holding on to your cards until you absolutely have to reveal. The roar, the title card, the notion of Godzilla in New York – all filling my head with grand visions of monster madness in one year’s time. Subconsciously, the teaser put Jurassic Park on notice: “yours is no longer the most badass beast in town.”
From what could be made of the creature in its brief debut, the dino-modernization that Park brought about was evident here. The foot had more in common with a T-Rex than any Godzilla I’d ever seen. The tail no longer dragged, creating its own exaggerated wake of destruction. This was a limber monster, one that spoke to a new, more ferocious take on the entity.
Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin had license to print money in a post-Independence Day world. Filmic destruction hadn’t been delivered at the magnitude and scale of ID4 ever, and the fact that they were now remaking Godzilla for American shores indicated something special might be on the horizon: a Godzilla with a budget. It hadn’t dawned on me those cardboard buildings and men-in-suits were part of what made me love the Toho films as a kid. I was bought with that first trailer, Roland Emmerich had massaged my dreams and whispered sweet nothings into my ear: “Don’t worry baby, I’ll take good care of Godzilla. It’ll be better than ever before. This feelin’ good for you, baby?”
It was. And it felt good to my friends too. School lunch in 7th grade was as comfortable and welcoming as the Korean Demilitarized Zone. You had the jocks, the cool kids, the girls we had crushes on, and they were all sitting on one end. Then you had us: the squares, the geeks, the misbehavers. In some respects, this ragtag group of seven was ahead of our time. Yeah, we debated Star Trek: Voyager, retreated to our Micro Machines when we weren’t picked for touch-football, conversed not once with girls. But we were also the first to say “fuck.” This was partly my doing as, out of all my nerd compatriots, I’d settled into the “bad seed” role all-too-efficiently. I was a fat little public school menace in a catholic school uniform – championed among my peers for a trick where I’d chug milk and shoot it out the sides of my mouth while going down on a sausage.
A merry cast of foul characters we were. We had Big Mike, the kindhearted rapscallion whose attempts at the none-too-difficult “milk trick” resulted in milk spilling out of his nose with an edible dick still in his mouth. We had The Fro (our bespectacled, poofy-haired genius of the group), The Weasel (our fearless leader) and a like-minded soul in T-Money. T-Money was most notable for being the only one who chose his nickname. He just came to school one day and informed us that Tom was going to be T-Money from now on. Weirdo.
But T-Money and I clicked because he was well traveled – and I don’t mean he’d been around the world. Dude had seen his fair share of movies, and like me he was quite taken with this Godzilla remake. For the next year it would preoccupy conversations, superseding any legitimate schoolwork getting done. I’d bring in the latest issues of Cinefantastique for whatever breadcrumbs we could garner, whatever glimpses or tidbits could sustain us until May. We’d watch kaiju, debate Rodan, disect Gamera and digest the Godzillas. All in preparation.
In my mind, I’d already pictured Tri-Star’s Godzilla as Godzilla 1985 with a budget. That earlier film, that’d gone so far as bringing Raymond Burr back to the series, was a fanciful entry that knocked some of the 70s dust off the character. More than anything, it made Godzilla dangerous again. Emmerich and Devlin had taken the friendliness out of extra-terrestrials, they no doubt had it in them to do the same with Godzilla. They had my complete confidence. And so we waited.
Then, as dreams often do, it all went to shit.
The opening night plan for T-Money and I, who’d somehow gotten two girls to accompany us on our pilgrimage, was to hit Taco Bell (which was ground zero for all Godzilla promotion at the time) before hitching a ride to the theatre. Naturally, our dates didn’t show. But Godzilla, or at least something called Godzilla, did. And it was in the possession of a little boy in line for a burrito.
“What’s that in your hand, kid?”
“It’s Godzilla.” He held the toy up to my face, this thing that looked nothing like the Godzilla I knew. Its eyes were soulless, its under-bite profound, and it had these big human-looking arms stretched out towards me, ripping my heart out from my chest.
“T-Money, get over here. This kid’s got Godzilla.”
“Whoa… that’s, um… badass.”
“I know, right?!”
And this was where it got messy, where the visions one creates in their own head crash into a reality where expectations regularly get told to “go fuck themselves” on a whim. The lie we would tell ourselves had been gesticulating for an entire year and now the due date was upon us.
An hour later, in the theatre, it grew worse. From the outset, everything was wrong; horrendously askew as Emmerich and Devlin took two 12-year-olds on a nightmare ride through Hell’s septic system and told them it was Candyland. “Guess what, kids? Godzilla’s asexual, Godzilla’s laying eggs, Godzilla’s walking on all fours, Godzilla’s breathing puffs of fire and not his trademark nuclear breath.”
Cut to: a taxi-cab chase finale that would’ve been at home on Dukes of Hazard’s worst episode had Coy or Vance been played by giant iguanas. People can harp on the Star Wars prequels all they want, but at least Lucas didn’t make Darth Vader someone’s pet.
This wasn’t just a movie, this was a year out of our lives. Twelve months, 365 days of conversations and speculation – of wishing for the best and arriving unprepared for the worst. The credits rolled, we arose from our seats. A proclamation was made:
“The best movie ever?” I asked.
“Six stars out of five.”
And so it came to pass, this unspoken promise between two friends – unwilling to accept the emotional ramifications of disappointment at a grand level. This wasn’t a relative dying, this wasn’t coming home to find Dad lost his job and we needed to eat the pet to survive, it was worse. Godzilla sucked.
We continued this façade for years. We were aware of the box office take, the critical reception, the suspicious silence regarding any sequel talk. But somehow, as film fanatics are wont to do, we’d gotten our self-worth all tangled and confused with a movie where a giant iguana lays eggs in Madison Square Garden. I’d only been able to revisit the film once on VHS, and whatever ocean of denial I was swimming in opening night had all but evaporated at that point.
It wasn’t until high school when I finally admitted aloud, “Y’know, that movie kind of sucked. A lot.” And of course Tom shrugged and agreed, the weight of years living a lie off our shoulders.
Anticipation does strange things to the best of us. It contorts and bends, seeping into the subconscious and preventing us from otherwise rational analysis. It is, of course, terribly and beautifully human. In truth, anticipation is our most-consistent director – as whatever possibilities you conjure in your mind’s eye are almost always better than anything on screen. So maybe Tom and I both saw incredible Godzilla films, just not on screen that night.
Before most screenings now, I think back to the Godzilla of 1998. I remind myself the dangers inherent with bringing one’s own hopes and dreams into the hopes and dreams of filmmakers making their visions, not mine.
But mostly I think of “six stars out of five,” and I smile.