The foremost of all the non-pressing questions I have regarding the 1998 American Godzilla - pro tip: there is no such thing as a pressing question about the 1998 Godzilla - is whether or not it's the worst film of the Godzilla franchise. And I suppose I should really first ask the question if it's part of the Godzilla franchise at all, since that seems to generally be something that fans try to downplay. But, in 1998, Toho certainly regarded it that way: they used 1995's Godzilla vs. Destoroyah to put their own monster in the ground to clear the way for a planned Tri-Star trilogy of movies, and they had an official copyright on the new monster design, created by Patrick Tatopolous, calling it Godzilla. That's good enough for me, even if a few years later, Toho legally had the copyright changed, renaming the creature Zilla and banishing it and its film from the mainline of the series. But that was all ass-covering after the film came out and sucked, and failed to make enough money to cover its production budget and staggeringly comprehensive ad campaign (which I can still remember with crystal clarity 16 years later: "His ___ is bigger than this ___" posters plastered against every flat surface that would stand still for long enough, and a tie-in with that long-gone Taco Bell chihuahua, the idiotic details of which I will recall after senescence has taken from me the faces of loved ones), though it did end up eking out a profit, despite its reputation as a flop. At any case, in 1998, this wasn't some misbegotten Godzilla spin-off, it was a proper Godzilla movie, and I will not assist in a corporate attempt to plunge those days deep into the memory hole.

Back to the question, then: is Godzilla '98 the worst film of the Godzilla franchise? It is, beyond any sane shadow of a doubt, the worst Godzilla film - so divorced from any remote connection to the 44-year, 22- film history of the character as it existed at that point that it's frankly incomprehensible why the studio even bothered to acquire the naming rights when they could have saved a quick $10 million by just calling it, I don't know, Iguanos, Lizard-Bitch of the Pacific. And prior to Toho's re-christening of the central monster, fans had long since taken to calling it G.I.N.O., Godzilla In Name Only. This is reasonable and correct. But "the worst Godzilla film" and "the worst film involving a thing called Godzilla" are not the same thing. And the films that involve a thing called Godzilla include the likes of All Monsters Attack/Godzilla's Revenge and Godzilla vs. Megalon, so it's not nearly as straightforward as case as Godzilla fandom likes to pretend.

But let's not miss the forest for the trees: Godzilla '98 is fucking wretched. It's easily the worst movie in the career of director Roland Emmerich, not exactly a man who has swung from peak to peak; Godzilla came right in between the clamorous Independence Day and the rancid The Patriot, and made both of them look at least decent in comparison. Of all the scripts that Emmerich and writing/producing partner Dean Devlin cranked out in the 1990s (their partnership ended after The Patriot, owing in part to just how badly Godzilla stumbled out of the gate), this is probably the worst, shamelessly aping the formula that put Independence Day over so well with audiences in '96, and hiding the creators' public contempt for monster movies not whatsoever. And yet the writing is hardly the worst thing in Godzilla, a movie that is even worse at dumb CGI spectacle than it as telling a coherent story with plausible characters. It's kind of exciting, really, just how low Emmerich and Devlin were able to go.

That all being said, the opening 25 or 30 minutes of the film suggest a mindless popcorn movie at least on the level of Independence Day. It's straightforward enough to start with: grainy video footage tinted yellow of lizards mucking about in French Polynesia as nukes explode and a tinny version of "La Marseillaise" plays. So, French nuclear testing mutates some kind of marine reptile. Got it? Good. And then the plot begins as so many real daikaiju eiga have begun, with a fishing vessel being destroyed at sea by something very large. Hell, for the first five minutes, it doesn't even seem like a passable piece of junk food; it even feels like a movie.

Which stops pretty much the exact second that we cut to Matthew Broderick singing along with "Singin' in the Rain" in the most alarming douchey way possible. Broderick, our oddly-cast hero, plays Niko Tatopolous (named for the monster's designer, y'see), a biologist studying the effect of radiation on Chernobyl earthworms. He's busy electrocuting them and digging them out of the ground, in that order, when the U.S. government comes along to spirit him off to Tahiti; seems that a very large animal has been spotted, and its gigantic tracks are lousy with radiation. By the time the research time pieces all of that together, it's already moved onto Panama, and by the 20-minute mark, the creature is lumbering around in water outside Manhattan, where it makes a suitably half-seen first appearance as a giant humped back in the water and massive legs storming down the street. Any question of "what" is now officially dumped in favor of "how the hell do we stop it?", with Niko ending up in New York and thus being spotted on TV by his ex-girlfriend Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), now working at channel WIDF as a wannabe reporter and personal assistant to the loathsome news anchor Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer).

It's right about at this point that the film invisibly shifts from being a modestly (very modestly) effective mystery about the exact details of what Godzilla is in this film - Emmerich and Devlin have the basic decency not to pretend that we aren't all well aware of what's going on in broad terms - and starts to become an unpleasant slog through the worst that effects-driven American cinema of the 1990s has to offer. It's right about now, after all, that the basic shape of the plot starts to reveal itself, and it becomes clear that this wants to be a '70s-style disaster film more than a monster movie, and will largely dedicate itself to this task with lugubrious intensity, starting with the fact that we now have our Broken-Up Couple to be Reforged in the Fires of Adversity. It's also at this point that we become aware of just how much time we're going to spend in the company of some truly awful performances and characters: for Pitillo, this was meant to be the big breakout moment in a career that had been quietly simmering for some years, but it only serves to showcase how profoundly limited an actor she was. Not that the version of Audrey presented in the script was going to be redeemed by any performer who might possibly be interested in taking the role: she's an obnoxious cipher with one whole personality trait and her big contribution to the plot consists of making the worst possible decision at a moment when it's obvious what a terrible decision it is. But Pitillo exacerbates the character, with a petulant, bratty series of expressions and line deliveries that make the character seem like the biggest pill imaginable. And let us not pick on the one person whose career puked out because of the movie: if her Audrey is a simpering nothing, then she is but the ideal romantic lead for Broderick's ghastly, lukewarm Niko, and there's a lot more of him in the movie than there is of her.

The human drama is boundlessly insipid, worse than in any of the Japanese Godzilla pictures, but even that isn't a patch on the comedy that has saturated every moment of the film. I have no patience for the arch-serious, visually dark and ultra-urban style of so many contemporary popcorn movies, but it's instructive to go back in time to see what that aesthetic is in response to: because God almighty, but the 1990s had some awful comic relief going on. Quips, jokey asides, irreverence where it's entirely unwelcome; and Godzilla has some of the worst. It's not merely that there are jokes that aren't funny and shouldn't be there; it's that the film acts like things are jokes which don't even have the apparent construction of jokes. Example: Niko Tatopolous's name is mispronounced by the anti-Godzilla military leader, Colonel Hicks (Kevin Dunn, the only human being in the movie doing anything that feels like halfway decent acting), so the scientist corrects him. "Whatever", says Hicks. Is this funny? Is there anything about this that qualifies as a joke? The way it's staged sure as hell seems to think it is. Or the infamous "That's a lot of fish" line, spoken in front of a mound of a lot of fish. The best I can do with that one is that it's an attempt to copy the Jurassic Park "pile of shit" moment, which is an actual joke for two reasons: it's kind of a play on words, and it has a swear in it. "That's a lot of fish" is nothing. It burbles out onto the screen and waits there patiently, until the moment dies of embarrassment. Most of the film's jokes follow the same trajectory.

This is, mind you, run-of-the-mill stuff. These are the basic problems true of most Emmerich movies, and many other tentpoles of the late '90s. What makes Godzilla so much worse than all of those is that it doesn't even have the goods as a trashy action film; it's shockingly incompetent, actually, ending up as one of the most leaden, painfully boring movies of its generation (its 139-minute running time is a crime against cinema if ever there was one). There is, to begin with, the simply inability to make Godzilla a real threat: when a film is a fantasy, like this, it becomes important for the filmmakers to establish the baseline reality of the fantasy world, so we can believe in it. That can't happen when the reality is as slipshod and inconsistent as it is here. I have no new observations: the fact that sometimes the monster shakes entire city blocks when it walks, and yet can get within yards of a man with headphones on without him noticing; the monster's tendency to change size, dramatically, not merely from scene to scene, but sometimes in consecutive shots. I mean that in the most literal sense: there are moments where its head is barely larger than the taxicab it's chasing, and then it suddenly can fill the entire entryway of a spacious New York subway station, in the span of just five seconds.

When the monster can't even be presented in a consistent way, and with so many shots of it interacting with objects seemingly hellbent on making that fact clear, there's no real way to believe in it or care about it, and that's what makes Godzilla such a damned easy film to nitpick: the way a trained biologist keeps using "he" to refer to a monster that is pregnant and reproduces asexually leaps to my mind, but it's almost too easy to pick out details. That doesn't just make the film dumb, it makes it not fun, since the creators' contempt for it is so apparent. I think that, more than anything, is the dominant feeling of the movie; Emmerich and Devlin took the project to have free reign to do anything they wanted, and proceeded to not give a shit. The cramped, human-sized staging of all the action, emphasising how reprehensibly uninteresting the humans in the movie are; the unendurable scene with baby Godzillas in Madison Square Garden, a scene that could only possibly be more of a rip-off of Jurassic Park and its raptors if David Arnold's score openly borrowed from the earlier film's kitchen sequence. And since it does borrow the music from that sequence, I guess this could not be any more of a Jurassic Park rip-off, and a particularly lazy and ineffective one it is, too. And since I have mentioned the music, it wouldn't do to pass up mentioning how often the score and the action don't match up: particularly when we and Niko get our first good view of Godzilla, and the music is all awe-inspired and Spielbergian, and the action of the film involves the giant animal being a kill-crazy deathbeast of pure horror.

Hell, the writers even go so far as to portray the mayor of New York as a craven blowhard named Ebert (Michael Lerner) with a simpering aide named Gene (Lorry Goldman), in tribute to the film critics who despised - and rightfully - the previous Emmerich/Devlin pictures, and then don't show Ebert getting crushed by Godzilla. In fact, he lives right to the end, to endure a tremendously unfunny comeuppance involving a thumbs down. When you skip that moment, you're simply not invested in making a crowd-pleaser whatsoever.

Which leaves us with just one thing to talk about, but it is maybe the most important thing, and I have intentionally left it: Patrick Tatopolous's monster design. It's not Godzilla. That's just fact. It is a different animal altogether, one that is not a dinosaur-shaped metaphor but an attempt to mimic the physiology of iguanas, if iguanas were hundreds of feet in length and bipedal.

In and of itself, totally irrespective of the thing it so utterly does not resemble, I have to be honest: I actually like the design. That makes me a horrible person, I know. But taking the filmmakers at their own goals, it's actually pretty effective, with the exception of its strangely overlong, very rectangular lower jaw. But I like the sleekness, the coloring, and the way it moves; during a scene set in Central Park at night, it clambers about like a Komodo dragon, and I will admit myself most impressed by both the idea and execution. The CGI used to bring the creature to life is decidedly spotty (it generally gets better as it goes along; the initial stamped through New York is especially terrible, with the monster possessing no apparent weight), but when it's good, it's as good as anything else from 1998; the baby Godzillas are quite terrible and fake-looking, but the whole 25-minute sequence containing them could and should be removed from the movie anyway, so it's not really a problem.

I might even go so far as to say that I like the American Godzilla enough that I kind of wish that Godzilla '98 had kicked off a sequel. Not, for the love of God, one that had anything to do with Emmerich and Devlin. But in the hands of somebody who actually wanted to make a giant monster movie - and with another name attached - this particular giant monster has some merit to it, I think. Just not in the epic steaming shitpile that tried to foist it on an instantly-hostile public.