A new American Godzilla movie, only the second one ever, arrives in theaters this weekend, 16 years after Sony’s 1998 attempt. Despite my graduating high school the year the Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin Godzilla dropped, news of another crack somehow gave me the wait-really-this-again? reaction more appropriate to past Warner Brothers reconfigurations like Man of Steel (seven years after Superman Returns) and Batman Begins (eight years after Batman & Robin), to say nothing of Sony’s willingness to reset Spider-Man a mere five years after the series came to an unexpected end. What that gut reaction really says, then, is: 16 years? That can’t be right. It seems like, if not just yesterday, certainly not closer to two decades ago than one.
Perusing the Summer 1998 box office charts, though, it does start to seem that far away. Movies that big studios released wide during the summer include: a Peter Weir-directed satirical drama starring Jim Carrey; Steven Soderbergh’s first collaboration with George Clooney; a Brian De Palma movie starring Nicolas Cage; one of the best Farrelly Brothers comedies; a Warren Beatty political satire; a bloody and intense WWII epic from Steven Spielberg; a Joe Dante kids movie that doubles as a satire of war toys; and a Norm MacDonald-starring comedy. Not all of these movies were hits, but some of them were. Some of them were even big hits! And some of the other mainstream hits of the season were The X-Files, The Mask of Zorro, Blade, and Mulan—a strikingly diverse and eclectic little group of popcorn movies.
I don’t intend to indulge in good-old-days nostalgia here. One of the biggest movies of that summer was a jingoistic, flag-waving, Aerosmith-backed screamfest about cities getting hit with rocks—and Armageddon was the superior of the summer’s two asteroid movies! The Horse Whisperer is the kind of leaden, soft-focus movie for “grownups” that should send people of all ages running back to glorified kid movies as fast as they can. And of course there was Godzilla. Its disappointing performance still had it lodged firmly in the top 10, and while it may have delivered the goods purely in terms of effects-assisted building-smashing, it’s hard to argue that it was anything but a disappointment as a monster movie, disaster movie, or even garden variety non-sucky movie. (I wrote a short story this week about coping with that disappointment.) Armageddon makes for an interesting summer-of-’98 counterpoint to Godzilla, because both of them actually opened relatively soft compared to initial expectations: they each took almost two weeks to hit the then-vaunted $100 million mark. But Armageddon turned out to be a crowd-pleaser with decent staying power, solidifying Michael Bay’s box office rep.
Bay’s frat-machismo take on large-scale destruction has since lapped Roland Emmerich’s Irwin Allen sensibility, which looked crass and clumsy in 1998 and had migrated to vaguely retro, even maybe kinda charming (if also low-rent), by the time of last summer’s White House Down. Bay’s Transformers series does $350 million or so every time out, while Emmerich’s biggest post-Godzilla hits, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012, feel like second-tier franchise entries despite not having any cast members in common—and also made only slightly more money than his Godzilla in this country, despite higher ticket prices and bigger opening weekends. In a certain range of box office performance, it all kinda flattens out.
The new Godzilla faces similar inflation-deflation dynamics. All of this sound, fury, expense, and even fan cred focusing on doing the big guy right this time (Warner Brothers hired Gareth Edwards, whose only previous feature was both an indie and a monster movie, the ambitious if not very good Monsters) will most likely add up to a movie that grosses, realistically, between $150 million and $200 million in this country. Using the flawed but sometimes illustrative inflation adjustment Box Office Mojo metric, that’s actually less money in 2014 dollars than the earlier movie made in 1998 dollars. (International grosses weren’t as big a factor in 1998, but they still saved the 1998 Godzilla in terms of profitability, making a now-normal 60 percent of its money overseas.) But it might be enough to get some manner of American Godzilla Franchise restarted, which I guess is the point. And hey, it sounds like we might be getting a good Godzilla movie out of it, which 18-year-old me will accept as belated restitution. I’ll take it over Warner Brothers giving Wild Wild West another try, anyway.