20 Years Later: Reconciling the TriStar Godzilla

Last month, G-FEST (Godzilla Festival) celebrated its 25th show. The kids and I packed into Rosemont’s Crowne Plaza like sardines; amazed at how popular this event’s gotten since our first visit 15 years ago. Thanks to the unexpected success of Legendary’s 2014 Godzilla, the world’s most famous atomic monster has been enjoying something of a renaissance these days. Consequently, these last few years have seen G-FEST become something of a giant monster itself.  Of course, this isn’t the first time an American version of the “Big G” made some waves. Two decades ago there was another. One so controversial that die-hard fans will only refer to it only as “Zilla” or GINO (Godzilla In Name Only).  That being said, I was pretty surprised to see “Zilla’s 20th Birthday Party” listed in this year’s itinerary. Almost as shocked by how badly I wanted to be there for it. 

Of course, I knew this would be less a “party” than a healing of sorts. The resignation of an angry fan base – at last now able to put down their torches and reach a kind of acceptance that can only be achieved by the passage of time. But had twenty years been long enough?

What followed was an interesting discussion that somehow found itself weaving into a more recent fanboy crisis – the current state of STAR WARS. As a Libra, I have a natural proclivity to see both sides of an equation and this applies to my geeky interests as well. But could a Godzilla 1998 gathering at an old-school kaiju convention be so fair-minded? The panel was comprised of four people: Jeff Horne, Tristan Domay, Brian Scherschel , and Scrooge Jones. Here are some highlights from my first hour at G-FEST XXV

*An American version of Godzilla had been in the works for some time before finally making it to the big screen. SONY had purchased the rights in the mid-‘90s and a story was pitched by director, Jan de Bont. After rejecting his proposed budget, Bont dropped out of the project and retooled his ‘Godzilla’ into the disaster film, Twister – one of the biggest hits of 1996. After the success of Independence Day that same year, SONY would hand the project over to Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. The Bont version did eventually leak online, as did a concept design of the monster created by Stan Winston, himself.

What might have been…

*Despite Emmerich and Devlin taking over the reigns, they still had to adhere to TOHO’s strict guidelines. One stipulation was that if Godzilla were to eat, it could only be fish and another was that he should not die in the film (SPOILER ALERT: they’d end up breaking at least one of these rules).

*Godzilla 98’ was one of the most hyped films of all time. City buses had banners reading “He’s as long as this bus” with skyscrapers proclaiming, “He’s as tall as this building.” Panelists also recalled the merchandise and many of the food tie-ins going on – including Taco Bell and Godzilla Edy’s Ice-Cream. 

*One teaser trailer featured a group checking out a T-REX at a New York museum only to have Godzilla’s foot come crashing through and pulverizing it. What makes this trailer particularly interesting is that all the footage was shot specifically for it and not one frame was in the movie itself. The spot was created by Emmerich and Devlin’s company Centropolis and representatives from the company actually came to G-FEST to ask fans directly what they wanted to see in a Godzilla film. They even set up a website (at a time when the Internet was in its infancy) and posted these interviews which made G fans even more proud. What could possibly go wrong?

*Fan excitement was soaring until photos of Godzilla underwear and pajamas for kids leaked, revealing the monster’s full look. It was then that fan disenchantment with the Tri-Star Godzilla began. 

*Even panelist Scrooge Jones (the only pro-Godzilla 98′ guy there) expressed displeasure with the film’s performances; particularly that of the lead female, Audrey (Maria Pitillo). In this regard, he wasn’t alone. All the main actors had been signed on for a three-picture deal with a sequel to this film, tentatively in the works. Acutely aware of the backlash, drafts indicated Pitillo’s character was limited to a short scene in the film’s first Act only. She’d also garner a “Golden Raspberry Award” for her role – a.k.a. the Oscar for bad acting.

*Despite all the bad press and fan backlash, the film was successful financially and earned consideration for a sequel. Due to lack of enthusiasm, however, plans were eventually ditched and the rights reverted back to TOHO.  

*Unlike STAR WARS: The Last Jedi, the controversial Godzilla 1998 did not divide its fan base. According to Horne, “All the fans were on the same page in hating it.”

*It was suggested the movie is more entertaining when you see it simply as a monster movie rather than a Godzilla film. The younger panelists all admitted they enjoyed it when it was first released and were oblivious to any fan backlash. “At that age,” said Domay, “I didn’t even know there were Godzilla fans.” Horne, on the other hand, doesn’t see things this way. He watched the film again recently and said even as a “monster movie” it just doesn’t work.

*Whether they hated the film or not, hardcore fans had to admit that the TriStar Godzilla did make their world a better place. Not only did it draw people back to the originals, it inspired TOHO to create their Millennium series (1999 – 2004) of films. I had to admit, my love of Godzilla was rekindled thanks to this movie. One of the panelists also brought up how TOHO created Shin Godzilla over a decade after their last G film due to the huge success of Legendary’s Godzilla 2014. “TOHO has a history of reacting to every American Godzilla film (good or bad) by creating more of their own.”

*It’s been reported that one of Godzilla’s former suit actors, Kenpachiro Satsuma, walked out during a screening of the film stating, “It’s not Godzilla, it does not have the spirit.” 

*Many people who didn’t care for the movie did enjoy its animated television spin-off, Godzilla: The Series. The FOX kid program ran two seasons (forty episodes) from 98 t0 2000 and was quite popular with younger viewers. Many supporting cast members from the film reprised their role in the cartoon. 

*After giving negative reviews of their Independence Day, Emmerich and Devlin wanted to stick it to Chicago film critics, Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Godzilla’s Mayor Ebert and his assistant Gene were blatant parodies of the duo – something just about everyone agrees was taken too far and downright petty.

*The Japanese would later take the rights and redub the Tri-Star version “Zilla” in their last Millennial installment, Godzilla Final Wars (2004). Zilla still exists in official comic book stories as is now his own monster –  though never to be confused as Godzilla.

And so, despite most fans wanting to forget that old ’98 Godzilla, he’s never really left us. “He’s like that crazy uncle that nobody in the in the family ever wants to talk about,” said Jones. Yes, that’s probably true. And, like him or not, he’s still family.

Happy Birthday, Zilla!

Dave Fuentes~



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