The Photocopied Mayhem of Monster Island Entertainment

I’ve been long-overdue for a nostalgia-check rewatch of the 1998 Godzilla film, directed by notorious Hollywood dingus Roland Emmerich.  Since it was the first fully American Godzilla production, the hype leading up to that film’s release was immense and—a child at the time—I bought into all of it: the tie-in Saturday morning cartoon, the rap-rock soundtrack CD, the Taco Bell-exclusive merchandise, all of it.  The film was a critical flop and a commercial disappointment, but I was young enough (and offline enough) to remain blissfully unaware of its reputation as the biggest embarrassment to-date in Godzilla’s 30+ film franchise.  That tainted rep has been difficult to ignore in recent years, though, as other 90s Kid™ nostalgia traps like Mortal Kombat, Space Jam, and Spice World have enjoyed retroactive critical appraisal from goofball Millennials (myself included, on all three counts) while Godzilla ’98 has maintained its cultural standing as one of the worst blockbuster misfires of all time.  I had to revisit the film to see for myself whether it was the monstrously entertaining creature feature I remembered watching as a kid or the putrid, bloated travesty everyone else reports it to be.  As per usual, the truth is that it falls somewhere between those two extremes.

The 1998 Godzilla isn’t especially horrendous nor especially great by any particular metric; it’s passably entertaining for a goofball blockbuster spectacle marketed almost exclusively to children.  I honestly believe that the film would’ve been remembered fondly if it had just been a dinosaurs-attacking-NYC movie instead of dragging Godzilla’s name into its CGI buffoonery, since the creature’s legendary run with Toho set an expectation it was never going to meet.  A $100mil Roland Emmerich production was never going to sincerely grapple with the post-nuclear emotional devastation of the original 1954 Godzilla, nor was it ever going to indulge in the wildly imaginative free-for-all of weirdo outliers like 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah.  It basically just uses the Godzilla name as an excuse to stage one-off, city-crushing gags with a square-jawed T-Rex that has practically nothing to do with the creature’s post-War Japanese origins.  I can see how that half-hearted appropriation of the Godzilla legacy was insulting to adult fans of the original Toho series, but I can also personally report that it did not matter at all to the dipshit 12-year-olds the movie was marketed to, at least not while we enjoyed watching a CGI NYC get smashed up real good by a giant dino.  In retrospect, both sides of that level-headed critical divide were likely exaggerated responses to what the film could and did deliver.

The reason I’m suggesting that Godzilla ’98 might’ve fared better as a dino invasion movie is because that’s where it’s heart clearly was anyway.  It borrows practically all its ideas, images, and musical cues from the first two Jurassic Park movies, announcing its intention to outdo the iconic Spielberg series in an early teaser ad that showed Godzilla’s gigantic foot crushing the museum-residing skeleton of a T-Rex.  It recreates the first Jurassic Park‘s raptors-in-the-kitchen sequence, its street race T-Rex chase, and even its gender-reveal pregnancy twist – all ported over to the city-invasion context of The Lost World.  Tri-Star Pictures could’ve saved a lot of money and a lot of critical grief if it had just set gigantic dinosaurs loose in modern Manhattan instead of bothering to license the Godzilla name.  The film is basically an overly expensive mockbuster version of what Jurassic Park had already accomplished, except with a novelty urban setting that adds a fun new bubblegum flavor to the mayhem (like the gag where the central group of heroic New Yorkers drive a Yellow Taxi cab directly out of Godzilla’s mouth onto the Brooklyn Bridge).  What’s amusing about Godzilla‘s function as a shameless Jurassic Park knockoff is that it was a big enough production to inspire its own parasitic mockbusters – copies of a copy.

Enter notorious schlockteur Charles Band, whose long-running exploitation enterprise Full Moon Features was no stranger to producing straight-to-VHS, proto-Asylum mockbusters of legitimate Hollywood films.  Smelling chum in the water as soon as Godzilla‘s production was announced in the mid-90s, Full Moon rushed to establish a kaiju-themed sub-label called Monster Island Pictures, offering kid-friendly, straight-to-VHS alternatives to the incoming Roland Emmerich behemoth.  As the major-studio Godzilla film failed to produce its own sequels, Full Moon’s Monster Island Entertainment also failed to sustain itself long-term – throwing in the towel after just two films.  It’s safe to say that neither 1996’s Zarkorr! The Invader nor 1998’s Kraa! The Sea Monster had much of an impact of the pop culture landscape at large, only registering with the naive, kaiju-hungry children who happened to rent them from video stores at the height of Godzilla fever.  In retrospect, however, they hold a kind of vintage kitsch appeal as lost 90s Kids™ relics.  They’re the exact kind of real-deal VHS schlock ephemera that now gets ironically spoofed in retro throwbacks like PG: Psycho Goreman but rarely get revisited in earnest.  I couldn’t help but fall further down that Godzilla mockbuster rabbit hole myself, though, especially since they’re also the exact kind of cultural runoff that’s readily streaming for free on Tubi.

Although Kraa! The Sea Monster was the Monster Island Entertainment title released the same year as Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, Zarkorr! The Invader is the one that feels like its direct knockoff.  The titular Zarkorr is a gigantic reptile with magical fire breath and metal-on-metal roars, which makes him pretty indistinct as a Godzilla alternative.  All the film’s city-crushing monster action is fairly limp as a result, despite the inherent cuteness of a rubber-suit dragon creature stomping down a dinky miniature of Newark, NJ.  Thankfully, the film does indulge in plenty of goofy Charles Bandian bullshit outside of those tedious monster attacks, even if it’s not quite enough to make up for the giant-reptile mediocrity.  Its on-the-ground humans plot involves a gone-postal mailman who’s selected by an invading alien race for a kaiju-themed experiment specifically because he’s the most Average man alive.  As a test of humanity’s collective wit & resolve, its most unremarkable specimen is alone tasked with the destruction of the dragonlike Zarkorr, who’s stomping his way to the man’s shitty New Jersey apartment for an inevitable showdown.  The Charles Band-specific novelty of that set-up is in the presentation of the aliens’ message, which is delivered by a doll-sized Valley Girl teenager on a set with jumbo-scaled prop kitchenware.  That familiar Full Moon obsession with dolls & miniatures doesn’t do much to jazz up Zarkorr’s mediocre kaiju mayhem, but it’s at least a momentary distraction from the tedium.

Monster Island Entertainment didn’t really go off the rails with its Godzilla mockbusters until 1998’s Kraa! The Sea Monster, which feels more like a pilot for a Power Rangers-style action series than it does a proper kaiju film.  Its plotting is deliciously, deliriously inane.  A space warmonger named Lord Doom (costumed to look like Marvel Comics’ Doctor Doom, naturally) sends the kaiju-scale fish monster “Kraa The Warbeast” to Earth to steal the planet’s warmth so his own homeworld doesn’t freeze into oblivion.  Earth’s only protectors are a small crew of Power Rangers-style space cops who lurk just outside of orbit but cannot reach the planet’s surface due to a malfunctioning spaceship.  They have no choice but to enlist on-the-ground help from a wisecracking crab creature with an obnoxious Italian accent, their only nearby agent who can pitch in to stop Kraa before it’s too late.  The kid-friendly punchlines and visual gags are just as eyeroll-worthy in Kraa! as they are in Zarkorr!, but the fanged-fish kaiju design and deranged Full Moonian plotting go much further in distinguishing it as a stand-alone novelty.  If it weren’t for its rushed-to-market 1998 release date and its Monster Island Entertainment production title, you might not even recognize it as a Godzilla mockbuster; it’s its own uniquely goofy thing, which is more than you can say about Emmerich’s extensively market-tested Jurassic Park knockoff.

The most sublime moment in this entire trio of photocopied kaiju novelties can, of course, be found in Kraa! The Sea Monster.  During the first monster attack, Kraa takes the time to destroy a building that prominently features a billboard advertisement for the 1998 Godzilla, starting with a close-up shot of the better-funded film’s iconic logo before it’s ripped to shreds by the rubber-suited fish monster.  In another meta-referential visual gag, Kraa! The Sea Monster spotlights a theatre marquee advertising a screening of Zarkorr! The Invader.  The best any of these three films could hope to accomplish is as a memorably goofy byproduct of corporate synergy.  I had fun revisiting a few individual gags in the 1998 Godzilla film, but none are as fun to think about or revisit as the film’s extratextual tie-in marketing, where Godzilla squares off against the likes of Puff Daddy, Charles Barkley, or the Taco Bell chihuahua to cash in on the momentary kaiju craze it stirred up in American pop culture.  As a shameless exploitation filmmaker of the lowest order, Charles Band inherently understood the novelty value of that kind of pop culture cross-over synergy, something his Monster Island Entertainment sub-label pushed to its goofiest extreme with Kraa! The Sea Monster.  None of these movies are essential viewing, but Kraa! is the one that’s the most honest & playful with its kaiju mockbuster appeal.  To match those dubious creative heights, Godzilla ’98 would’ve had to fully commit to a Jurassic Central Park premise it was too timid to openly indulge.

-Brandon Ledet

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