A gag in 1998’s Godzilla involves caricatures of film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel – here’s how the unflattering tribute came about.
Film critics are rarely portrayed positively on film. Indeed, there’s a tradition of filmmakers including mild digs at critics in their movies. On the milder side of things, there are evil villains named after American critics Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris in Willow and Galaxy Quest, respectively.
On the more overt side, we can recall pot-shots ranging from Leonard Maltin’s very game cameo in the fourth-wall-busting Gremlins 2: The New Batch to the Dirty Harry series low-point of a Kael lookalike film critic being sexually assaulted and murdered in The Dead Pool, while her killer paraphrases the real Kael’s negative review of the first film back to her.
But over the pond at least, the most recognisable and well-known movie critics are inarguably Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who hosted the film review programme At The Movies together from 1986 to 1999 and popularised the thumbs up/down mode of film reviewing.
Accordingly, the two have featured far more prominently in American pop-cultural depictions of critics than any of their peers, but seldom is this kind of depiction pettier than in the 1998 Hollywood version of Godzilla, directed by Roland Emmerich.
Reimagining the long-running Toho franchise as a sort of Jurassic Park for dummies, the TriStar-backed film sees the titular nuclear lizard emerge for a rampage around New York City, flummoxing military efforts to stop her, while Matthew Broderick’s radiation expert and Jean Reno’s French secret service agent try to deal with the crisis from the ground.
The film’s script was originally drafted by then-up-and-coming screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio but was rewritten by Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin prior to the start of principal photography. At this point, both Emmerich and Devlin had been on the receiving ends of thumbs down on each of their previous films – namely, Universal Soldier, Stargate, and Independence Day – and the addition of New York City Mayor “Ebert” and his toadying yes-man “Gene” was undoubtedly theirs.
For those of us in the UK, where Barry Norman and Mark Kermode are probably the most famous and/or visible film critics on the airwaves, the bickering caricatures of Ebert and Gene (played by Michael Lerner and Lorry Goldman, respectively) may not have stood out. Certainly, they’re not going to be the most prominent characters in any Godzilla movie, but from their names to their appearance and even their “Thumbs Up For New York” campaign slogan, this is a blatant and unflattering tribute.
As Siskel and Ebert pointed out in their own review, (an inevitable thumbs-down, even without the portrayal of the pair) it’s odd that the film sets the duo up as irritants but then doesn’t do anything with them.
Siskel had previously been sent up as a villain of the same name in 1994’s The Ref (played by J.K. Simmons, in his film debut) and argued in his At The Movies review of Godzilla: “If you’re going to go through the trouble of putting us in a monster movie, why don’t you at least take advantage of having the monster either eat or squash us”.
Furthermore, Ebert saw the movie at the Cannes Film Festival, and at the start of his print review in The Chicago Sun-Times, he really went after it with one of his most memorable openings.
“Going to see Godzilla at the Palais of the Cannes Film Festival is like attending a satanic ritual in St. Peter’s Basilica,” he starts. “It’s a rebuke to the faith that the building represents. Cannes touchingly adheres to a belief that film can be intelligent, moving and grand. Godzilla is a big, ugly, ungainly device to give teenagers the impression they are seeing a movie.”
Echoing Siskel, he added that he fully expected to be “squished like a bug” and was bemused that the film “let us off lightly”. It’s little surprise that the duo didn’t get on with the film and, judging by the response at the time and in the years since, neither did most audiences.
TriStar had designs on a trilogy of American Godzilla movies when they acquired the license from Toho in the early 1990s, but the 1998 film was slated to make $100 million more than it ultimately did at the domestic box office. Although the film raked in nearly three times its budget worldwide, and Emmerich and Devlin were game to make more, the American franchise was parked after the poor critical response (including that of Toho’s executives) and was eventually rebooted over at Warner Bros and Legendary Pictures with the 2014 Gareth Edwards film.
Before that, there was an obligatory animated spin-off, Godzilla: The Series. This show ran for two seasons from 1998 to 2000 and – unbelievably – retained Mayor Ebert as a recurring character, with Lerner returning to voice the New York mayor even as the series pivoted to a more global adventure story.
Siskel sadly passed away in February 1999, but At The Movies continued with a variety of guest hosts up until it was put on permanent hiatus in December 2011. Ebert passed away in 2013, but still reviewed movies up until he died – that’s how we know he got on a bit better with Emmerich’s later disaster movies, The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.
Your mileage may vary on how much better these later outings are than the aforementioned films, but both notably continue in the trend of sending up real-life figures – The Day After Tomorrow has a President and a Vice President of the United States who are pointedly styled after George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, while 2012 has a farcical aside involving Lyndall Grant as the Arnie-a-like Governor of California assuring the citizens of LA that everything is fine (“It seems to me the worst is over.”) while an apocalyptic earthquake is kicking off.
Both parts are less prominent than Ebert and Gene in Godzilla, but those examples are somehow less petty too. In closing, here’s the pair’s original review of Emmerich’s film on At The Movies:
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