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Roger Ebert was a man of his word. He never minced them, and he always stood by them. Over the decades of his career, the world was blessed with a number of rivalries and back-and-forths between Ebert and other figures in the film industry. Highlights include an argument spurred by his damnation of a grimy little horror named Chaos, and the time infamous nutcase Vincent Gallo claimed to have successfully cursed Ebert with cancer in return for a bad review of his movie The Brown Bunny. Although a number of filmmakers have exchanged heated words with Ebert over the years, director Roland Emmerich pulled an entirely different punch in the late ’90s with his notoriously bad take on Godzilla. Handled differently, it could have been a good-humored jab that Ebert and his colleague Gene Siskel were amused by. However, the way Emmerich approached his distaste for the pair’s reviews didn’t quite land, and actually ended up making him look pretty childish.
Why Did Roland Emmerich Parody Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert in ‘Godzilla’?
Siskel and Ebert had a bit of a history with Emmerich by the time Godzilla went into production. His 1994 picture Stargate was met with a dismissive summary by Ebert: “Conceive of the weirdest plot you can think of, and reduce it as quickly as possible to action movie clichés.” Although the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day fared slightly better in terms of star rating and Ebert’s admission that “I kind of liked it,” the critics picked apart the movie’s logic and reliance on 40-year-old action tropes, and didn’t receive it quite as highly as the director had perhaps anticipated. You’d think that at this point, Emmerich would resolve to make a really good action movie that was exciting, refreshing, and above all else, actually made sense. Don’t get bitter, just get better, as the saying goes. However, as his filmography since then has proven, this is not his approach to movie-making. The man has made a career out of silly, large-scale action epics that skip the logic and sophistication in favor of spectacle.
It must have been an amusingly surreal experience for those present at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1998 to be in the room with Ebert when he first saw Godzilla. Emmerich was apparently so irked by their previous reviews that he decided to parody Siskel and Ebert in a very obvious and emphatic way in the movie itself. Godzilla sees a reincarnation of the famous Japanese lizard stomp around New York City while an anthropologist played by Matthew Broderick tries to figure out how to stop it. Of course, in any such unnatural disaster, the mayor of whatever town is being ravaged is an important figure who will reassure citizens and ensure that appropriate action is being taken. Not the case when it comes to Mayor Ebert (yes, Mayor Ebert… how subtle), who is played by Michael Lerner as a fat, slobby brat who is as bad at running a city as he is at resisting candy. With his gray hairdo, portly stature, thick glasses and thumbs-up gesture, it is an incredibly on-the-nose parody that acts pretty damn pleased with itself.
To really rub it in, Ebert is accessorized with a wimpy sidekick named Gene, played by Lorry Goldman and modeled after Siskel as a slender, balding man. Gene spends the movie appeasing Mayor Ebert and unsuccessfully playing his sober buddy when it comes to dealing candy out to his overbearing boss. It’s a strange dynamic — although Ebert is probably remembered as the more famous and influential of the pair, Siskel was a formidable colleague when it came to challenging or disagreeing with his fellow critic, and could never be seen as obsequious. In fact, he was known for his sharp, abrasive style, so his framing as Ebert’s underling doesn’t really make sense.
Clever parody this is not. Parody is often thinly veiled, but this one has no veil at all. The naming and styling of Mayor Ebert and Gene is far too particular to be clever. Would it have hurt to call them Mayor Eggert and John? Or given them entirely different names while making them look like Siskel and Ebert? People would have still gotten the message, and the point may have come off a little less lazy and petty. It becomes pettier when the characters are reduced to low blows, like picking on Ebert’s weight and supposed gluttony. Perhaps a more skillful approach would have been to maintain the essence of the commentary while crafting distinct personas for the characters, allowing the criticism to be conveyed with more finesse and avoiding the descent into personal attacks. In doing so, the message would likely have been more impactful and less mired in the realm of mere pettiness.
Roland Emmerich Let Siskel and Ebert off Easy by Allowing Their Characters To Survive
But the cardinal sin is what is done with these characters. Emmerich had the perfect setup in his lap that could really make a splash if he wanted to be a petty asshole. Such a buffoonish mayor and his hapless sidekick are just asking to be snatched up in Godzilla’s jaws and devoured in one bite, or preferably scream directly at the camera as the creature’s ginormous foot comes inevitably crashing down on them. But it never happens! Ebert says in his review of the movie, “They let us off lightly; I fully expected to be squished like a bug by Godzilla.” Siskel branded the parody “petty” and lamented the movie’s distinct lack of terror. Emmerich had done it again: Siskel and Ebert hated his movie.
So by the end of it, Emmerich kind of shot himself in the foot. His unimaginative lampooning of Siskel and Ebert sustained his reputation for bad movies and bad humor. It came off as childish, reductive and mean-spirited, and to make it worse, he wasn’t clever enough to bring these characters to their obvious conclusion. Thumbs down, Roland Emmerich, big old thumbs down.