Godzilla (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Godzilla is the ultimate culmination of the "who cares about plot" summer movie. A loose remake of the 1954 "classic" Japanese monster movie, Godzilla, King of the Monsters (which is itself pretty thin in the story department), Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's big- budget lizard-stomps-Manhattan disaster flick has been written with the brain dead in mind. The script isn't just "dumbed down," it's lobotomized. Godzilla lives and dies on special effects alone.

Presumably, the primary target group for this film is teenage boys, the demographic most likely to shell out $7 repeatedly to see the same images of monster-instigated carnage. That's not to say that females and other age groups are immune to the special effects seduction; they're just not as readily susceptible. This is the third straight movie in a row where Emmerich and Devlin have demonstrated that a mastery of computer-generated visuals is far more important for making money than the ability to write and direct for actors. Stargate was a financial success. Independence Day was a runaway hit. And, with Godzilla already drowning in hype and merchandising tie-ins before it even opens, it's virtually guaranteed at least $100 million. Nice numbers for a film that could have been penned by a not-too-precocious grade school kid.

Godzilla isn't completely without merit, although it is close. There's a certain visceral thrill inherent in watching the giant lizard rip his way through Manhattan, but it wears off quickly. Frankly, while the special effects are competent, they're not all that stunning. There's nothing new here; it's Jurassic Park meets Aliens, with a little Independence Day thrown in for bad measure. Maybe it will require George Lucas and his new Star Wars movie to take computer-generated visuals to the next level. Godzilla never really pushes the envelope, preferring to remain within a comfort zone. The imagination of monster movies like King Kong has been replaced by a crass, formulaic approach which disallows creativity. (How disturbing is it to know that Godzilla has been chosen to close the 51st Cannes Film Festival?)

Worst of all, Godzilla isn't even exciting. With the possible exception of a mildly enjoyable car chase near the end, there isn't a sequence in this film that raises the pulse. Even the scenes with dozens of aircraft attacking the monster are so devoid of tension and suspense that they are yawn-provoking. Independence Day may have been dumb, but it was full of "adrenaline moments" capable of getting the audience involved in the action. In this aspect of its production, as in so many others, Godzilla is lacking. Actually, part of the problem is that we're never sure who we're supposed to be rooting for: the green monster with an attitude or the paper-thin humans trying to stop him.

The plot, such as it is, can be summed up rather simply. After sinking a few ships and leaving some footprints on tropical islands, Godzilla shows up in the Big Apple. He does some of the usual tourist things: stops by Madison Square Garden, visits the Chrysler Building, goes on a walk through Central Park, and takes the subway. In the process, he knocks over a few buildings and steps on countless cabs, but he never has trouble with traffic jams. On hand to stop him is an elite U.S. army unit, led by a slightly less-arrogant-than-usual military man (Kevin Dunn) and a biologist named Nick Tatopoulos, who has a theory about Godzilla. In his opinion, the big guy is actually a lizard grown to enormous proportions as a result of the radiation given off by French atomic bomb tests in the South Pacific. In Nick's words, Godzilla is "a mutated aberration... An incipient creature? The first of its kind." As luck would have it, Nick's old girlfriend, Audrey (Maria Pitillo), is a reporter based at a New York TV station. Along with her cameraman friend, Animal (Hank Azari...a), she decides to follow Nick around as he trails Godzilla. Then, just when the military has rejected Nick's theory about why Godzilla is in New York, a member of the French Secret Service (Jean Reno) recruits him for a special assignment.

Instead of stomping around Tokyo this time, Godzilla has chosen New York City. Unfortunately, Manhattan has been destroyed so many times in recent disaster movies (Independence Day, Deep Impact, Armageddon) that it's becoming boring. The whole tradition of monsters roaming around the city started with King Kong, but the big ape was only about 30 feet tall. He could climb the Empire State Building. At ten times that height, Godzilla would be more likely to knock it over.

Godzilla contains a few lame attempts at humor. There's an ongoing feud between Animal and his wife that plays like sit-com material, an unfunny and repetitive gag about how no one can pronounce Nick's last name properly, and a rather tame attack on film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. Both of the popular personalities have alter egos in the film: "Ebert," the mayor of New York, is played by Michael Lerner, and "Gene" (Lorry Goldman) is his campaign manager. Ebert's re-election slogan is, not surprisingly, "Thumbs Up for New York." The Siskel/Ebert stuff is amusing the first time it's used, but, after a while, it grows tiresome. And, although the "characters" don't serve any real purpose, they keep popping up.

Godzilla is saddled with an unimpressive cast. This is largely because Emmerich doesn't want to risk a human performance upstaging his lizard. That's not to say that Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno aren't capable of good performances (both have done their share of solid acting in the past), but they aren't A-list names. Then again, considering the quality of the writing, even Pacino and DeNiro would have been hard-pressed to shine. Maria Pitillo (Dear God) plays the love interest and Hank Azaria (Great Expectations) is on hand to present what is supposed to be comic relief.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter what I (or any other critic, for that matter) have to say about the movie. TriStar has assumed that Godzilla, like all self-proclaimed summer event motion pictures, is pretty much critic-proof. It may also be word-of-mouth-proof. Those who want to see the movie will see it no matter what I write or their friends say. So, when I go on record to assert that Godzilla is one of the most idiotic blockbuster movies of all time, it's like spitting into the wind. Emmerich and Devlin are master illusionists, waving their wands and mesmerizing audiences with their smoke and mirrors. It's probably too much to hope that some day, movie- goers will wake up and realize that they've been had.

Godzilla (United States, 1998)

Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Hank Azaria, Maria Pitillo, Kevin Dunn, Michael Lerner, Harry
Screenplay: Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich
Cinematography: Ueli Steiger
Music: David Arnold
U.S. Distributor: TriStar Pictures
Run Time: 2:12
U.S. Release Date: 1998-05-20
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1