Godzilla (1998)

D: Roland Emmerich
S: Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Maria Pitillo

French nuclear tests in the South Seas give rise to a mutant lizard who makes a beeline for New York city, where Manhattan Island provides him with tall buildings to use as cover, extensive subways for hiding underground and a nice spot for nesting season. Unfortunately the massed forces of the American military and political machine are not to pleased with the idea and launch a massive counterstrike. Meanwhile investigating scientist Matthew Broderick plays out a high-school romantic reunion with old girlfriend Maria Pitillo, diehard news cameraman Hank Azaria bids for the big exclusive with little thought for life and limb and French secret service agent Jean Reno watches it all from the wings brewing some mysterious plans of his own.

It has taken some forty five years for the big fella to make it to Hollywood. Though he has made brief trips to American screens twice before in dubbed and reedited versions of the 1954 and 1985 Japanese original and remake/'sequel', it is only at the hands of retro spectacularist Roland Emmerich that the king of monsters finally gets his green card.

In the process he has lost a great deal of his identity. Though Gojira may have been originally inspired by American monster movies of the early 1950s including The Beast from 20, 000 Fathoms , in the hands of the Toho company the character became an icon within Japanese culture with a distinct political and cultural identity. He was always an ambiguous figure, a symbol of the devastation wreaked upon the people by the atomic bomb at the end of world war two, yet also of their triumphant recovery and prosperity in the period which followed. Between smashing up lots of scenery and causing general mayhem he became sympathetic and heroic; a friend and protector, a dutiful father and master. He even got a chance to talk in one outing, expounding the values of good and honourable living to his odd-looking son at their home on monster island.

But Godzilla was always just a guy in a rubber suit, even in his more recent incarnations, and the peculiar style and form of the monster movie in Japan could never succeed on the American screen today. Audiences don't engage with films quite the same way in the west, and with the increasing sophistication of computer-generated special effects, a high level of detail and verismilitude is now the norm. Hence after years of development and various names being attatched to the project (including cult Brit director Alex Cox), it has been thoroughly reworked to follow Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich's previous successful homages to the 1950s Stargate and Independence Day. Though its tongue is often in its cheek, Godzilla plays it more or less straight: it's a monster movie for the 1990s seen through retro stylings of the 1950s. The big guy still stomps cities and generally refrains from deliberately hurting anyone who does not hurt him first, but he's now pretty much just a big iguana.

Worldwide prerelease publicity for this film was so intense that its eventual arrival was greeted with general disappointment and disgust in America. Curiously, by the time it had reached these shores, negative word of mouth had created such low expectations that in the final event, I found myself enjoying it.

Don't get me wrong, Godzilla is a pretty weak picture. In beween big action set pieces, the drama and comedy is neither straight enough nor funny enough to work either way. It is slackly structured and almost completely devoid of the cultural resonances which informed either its Japanese predecessors or the previous work of its own writer/producer/director team. It is a firmly special-effects driven film and languishes in the doldrums for some time before the action gets frenetic. It is laden with contrivances, lacks interesting characters to sustain the human interest and is guilty of some extremely weak parody (like the running gag about Siskel and Ebert and Harry Shearer's news anchorman who recalls Raymond Burr in the American dubs).

But this film was never going to be about anything other than big, loud action and special effects, and it should come as no great surprise or disappointment that it is. When things finally get going, Godzilla rises to some very enjoyable action set pieces. In contrast to his Japanese ancestor, Devlin and Emmerich's creature is very much a lizard. Aided by impressive cgi, the animal's movement both through and under the streets of New York and in the sea is swift and agile instead of slow and ponderous. This makes the various combat scenes much more exciting than expected, with Godzilla slipping with ease between the skyscrapers as heaps of hapless helicopters pursue him causing more damage with their weapons than he does with his feet and tail. Similiarly his encounter with navy submarines showcases the creature's intelligence and speed, which is a welcome relief from the age-old tradition that a big monster moves slowly and stupidly bats away biplanes until they finally overwhelm him. But to add spice to the action, and to bring audiences back to more familiar Jurassic Park/The Lost World territory, the film also adds a couple of hatchlings. These smaller more raptor sized bad guys provide the film with the first of its two climaxes and make for plenty of opportunity for 'running and screaming' action with the major cast.

Though it fails to elicit any real sympathy for the big guy, it's hard not to feel sorry for him by inference. Broderick is given a few scenes of exposition and 'contact' which suggest that, in the tradition of all monster movies, we ought to at root for the creature at least on some level. But while he is clearly more picked upon than aggressive, and the human death is less graphic and brutal than in The Lost World (most of the up close and personal killing is done by the hatchlings), it remains impossible for a special effect to generate the kind of love/hate response brought out by Boris Karloff's expressive face in Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. This, married to a script which drifts in and out of focus and does not balance its sub plots well makes for a relatively cold viewing experience which tends to produce cynicism and nitpicking at plot holes rather than willing suspension of disbelief and resultant entertainment.

But to be fair, critics were waiting for the fall after Stargate and Independence Day and the weaknesses of this film have been exaggerated to the level of cardinal sins. Godzilla is not a good film, and it is certainly the weakest of the bunch as far as Devlin and Emmerich are concerned (not counting Emmerich's work before Stargate, of course). There is a certain imaginative poverty to it, and you keep getting the feeling that Emmerich wants to remake Star Wars (the helicopters barreling through the New York cityscape has uncanny echoes of the Death Star's canyons), which was itself deliberately derivative. This fifth generation Hollywood postmodernism can be tiresome, and there are definitely some points where this film could have been trimmed and tightened. But on the whole Godzilla is nothing more or less than it could realistically have been expected to be. Children may enjoy it more than adults, purists will be outraged as they always are and serious film buffs will scoff happily at its relative lack of success at the box office. But there is always a place for Godzilla in our movie going hearts, and though this poor film is unlikely to win him any further fans, the big guy should be around for a while more on video and late night TV before he finally bows out.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.