Tuesday May 19, 1998
Godzilla, that gigantic mutant amphibian reptile, is back, bigger and much better than ever, cutting a swath of destruction from Polynesia through Panama and on to Manhattan, where he threatens to trample the entire island with his 140-foot strides. The Brooklyn Bridge crumbles as if it were a toy and Manhattan landmarks get rearranged and lopped off in an effort to contain the monster, whose size defies comprehension.
"Independence Day's" Roland Emmerich is just the man to raise the dragon-like star of 22 Japanese features from beneath the sea one more time. Emmerich has an affectionate respect for '50s sci-fi horror that avoids camp and condescension. There's humor in his "Godzilla," but it is above all an expertly designed theme park ride of a movie that packs nonstop thrills. Emmerich and his co-writers, which include his producer, Dean Devlin, are never at a loss for inspiration, and their pace is unflagging as that of old serials; wisely, they don't underline Godzilla's inherent allegorical aspect.
They actually manage to keep up with Godzilla, who can move, we are told, at a 500 mph clip. Above all, they maintain clarity, a quality notably absent from two recent summers' blockbusters, "The Fifth Element" and "Mission: Impossible."
The film's thoroughly likable hero, Matthew Broderick as biologist Nick Tatopoulos, is abruptly whisked away by his employer, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Agency, from Chernobyl, where he has been studying the effects of radiation on earthworms (they're getting bigger!). Nick is dispatched to Polynesia, where Godzilla has mutated as a result of nuclear testing and has destroyed a Japanese fishing vessel.
In the meantime, Nick's old girlfriend, Audrey (Maria Pitillo), who ditched him eight years earlier to put career first, is getting nowhere at a New York-based network TV news department. As Godzilla approaches Manhattan, Audrey is refusing to have dinner with an arrogant news anchor (Harry Shearer, an amusing casting), clearly a big career mistake. Of course, the arrival of Nick, hot on the heels of Godzilla, will give her the professional--and maybe even personal--chance of a lifetime.
The spectacle that is "Godzilla" is simply stupendous--and there's no point in revealing one jaw-dropping sequence after another, yet the film never loses either momentum or its human scale. What counts is Nick's attempt to figure out why Godzilla has sought out New York while Audrey and her cameraman colleague, Animal (Hank Azaria), try to get the story, and the trigger-happy military try to stop the monster in his tracks. When the military and Nick part company, he teams up with Jean Reno's astute and courageous Philippe, a French secret agent.
No matter how good--or poor--other special effects may be, the ultimate effect in a monster movie must, of course, be the monster. Thanks to the magic of computer-generated imagery, Godzilla is most convincing, a figure of innocent rapaciousness and ultimately of poignance, and in this instance the film's myriad other effects are up to the level of the monster, who was designed by Patrick Tatopoulos--and who provided the hero's surname, an expression of gratitude on the part of Emmerich for his efforts. (The film is dedicated to the late Tomoyuki Tanaka, producer of the original film and Toho Studios chairman.)
The necessity of shooting primarily at night in Manhattan proved to be a blessing: It allowed cameraman Ueli Steiger the opportunity to give the film a great sooty, neo-noir look, and there's nothing like shadows to enhance even the finest special effects money can buy.
"Godzilla" has a tremendously rich and complex visual texture, and production designer Oliver Scholl, visual effects supervisor Volker Engel, editors Peter Amundson and David J. Siegel and Emmerich's immense cast and crew have all contributed positively toward making the film a fully realized movie experience. David Arnold's score is worth singling out for managing to be stirring, eliciting a sense of awe and excitement without being bombastic.
Emmerich projects his vision of Godzilla's path of destruction so forcefully that you buy into its credibility with ease, although you could use a greater sense of pandemonium and presence among the New York's citizenry--not everyone could have managed to flee town, although at times it seems that way. In big-deal disaster movies characters have to be defined sharply and swiftly, which means actors have to flesh out their parts with personality and presence. Broderick by far has the most substantial role, and the combination of his boyishness and intelligence makes him a most appealing, down-to-earth hero, not Superman.
Pitillo manages several abrupt shifts in Audrey's character nimbly, and Reno, Azaria and Shearer are likewise strong. Among those leading a very large supporting cast is Michael Lerner as New York's opportunistic mayor, up for reelection. (The mayor's last name is Ebert; his key aide, played by Lorry Goldman, is called Gene; Ebert and Gene look much like a pair of famous Chicago-based movie critics.)
It's hard to imagine "Godzilla"--or any movie, for now--topping "Titanic" in popularity, and it seems unlikely that as many adults will be drawn to a fantasy of Manhattan being trampled by a monster as they were to that film. But "Godzilla," which delivers unpretentious fun with a blithe spirit, will surely give that box-office behemoth a healthy run for its money.
Godzilla, 1998. PG-13, for sci-fi monster action/violence. A TriStar Pictures presentation of a Centropolis Entertainment/Fried Films and Independent Pictures production. Director Roland Emmerich. Producer Dean Devlin. Executive producers Emmerich, Ute Emmerich and William Fay. Screenplay by Devlin & Emmerich; from a story by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and Devlin and Emmerich. Based on the character created and owned by Toho Co. Ltd. Cinematographer Ueli Steiger. Editors Peter Amundson, David J. Siegel. Costumes Joseph Porro. Music David Arnold. Production designer Oliver Scholl. Godzilla designed and supervised by Patrick Tatopoulos. Visual effects supervisor Volker Engel. Art director Robert Woodruff. Set decorator Victor Zolfo. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. Matthew Broderick as Nick Tatopoulos. Jean Reno as Philippe Roache. Maria Pitillo as Audrey Timmonds. Hank Azaria as Victor (Animal) Palotti.