OK, so “Godzilla” is just a $120-million sci-fi movie and not a grad-school course. Still, it strikes us that the movie should be both entertaining and--dare we say it?--even smart if possible. And we’re not thinking of the higher math needed to figure out how to add up the grosses “Godzilla” is raking in.
Rather, we’re referring to the numerous questions about science and urban practicalities that are raised in the course of its 135 minutes.
Chief among these, of course, is where does Godzilla come from? The answer seems to be French Polynesia, where numerous atomic bomb tests apparently caused a single Komodo dragon to mutate into a 200-foot-tall monster. And we know that the French are to blame because, after all, it is called “French” Polynesia. More to the point, during the opening credits, we see a warning sign marked “Site Nucleare.”
But where did he really come from? Though biologist Matthew Broderick refers to him as “the dawning of a new species,” the question remains: When did he dawn? And where’s he been since he did? Was he the product of one of those instantaneous mutations Darwin warned us about--the kind that grow 20-story monsters overnight? Or has he just been hiding out in Polynesia all this time, waiting until he was big enough to really do justice to stomping New York?
And how does he know to migrate to New York to lay eggs? Again, Broderick offers the notion that it makes perfect sense for Godzilla to seek an environment large enough to be able to hide in. So how would he know to seek it in the Big Apple? Did he page through an issue of Rampaging Monster Monthly and see that “50 Reasons to Trample Manhattan” feature? Or did he perhaps learn about it on the Internet?
But those are only a few of the questions raised by “Godzilla"--the beast and the movie. Here are some other things we wondered about:
* When it’s determined that Godzilla is still at large in Manhattan, the government evacuates the island in what appears to be about 15 minutes flat, with no sign of a traffic jam on the Brooklyn Bridge. It took two hours just to evacuate the World Trade Center after it was bombed in 1993--and that was only a few thousand people in two buildings, as opposed to more than 3 million spread from one end of Manhattan to the other, who will have to be processed through a handful of bridges, tunnels and commuter trains.
And once they evacuated them all, where did they put them?
* Godzilla is supposed to be 20 stories tall. So how does he fit into Madison Square Garden to lay eggs?
* How is it that a convenience store across the street from the new military headquarters in New Jersey is completely empty of customers when Broderick walks in to buy pregnancy tests--except for old flame Maria Pitillo?
* When French secret service agent Jean Reno shows up at a Tahiti hospital to question the sole survivor of a Japanese fishing boat attacked by Godzilla, he and his assistant order everyone out of the room, then question the man by themselves. A few scenes later, the French send the American military a videotape of that interrogation.
Since neither Reno, his assistant nor the fisherman had a camera, who shot the video (and managed to do so with the same close-ups that the movie uses)?
* What the heck are French agents doing running around the world, monitoring American efforts to stop the monster? Asked his role, Reno tells Broderick, “Those tests left a terrible mess. We’re here to clean it up.” Is this implying that the French have been keeping Godzilla a secret up until now? What else might they not be telling us?
* What’s the deal with all the inside jokes about critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel? In the film, the mayor of New York (played by Michael Lerner) is an overweight and opinionated opportunist named Ebert, whose symbol is a thumbs-up signal. His No. 2, a balding assistant played by Lorry Golden, is named Gene. Could this have anything to do with the mere 2 1/2 stars Ebert gave “Independence Day”?
Exactly, said a spokesperson for Centropolis Productions, the company run by “Godzilla” creators Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. It was a playful swat at the thumb-heavy critics and in keeping with Devlin and Emmerich’s own in-joke habit of using the names of people they know as characters in their film. Matthew Broderick, after all, plays a character called Nick Tatopolous, named after Patrick Tatopolous, the film’s designer.
* Of all the New York landmarks to destroy, why do helicopters accidentally blast the top off the Chrysler Building, which gets similar treatment from an asteroid in the upcoming “Armageddon” and served as a fig leaf for Howard Stern on the poster of his “Private Parts” film? Why not use the Empire State Building? Been there, done that, say the folks at Centropolis, pointing to their own vaporization of New York’s most recognizable building in a little film you may have heard of called “Independence Day.”
* When Reno meets the mayor, he slips an electronic bug onto his collar, so he can follow American military movements to deal with Godzilla. Couldn’t someone have figured out a way to enclose a transmitter in a tranquilizer-dart-type bullet and tagged Big Greenie with it so they could keep track of his movements?
* One way to track Godzilla, it turns out, is to follow the trail of fish he leaves as he tries to stock the larder for his impending brood of baby dinosaurs. Our question: How is he transporting all those fish? Did the scene of Godzilla pushing a shopping cart wind up on the cutting-room floor? Or perhaps this is a breakthrough in our knowledge of monster biology: the ability to pack food in cheek pouches, the way squirrels do.
And why is it that, every time the heroes come across one of these piles of dead fish, no one seems to notice the unbearable stench?
* If Godzilla is burrowing from 23rd and Broadway to Madison Square Garden, about a mile, why isn’t his digging having any effect on the structures above his tunnel?
* Just before his first contact with Godzilla, Broderick is shown buying a Kodak disposable camera from a vending machine near the Flatiron Building. Product placements aside, wouldn’t a scientist employed by the government be likely to have a camera of his own?
* And finally the film’s four heroes--Broderick, Pitillo, Reno and Hank Azaria--try to outrun Godzilla in a taxi, only to have the taxi wind up in Godzilla’s mouth, with them in it. Yet as hard as the big lizard tries to crack this jawbreaker with his molars, there’s nary an inflated air bag to be seen anywhere in the car. What exactly are the filmmakers trying to imply about the safety of New York taxis?
Marshall Fine covers film and entertainment for Gannett Newspapers in New York.