Godzilla is entertaining, but that's about it
It's been close to a year since the first trailer of GODZILLA appeared in theaters, making most viewers cheer with enthusiasm. Why is this gigantic lizard so popular? Is it because of the cheesy Japanese films that had the self-titled creature starring in them? I doubt it because most people attending this film won't remember them (though they might remember the poorly dubbed actors). So what is it? My guess would be two things: Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. Now, most people wouldn't know who these two guys are, or at least by name. In the trailer, it is made very apparent: from the creators of Independence Day. Ah. Now we have a clue as to why people cheered during this preview. The popularity of 1996's blow-up-then-save-the-world sci-fi film is still fresh in the minds of those who saw it (which is virtually everyone in America).
And so, when we watched the little old man walk out on the pier, only to be chased back by an underwater, unseen monster, we all cheered (yes, even I did). Independence Day was far from a great film, and after repeated viewings, one begins to see what Siskel and Ebert both saw originally. However, the excitement and adrenaline was clearly present, especially during the first hour (which is spectacular film making; the film faulters in the final two-thirds). Devlin and Emmerich certainly knew how to gain the audience's attention, and that was by blowing things up real good. No one had ever seen a film that went to the great lengths of completely destroying several cities around the globe. It was something that will go down in history as one of the greatest moments in film history.
Unfortunately, the creators weren't able to recreate that same exhilaration with their latest film. In fact, several scenes in GODZILLA seem ripped right out of ID4. However, what the creators were able to do was give us a plot that seems plausible (unlike the computer-virus-uploaded-to-alien-ship finale of you-know-what). The plot is extremely simple, but underneath it lies several interesting character studies that would have made the film better than what it is had they been focused on more fully and realistically.
GODZILLA starts out quite well, with an almost art-film opening which sets up how Godzilla is created. We see old footage (though nothing as perfect as in The Game) which shows several lizards watching nuclear tests being performed nearby (which also brings up several questions as to why only one of them mutated... but I digress). The only problem with this is that we don't know if these tests are being done decades ago, or if they are being done in the present. But anyway, the film introduces us to its hero, Nick Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), a biologist investigating mutation in earthworms caused by nuclear testing. He is whisked away by the government in order to investigate an unusual phenomenon--well, more of a gigantic footprint--in the South Pacific. And from here on out, the film is your standard setup awaiting the arrival of the creature. It almost reminded me a little of Jaws in how it waited a while before actually showing us what it looked like (which also makes you wonder why Jaws is considered better than any other average monster film--it must be a technical thing). However, once Godzilla shows up, be prepared for an entertaining time.
The wide array of different characters is very present here, but they are more realistic than in Independence Day (in that they don't have those really stupid one liners that many viewers laugh at). There is really only one character that seems out of place, and that is Audrey (Maria Pitillo), an annoying assistant to a popular reporter (Harry Shearer, a regular on The Simpsons). Audrey also serves as the romantic love interest for Nick, but it really doesn't work all too well. We know they will end up together, so it's bothersome to watch them quarrel with each other for half the film. On the positive side, most of the other characters are well-developed and interesting. Emmerich and Devlin seem to have remembered Siskel and Ebert's negative review of ID4, and they include two characters, Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner) and Gene [Siskel] (Lorry Goldman), who both give the "Thumbs Up/Down" signs. Both are quite idiotic, but it's all in good fun, especially for those haters of the critic duo.
Godzilla doesn't show up for about 45 minutes, and it's worth the wait. The special effects are superb, although it's really just Jurassic Park's effects times ten. But that doesn't matter. Godzilla has never looked more impressive on the silver screen, and he becomes the most interesting character in the entire movie. And this is where the major problem of the film shows up: throughout the film, we see humans shooting, trying to kill him. As we later find out, he's only looking for a spot to nest, an animal's most basic instinct. Since Godzilla is a result of mankind's nuclear testing, instead of hating the beast and rooting for the humans, we grow fond of this giant, mutated lizard. If you are wondering how a male could give birth without a mate, just think back to high school biology and the term asexual reproduction. Now, when we watch Godzilla stomp around the city, we don't know exactly who to cheer for, and it causes a dilemma for me, not as a reviewer, but as a human. Do I praise the effort at creating a sympathetic but mean creature? Or do I praise the film for showing that animals do have feelings and emotions, and that we as a species don't seem to understand that? Either way, Devlin and Emmerich did the right thing, because the human characters they have created don't quite interest us as much as this creature ripped out of his habitat. During one scene, Godzilla shows such palpable human emotions that I wanted to cry for him. So who am I supposed to root for in this movie? It's a dilemma that is only answered when you realize what type of a human being you are: sympathetic towards animals, or believe animals are inferior to humans. Emmerich and Devlin went out on a limb for this one, and mixed feelings are the result.
The positive elements outweigh the negative ones, but only barely. The special effects fall in the former portion, while scripting falls in the latter. Can special effects make an entire movie? Absolutely not, but there is enough of a plot here for it to be considered good summer entertainment. Positive: Appealing actors. Negative: Stupid characters. Positive: Good moral issues to discuss. Negative, and this one really irks me: A horrible ending. About two minutes from the ending, the camera begins to move slowly through a building, and I knew exactly what was happening. I leaned over to my friend and said, "*Sniff, sniff* What's that smell? Oh yeah, a sequel." Lo and behold--well, I'll let you discover that for yourself. Thankfully, despite a slow middle section, the film entertains, and that's what it was made for, warranting a positive review from this critic (expect Siskel and Ebert to give it two thumbs down).
Director Emmerich does his best with the material, as these films are really just there to show audiences what good direction can do to enhance a poor script. Emmerich is a very capable director, as anyone that can make a film as well made as this one deserves some recognition. Devlin, however, does not, because all he is responsible for is producing and writing. Thankfully, they left out those damn one-liners, which I personally hate. The humor is more broad this time around, which is more funny. The dialogue is mediocre, but it serves the purpose of the film. As aforementioned, several of the subplots involving the main characters are truly interesting and well played out. The problem is that they are subplots, and the fight against the beast is the main one. It seems like these should be switched. Audrey's fight to become an actual reporter is interesting (though Audrey's character tends to breach the whiny phase several times), and Philippe Roche's (Jean Reno), a special agent for France, fight for his country is intriguing. Even the bickering of Mayor Ebert and Gene is hilariously entertaining. It's a shame they are just scraps left from the monster plot.
Matthew Broderick actually manages a good performance, but it ain't no Oscar contender! Broderick's popularity may rise slightly with this film, but he won't have the incredible boost that Will Smith had. Jean Reno is by far the best, providing a rather complex character with a little bit of humor mixed in. His cracks about how French coffee and donuts are better are funny, but his imitation of Elvis Presley takes the cake. Emmerich and Devlin seem fond of television's The Simpsons, as three cast members are also involved in that show. Hank Azaria (Mr. Burns, Ned Flanders) is good as the cameraman Animal; Harry Shearer (Apu, Moe, Chief Wiggum) is also good as the snobby and self-centered reporter; and there is a brief appearance by Nancy Cartwright (Bart Simpson). Maria Patillo is, of course, annoying for the first hour, but she grows on you while you watch. Michael Lerner does an excellent imitation of Ebert, and it's probably the funniest thing in the film. And there is even an appearance by Vicki Lewis from TV's NewsRadio. However, for the most part they are unknowns, but I doubt anyone will care.
GODZILLA is rated PG-13 for standard disaster-related peril, violence, some gore, and language. If you go into this film expecting a lot, you will be thoroughly disappointed. If you go in expecting very little, you may be surprised. It all depends on how you look at it. If you are looking for a fun, entertaining time, then you will enjoy it. In fact, if you go for any other reason, then just don't go. In the meantime, we can all just sit back, watch the obvious product plugs within the film (most obvious is the Blockbuster signs everywhere in Madison Square Garden), and witness Manhattan get destroyed, yet again. It sure didn't take them long to rebuild it after that disastrous alien encounter a couple years ago, now did it?
*** out of ****
Reviews by Boyd Petrie