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Godzilla, written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, directed by Roland Emmerich, 1998, 140 min.

There's an alternate universe where I stood up in the middle of Godzilla, with my fists clenched, and shouted, "I believe in the square-cube law!" Ah, reality. What to say about Godzilla, the most over-hyped summer blockbuster? I saw this particular movie after reading a week's worth of consistently bad reviews, and I had no expectations to speak of. Godzilla has many flaws to enumerate, like skimpy characterization, logical errors, a frighteningly sanitized view of violence, visual and conceptual plagiarism, unfunny jokes, and so on. Worst of all, the attitude towards Godzilla himself was decidedly schizophrenic, and this failure of imagination is perhaps the film's greatest downfall. The movie occasionally has the thrill of the moment going for it, with no virtues lasting beyond that.

Godzilla begins with a nice montage implying Godzilla's origin was due to nuclear testing. French nuclear testing, which is the rationale for having Jean Reno as a French agent trying to correct his nation's mistakes. Godzilla trashes a bunch of boats, and then heads to Manhattan. The explanation for his choice of destinations is completely ridiculous, but the location does make for some nice footage. The army tries to bring down the monster, but they cause more damage to the real estate than to Godzilla. Then our hero Matthew Broderick discovers that Godzilla is pregnant and is nesting, but the army goes after the big guy, leaving Broderick to team up with Reno, fighting baby Godzillas. The army wins, and our heroes win. Except it's a false ending, followed by a chase scene in an indestructible and supersonic taxi cab. The Supersonic Taxi ramps off Godzilla's foot, drives out of his mouth, and best of all, sails right over all those pesky footprints without us or the heroes having to worry about them. Godzilla dies, and our hero gets the girl. The end... or is it?

The characters are terrible. First off, the matter of Godzilla himself. A few scientists mention that he is only an animal, following instinct. Matthew Broderick has a few scenes where he seems to understand or pity Godzilla, but he never questions the army's attitude, namely that Godzilla needs to be exterminated. Devlin and Emmerich never sort out how Godzilla himself is to be regarded (the pathos of nudging a dead baby vs. the horror of roasting soldiers), and the question of the baby Godzillas only confuses the issue further. The babies must die because they are evil... but then why would we ever be cheering for Godzilla? Especially if he is only an animal. Matthew Broderick registered near-zero on the charisma scale, and could've taken a few lessons from Will Smith's energetic, goofy performance in Men in Black. Broderick's character gives us very little to cheer for, and his love interest actually made me cheer for the baby Godzillas. Almost worse than the vapid reporter are the two characters created especially as a cruel jab at Siskel and Ebert. Of all the cast, the only person walking away with any dignity will be Jean Reno, who gets the only funny jokes in the movie and who has the only mildly interesting role. And perhaps that is only my impression because his character reminded me so strongly of Francois Truffaut's in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Godzilla is very clearly a monster movie, and as such it assumes a kind of critic-proof appeal to the viscera. Let us set aside the question of whether such a movie should even exist, and take it on its own terms. In the context of a monster movie, it doesn't matter that Godzilla is far too large to ever walk on land (or even survive in water), as long as he's scary and stomps on a lot of things. Yes, the movie gives us a good deal of mayhem, but any time we cut to human characters the film falls apart (and that happens far too often). The actual footage of Godzilla doesn't particularly scare anyone, and all the secretive hype about his appearance falls flat. He's a big lizard that runs like a tyrannosaurus rex -- about what we expected. Only in the last twenty-minute chase scene does any kind of intense excitement develop. The helicopter sequences near the middle seem like extended advertisements for Godzilla: The Video Game, and how many video games are fun when you're not the one in control? The scenes in Madison Square Garden are fun, and do have some tension, but they seem like even more glaring thefts from Jurassic Park than was found in Lost World. Frankly, Godzilla isn't even very special as a monster movie.

Have we, the audience, learned a lesson yet? Apparently yes, because the grosses for Godzilla are plummeting. I'm not one to judge a movie by its budget or its box office, but it seems to me that this remake of Godzilla has always been about money. The blockbuster mentality has been changing movies drastically over the last twenty years, but I don't agree with assertions that there are no good movies being made any more. They have only become harder to find, with behemoths like Godzilla sucking up big budgets and barging onto an inflated number of screens across the country. Even if you're just looking for a good monster movie, I would recommend looking for something other than Godzilla.

DVD Note: Godzilla is available on a single-disc DVD that doesn't seem to have many features. The audio commentary is by some members of the special effects team who focus on minutiae, some trailers, a short mockumentary, some stills, and filmographies. Not much that would make the movie worthy of a second look.


First posted: June 4, 1998; Last modified: February 20, 2004

Copyright © 1998-2004 by James Schellenberg (james@jschellenberg.com)


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