They make grand-scale entertainments, but their imaginations are essentially keyed to the television generation, which may explain why their films are so popular. They do it up big, but their frame of reference -- mostly old sci-fi movies and TV shows -- is pint-size. The marketeers over at Sony Pictures got it right, although not in the way they intended: Size does matter -- the size of one's imagination, that is.
It seems that after 44 years and 22 movies, Godzilla still walks among us. Giant footprints turn up in places like the beaches of French Polynesia and Jamaica; Japanese tuna-fishing boats get gulped. Early in the film we're subjected to the usual monster-movie striptease -- a flash of tail here, a leg there. When Godzilla decides to make it in Manhattan, we're finally treated to a fuller view, and he's impressive. He almost makes you forget the attendant rinky-dink drama, with Matthew Broderick playing a golly-gee biologist for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who says things like, "We're looking at the dawn of a new species." No, bud, we're just looking at a summer movie.
Emmerich and Devlin had such a high old time junking New York City in Independence Day that they probably couldn't resist doing it again. Godzilla decapitates the Chrysler Building, stuffs his head into the Park Avenue tunnel, snarls up the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. Shot mostly in nighttime fog, these scenes are spectacular. (The monster was designed by Patrick Tatopoulos.) If you've ever wanted to see the city really get clobbered, look no further, although the filmmakers don't seem to realize that New York even without a Godzilla attack looks pretty battered.
Emmerich and Devlin don't play up the campiness inherent in making a big, expensive Godzilla movie. With the possible exception of Gojira, the 1954 Japanese movie that introduced Godzilla, the flicks in the creature's filmography have been cheeseball affairs; that's what has been fun about them. The monsters were played mostly by a Japanese guy in a rubberoid suit. The current Godzilla is a computer-generated behemoth, and scary as he often is, I miss the rubber-suited man. There's something a bit misguided about making a Godzilla movie with all this reverence for the genre. Maybe the filmmakers don't want to spoil their chances for a Godzilla franchise by getting too funky.
But as a result, Godzilla himself doesn't have much personality. And monsters can have personality -- just think of King Kong. In this new film it's not even clear just how smart Godzilla is. The raptors in the Spielberg movies were demonically clever, but Godzilla is a bit of a lummox. The only reason he sticks around for as long as he does is that the humans arrayed against him are even stupider.
The cast, besides Broderick, is motley and middling. Hank Azaria plays a gonzo TV cameraman for one of the local New York stations who spends a lot of time almost getting crushed. Jean Reno, one of France's biggest stars, turns up as a Gallic Secret Service honcho trying to get the goods on Godzilla. (It's some sort of payback for his nation's nuclear testing in French Polynesia -- don't ask.) For some in-joke reason, Michael Lerner, playing the mayor of New York, is named Ebert, and he's even made up to look like Rog. This could turn out to be a new development in marketeering -- plug the critic, get a rave. Of course the filmmakers haven't dispensed with the standard plugola. Prominently displayed logos for Blockbuster and many other companies mysteriously survive the monster's rampages. And perhaps that's the great lesson to be learned from Godzilla: Monsters may come and go, cities may crumble, but product placement is forever.
Directed by Roland Emmerich. Written by Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. Starring Matthew Broderick, Jean Reno, Michael Lerner, and Hank Azaria.