Godzilla

By Carter B. Horsley

According to Jamie Leight, a 12-year-old film buff, "Godzilla" was better than "Jurassic Park" and "Deep Impact" and it inspired him to make a few city blocks out of a stack of books for one of his monsters to scurry between.

Indeed, this updated version of the classic Japanese thriller not only has a good feel for New York City, which it captures in many aerial views, but also a very frenetic, fascinating and exciting perspective on its maze-like skyscraper canyons. One whisks about the city, from panic to be sure, and is awed, intimidated and bewildered by its compactness, its density, its hiding places. Man-made mystery mingles here with unnatural danger.

Although it begins rather slowly, which is in keeping with thriller traditions, it works up quite a head of steam, or, in this case, bad breath.

While the movie incorporates many clichés of the genre, it delivers plenty of spectacular and memorable scenes. It is a cross between the remake of King Kong and "The Fifth Element" (see The City Review article): big creature visits the city and gets carried away.

"The Fifth Element" gave us a vision of a formidably precipitous high-rise city that was not quite as lugubrious as the damp environs of "Bladerunner." "Godzilla" gives us a vulnerable high-rise city seen from a new perspective. Whereas "Jurassic Park" had cute, agile velociraptors, "Godzilla" has a fast, headstrong, heroic, hurtling creature that is not easily intimidated and doesn't pay heed to traffic signs.

There are many good touches, especially in the beginning. We get a sense of Godzilla's size by his footprints and as we fly along with helicopters tracking them we are airborne archaeologists and we happen upon a huge beached ship with enormous claw marks across its vast hull. The beached ship set is one of the great theatrical scenes in this genre.

The beast comes to New York, captioned as "the city that never sleeps," and bites on a hobo's fishing tackle on a pier. He doesn't get reeled in. He just follows the bait, so to speak, in a stunning special effect of an emerging tidal wave that raises and splinters the pier and the fleeing hoboes. It is an unexpected and virtuosic effect.

Before long, we see his scaly, muscular feet stomping through the city streets and the ensuing havoc as he rushes, thumps, runs and crashes through the city, his long, heavy tail occasionally creating great gashes in many buildings, such as the Philip Morris building on 42nd Street.

In this version of the famous Japanese adventure series, Godzilla is no plodding behemoth. He is agile enough to avoid missiles from pursuing helicopters that instead impact on several Manhattan landmarks including the Chrysler Building and the toppling of the top third of the building is a marvel of special effects. (Godzilla, of course, is cold-blooded and the surrounding buildings are warmer and thus more attractive to heat-seeking missiles, we learn.)

One of the movie's greatest images is of a gaping hole Godzilla created on his midtown tour in the MetLife (formerly the Pan Am Building) straddling Park Avenue. The hole has removed about two-thirds of the middle of the structure, which is still standing, and obviously he took a running leap through it as the top and the bottom are still miraculously intact. Amazingly, no one in the audience at the Sony cineplex on Broadway and 68th Street applauded the destruction of the MetLife Building despite the fact that many New Yorkers have long resented its dwarfing of the great Helmsley Building. Incredibly, director Roland Emmerich, who directed "Independence Day," does not linger to savor this very dramatic image.

Indeed, the pacing of the movie is frustrating as many of the initial sequences are a bit disappointing and for a while it looks like everything is being shot in the dark, in the rain and through thick mist. Artistically, of course, perhaps this was intended as a homage to the archaic special effects of the original 1954 black-and-white Japanese movie (that was released in the United States two years later with added footage including Raymond Burr as a reporter). As the movie continues, however, it is clear that production values here are very, very impressive. Indeed, the second half of the movie is too crammed with awesome effects and one suspects that the producers felt that only a frenetic pace of overkill can retain the audience's interest. The acting here might appear better if the actor's voices were dubbed in Japanese, but of course that might seem to be a parody and there is a thin line between being a honest thriller and a hokey farce. It didn't work in "Independence Day," but comes off better here, thanks to the insouciant French insurance agent, played well by Jean Reno, who has trouble adjusting to American coffee and chews gum (see The City Review article) to appear "more American." Too often, the producers try to please everyone and throw in the kitchen sink, or in this case, the city. Comic relief can be effective, but here the romantic interludes and the dumb politicians and military are just dumb. The film has a Mayor named Ebert, an insider's reference to the fine film critic Roger Ebert, but Michael Lerner plays him too broadly.

Matthew Broderick plays a scientist, Dr. Niko Tatopoulos, another insider joke since the creator of the new film "monster" was Patrick Tatopoulos. Broderick/Tatapoulos is studying the effects of radiation on worms at Chernobyl who is called in to help U.S. forces in dealing with Godzilla, who may have been mutated by French testing of atomic bombs in the Pacific. Broderick is not bad in his role, but Mario Pitillo is a bit too cloying as his love interest and an aspiring television reporter although her sidekick, Hank Azaria is quite amusing as a cameraman who comes very close to getting traumatically trampled.

Godzilla apparently believes that Manhattan is a good island on which to nest. He lays his eggs in Madison Square Garden, which has never looked so good and which does not survive.

Even the Energizer Bunny would agree that the chases go on and on and on, but one of the finales, or so it seems, on the Brooklyn Bridge is a tour de force and great movie magic.

Godzilla, who is known as Gojira, in Japanese, a combination of the words for gorilla and whale, does not look like his cinematic ancestors who were rather clumsy and slow and puffy. Now he has a pronounced underbite very reminiscent of the nasty creatures in the "Alien" series and his body resembles that of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

The $110 million film, which uses many computer effects, does not have the suspenseful intensity of a Spielberg, or Hitchcock, and it uses the usual bag of tricks of the purported dead villain not being dead, and the like. Emmerich clearly doesn't understand restraint and some of the chase sequences have swarms upon swarms of pursuit helicopters. This is a film about a concerned parent, not a plague of locusts!

The 138-minute movie could have been considerably shorter and used a better script. It lacks the majesty of "King Kong" and the humanity of "Frankenstein," the sense of dinosaur paradise hinted at in "Jurassic Park," and the moral messages against nuclear war of the original "Godzilla," and the surreal effects of "Terminator 2," but it has a New York where anything is possible.

The special effects are superb and very imaginative. Demolition workers will be awed.

The audience was relatively docile and quiet for the most part, if not shell-shocked. By the end of the film, Godzilla is seen from just about every angle and when he smashes through a building it does not seem like a set. He gets more real as the movie progresses and in one sequence proves to be a very good swimmer.

Like the above-mentioned movies, this is a classic because its technical achievements are so believable that they change our perceptions, not in any important moral sense, but in our gut perceptions of what we can make of our worlds. It is terrifically exciting even if we don't care all that much about the individuals portrayed, or rationality. Sometimes even expensive shots still hit the virtual mark.

There will be a sequel.

Internet Movie Data Base entry on "Godzilla"

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