How much does size matter? It matters a great deal to Hollywood studios, and the very lucrative team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin — Emmerich directs, Devlin produces, and they work together on the scripts — are a studio exec’s dream come true. With StarGate and Independence Day, this dynamic duo proved they could create enormous anticipation — a bulletproof gotta-see-it campaign. What they can’t do, it’s clear by now, is make a good movie to go with the brilliant marketing.
Godzilla, the new big one from Emmerich and Devlin, achieves the same weird paradox that ID4 did. It thunders into view with the full weight of event marketing, yet the movie itself is completely weightless. And, like Deep Impact (to cite just the most recent example), it zaps you with the spectacle of giant destruction and bores you with puny human-interest stuff. Who cares whether biologist Matthew Broderick and aspiring reporter Maria Pitillo get back together? There’s a monster knocking very large holes out of New York City.
Emmerich and Devlin’s genius at arousing anticipation does result in a compelling first reel or so, here as in ID4. The audience gets excited by the promise that something big is coming. But when the something-big arrives, notice how fast the awe wears off, how quickly the audience’s giddiness turns to restlessness. Godzilla goes on for two hours and nineteen minutes, a great lumbering beast that has no personality, has size but no power. Am I referring to the movie or the monster? Both. The movie is bad in the same way that ID4 was bad: It aims low and misses.
The big action scenes owe just about everything to both Jurassic Park and The Lost World: Godzilla running amok in New York is a pumped-up version of the T. rex menacing San Diego, and there’s an extended sequence involving an army of baby Godzillas that blatantly rips off the raptor scenes. I have no idea why Emmerich and Devlin needed to up the ante by infesting Madison Square Garden with mini-‘zillas (why didn’t they leave that for the sequel?); it adds an unnecessary half hour. Godzilla himself is fun when he first hits New York, but the filmmakers don’t find anything imaginative to do with him, and they keep him offscreen most of the time, while we’re stuck with Broderick whining and Jean Reno as some special agent and lame humor at the expense of Siskel and Ebert.
The original Toho Godzilla (or Gojira), for all its guy-in-a-rubber-suit cheesiness, had a lovely clunky charm. The new Godzilla, technically whiz-bang though it is, actually looks bad next to the stop-motion behemoths of Ray Harryhausen (whose It Came from Beneath the Sea appears on a TV in the film) and the rubber suits of Toho. In his obscure book The Total Film-Maker, Jerry Lewis often refers to “the intangibles” of film. Well, a monster that has been sculpted and manipulated by hand has a tangible essence, a quality of having been worked on, that a CGI-created beast, however skillful, simply doesn’t have. This Godzilla is an “intangible” in the wrong way.
After a while, Godzilla just strikes you as a big CGI blur; even the streets and buildings he destroys look cold and computerized. The deafening soundtrack tries to sell you size and force, but if you watched Godzilla with the sound off, you’d see a parade of thin, frantic images. This Godzilla even forgets to include the traditional cautionary message about nuclear testing; it’s used as an explanation for the monster, but then the movie drops it and concerns itself with … how to prevent Godzilla from nesting. In other words, “We don’t care that we created this thing; we just don’t want it to reproduce.”
The original Gojira was Japan’s metaphor for the terrible mutating power of Hiroshima. The new, Americanized version goes after the great monster with the same military technology that dropped the bomb. And in this telling, Hiroshima isn’t even the cause — the culprit, it turns out, is France’s nuclear testing. Blame it on the French! The ironies and idiocies swirl together in a bland soup that, for some viewers, may taste like entertainment. Others may find it tasteless in both senses of the word.