No doubt about it: “Godzilla” will be a killer at the box office during the early stages of its prodigiously wide release. The slam-bang excitement and state-of-the-art special effects are more than impressive enough to ensure every 12-year-old boy in the known universe will want to see it early and often. And millions of nostalgic baby-boomers will be drawn by the novelty of a new and improved version of the lizard who repeatedly razed Tokyo in B-movies of yesteryear. But even with all that going for it, “Godzilla” isn’t likely to post “Titanic”-size grosses, or even challenge the records set by “Independence Day,” the last high-concept sci-fi spectacle devised by director Roland Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin. Despite all the flash and filigree, this monster movie is curiously — and conspicuously — lacking in heart.
“Godzilla” is not so much a remake as a reinvention of the 1954 Japanese production that spawned scores of sequels, comic books and television commercials. (U.S. audiences are more familiar with the first pic’s 1956 Americanized version — “Godzilla, King of the Monsters” — which incorporated new footage with Raymond Burr as a reporter/narrator.)
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In the Emmerich-Devlin version, as in the original, the title creature is an unforeseen side effect of nuclear testing. The big difference is, this Godzilla is not a regenerated dinosaur. Rather, fallout from French nuclear blasts in the South Pacific have turned a lizard into a gigantic mutant monster.
Only tantalizing bits and pieces of the monster are glimpsed during the early portions of the pic, as screenwriters Devlin and Emmerich (working from a story they concocted with Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio) zip through exposition and introduce lead characters. After an effectively frightening Godzilla attack on a Japanese fishing ship, focus shifts to the Ukraine, where Dr. Niko Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), a biologist from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, is studying the effect of radiation leakage on earthworms near Chernobyl. A military team led by Colonel Hicks (Kevin Dunn) drops in to whisk Tatopoulos away to help with a much bigger problem.
Joined by paleontologists Elsie Chapman (Vicki Lewis) and Mendel Craven (Malcolm Danare), Tatopoulos and the military team examine, among other things, the beached wreckage of the Japanese vessel. The ship has a huge claw mark on its bow, but that’s not the worst of it. Tatopoulos finds traces of blood that, along with the creature’s footprints, point to the existence of “some sort of enormous reptile.”
Right from the start, Broderick conveys a gee-whiz ingenuousness that is distracting at best, insipid at worst. Broderick’s mannered affectations are either meant to humanize a thinly written character or simply provide comic relief. Either way, the performance as a whole comes off as a major miscalculation, to the point of making one miss the morose gravity of Burr in the earlier “Godzilla.”
In sharp contrast, Jean Reno takes a winningly subtle approach in offering a crafty mix of foreboding and bemusement as Philippe Roache, a French secret agent who’s working undercover as an insurance company representative. He, too, observes the wreckage, and also interviews the only crew member who survives the attack on the ship. During that interview, the traumatized survivor refers to the creature as a legendary sea serpent: Gojira. Eventually, of course, this name is bastardized into Godzilla.
Meanwhile, off the East Coast of the United States, fishing boats have their own close encounter with the lizard. By the time Tatopoulos and company get to Manhattan, the creature is ready to make his American debut at the Fulton Fish Market. From there, he rambles over to wreak havoc in the city’s financial district, just in time to interrupt a re-election campaign speech by the excitable Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner).
Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), an ambitious researcher for egotistical TV news anchor Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer), sees the Godzilla invasion as her big chance for professional advancement. Since she just happens to be the former girlfriend of Tatopoulos, she’s able to coax the still-smitten scientist into revealing more than he should about the creature.
Throughout “Godzilla,” New York endures the most sustained rainfall in all of movie history. Most of the action takes place at night, but even the daytime scenes unfold under darkly overcast skies, which, of course, makes it all the easier for Emmerich to obscure Godzilla’s features for the maximum amount of time to generate the maximum amount of suspense.
But when the creature is fully visible, it resembles nothing more than a hybrid of the mother beast from “Alien” and a T-Rex from “Jurassic Park.” Although the effect is striking, it’s not the familiar creature who often managed to earn audience sympathy, or at least develop a distinct personality. There’s something oddly generic-looking about this computer-generated image.
This slimmed-down, turbo-charged beast is able to move easier and lunge more quickly while dashing through the streets of Manhattan. But, then again, why should Godzilla have to dash? Part of what made the original “Godzilla” and its sequels so much fun was Godzilla’s bad-ass, take-no-guff attitude as he lumbered down streets, kicking over buildings and remaining defiantly immune to bullets, bombs and heat-seeking missiles. This Godzilla usually runs away from his attackers, causing most of his damage mostly by accident.
And where’s the fire? In all of “Godzilla,” the Gangsta Lizard breathes flame only twice, hardly enough to satisfy anyone familiar with the Godzilla mythos.
“Godzilla” features some serviceable monster mayhem on New York streets, and offers a nifty assault in Central Park. But the movie doesn’t really kick into high gear until Tatopoulos and Roache, along with Roache’s heavily armed French compatriots, make their way into the evacuated city after Godzilla’s apparent demise. They discover Godzilla has laid about 200 ready-to-hatch eggs in the bowels of Madison Square Garden.
There’s no getting around the fact that all the Godzilla offspring bear a suspicious resemblance to the “Jurassic Park” raptors. Just as in that lizard epic, the good guys — joined by TV cameraman Victor (Animal) Palotti (Hank Azaria) — race down hallways and crouch behind closed doors, pursued by the hungry creatures and the thrills and spills appear to be recycled from the climactic sequence of “Park.” But the sheer number of the creatures here, and the genuinely clever way Emmerich utilizes them, make for a high-octane adrenaline rush.
And the banal dialogue — particularly in scenes where Broderick and Pitillo try to sort out their relationship — is spiked with a few witty touches.
As soon as Lorry Goldman arrives as a bald-pated mayor’s aide named Gene, it’s clear that he and Mayor Ebert are in-jokey caricatures of two famous film critics. And just to make sure we don’t miss the gag, Goldman makes his exit by giving the mayor an angry thumbs-down.
Godzilla designer and supervisor Patrick Tatopoulos — whose name is commandeered for Broderick’s character — does a bang-up job of creating a lean , mean monster machine. But there is little that is charismatic about his handiwork. As a result, there is no emotional frisson at the very end, even when it’s obvious that the audience should share Broderick’s pang of sorrow for thefallen creature. Size does matter, of course, but some things matter more.
The soundtrack is also primed to produce sensory overload, as it is very loud , sometimes discomfortingly so, but the target audience likely would be surprised if it weren’t.
The door is left open — perhaps a bit too obviously — for a sequel.
“Godzilla” is dedicated to the memory of Tomoyuki Tanaka (1910-1997), producer of the original 1954 monster epic and its many sequels.