Screenplay : Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich (based on the character Godzilla, owned and created by the Toho Company Ltd.)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Matthew Broderick (Dr. Niko Tatopoulos), Jean Reno (Philippe Roache), Maria Pitillo (Audrey Timmonds), Hank Azaria (Victor "Animal" Palotti), Kevin Dunn (Colonel Hicks), Michael Lerner (Mayor Ebert), Harry Shearer (Charles Caiman), Arabella Field (Lucy Palotti), Vicki Lewis (Dr. Elsie Chapman)
More than forty years and some two-dozen movies after he first raised his huge reptilian head in the 1954 Japanese monster flick "Gojira," Godzilla is back, courtesy of the director / producer team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the sci-fi twosome that last blew theater speakers out with massive alien destruction in "Independence Day" (1996). Leaner, meaner, faster, and sleeker, this late 90's reinterpretation of the normally dumpy, rubbery monster is certainly a sight to behold, although his sheer size is almost too overwhelming.
Even though his earlier incarnations were laughably fake, the Godzilla of the original Japanese movie had personality. In fact, audiences took such a liking to him, that most of his later films switched him to the role of the good guy, where instead of destroying Tokyo for mean-spirited purposes, he did it in the services of saving the city folk from other monsters far more fearsome.
Devlin and Emmerich's Godzilla is no such creature. The result of French nuclear testing in the South Pacific, he's a bad-to-the-bone animalistic aberration of nature who rampages through New York City not once, not twice, but three times, laying to waste such landmarks as the Chrysler Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Madison Square Garden. And, whatever Godzilla doesn't destroy, the U.S. Army does in its often ill-fated attempts to kill him.
Much has been made about what Godzilla looks like. The advertisements, which have been running for a year now, purposely kept his physical look a secret (I already knew what he looked like before I saw the movie, not because I have inside connections, but because I saw a toy replica on the rack in a grocery store several days ago -- so much for the big unveiling). The new Godzilla, which is brought completely to life by impeccable digital imagery, looks like a combination of a really big T-Rex and the Rancor from "Return of the Jedi." Square-headed and very nimble, he's so large the camera can rarely contain his entirety in one shot.
The script, more or less written by Devlin and Emmerich, is nothing but a thin rack on which to hang the non-stop orgy of destruction. In the leads, the screenplay offers us two thoroughly blasé characters portrayed by Matthew Broderick and Maria Pitillo, both of whom act so chipper and wide-eyed in their amazement that they become the film's chief liability.
Broderick plays Dr. Niko Tatopoulos, and before you ask, "where the hell did they come up with that clumsy name," it was borrowed from Patrick Tatopoulos, the designer of the new Godzilla. Broderick is a scientist working for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission by studying the growth effects of the Chernobyl accident on earth worms. Pitillo plays Audrey Timmonds, Broderick's ex-college sweetheart, now an aspiring TV newscaster (aren't they all in the movies these days?)
The screenplay also throws in a lot of incompetent military personnel, Jean Reno ("The Professional," "Mission: Impossible") as a charismatic French secret service agent, and Michael Lerner as the obnoxious Mayor Ebert, who is most likely an unsubtle stab at movie critic Roger Ebert (Lerner is even seen briefly in an election advertisement poster with the patented "thumbs up"). One of the more likable characters is Victor "Animal" Palotti (Hank Azaria), a gung-ho TV cameraman who has more personality that Broderick and Pitillo combined.
However, any and all of these characters function as little more than human ants constantly running from Godzilla's carnage. And what carnage it is. Starting with an early attack on a large Japanese ship, Godzilla proceeds to pull a fleet of three American fishing boats under the sea, before exploding out of the Hudson River and demolishing most of New York. For those who don't particularly care for the Big Apple, watching it get tossed and bashed by the giant lizard is a vicarious treat for the first fifteen minutes. But destruction without real emotional implication gets tiresome after a while, which is all that fills most of "Godzilla's" overlong running time.
About two-thirds of the way through the movie, Emmerich suddenly switches gears and develops a long sequence inside the ruins of Madison Square Garden that is almost worthy of the hype surrounding "Godzilla." Ironically, the scene doesn't include the titular big guy, but rather 200 snapping offspring. It turns out the Godzilla has some amazing reproductive capabilities, and he decided to make the Knicks' home court into his personal nest.
Broderick and Co. arrive on the scene just in time for all the eggs to hatch, releasing some 200 nine-foot Godzilla clones that look, move, and sound almost exactly like the velociraptors in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park" (1993). The chase inside the Garden plays like a combination of the scenes in the visitor's center in "Jurassic Park" and queen's nest sequence in James Cameron's "Aliens" (1986). It's tribute to the superiority of those films over this one that "Godzilla's" best scenes are almost directly stolen from them.
But, even if it isn't particularly original, it is still extraordinarily effective. The baby Godzillas exude real menace, and the entire sequence inside Madison Square Garden is suspenseful, creatively staged, and creates a palpable sense of danger -- basically everything that had been missing from the first half of the film.
©1998 James Kendrick