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Roland Emmerich's 2012 will be in theaters by the time this review comes out, so it makes sense for Sony to release a Blu-ray release of 1998's Godzilla, a huge, loud monster movie of the kind not made outside Japan for forty years. Emmerich and producer Dean Devlin's big budget remake of the 1954 Toho original was an enormous prepublicity success story, starting with a series of popular teaser trailers, each more outrageous than the next. One teaser satirized a scene from Jaws by showing a Manhattan fisherman fleeing down a long pier when he hooks onto the "really big one". The ad was so successful, it was incorporated into the film itself.
The bubble burst on premiere night. America was primed for something new, exciting and original. Nobody paid any attention to the fact that Emmerich and Devlin's previous films were silly retreads of the oldest ideas in the Science Fiction playbook. Not only isn't Godzilla a genre-exploding milestone like The Exorcist, for mainstream audiences it's a fairly pointless exercise. What America got is an expensive spin on the 1950s giant-lizard-on-the-loose epics long since relegated to the video bargain bins. Noisy and frantic, it has some amusing actors and altogether too many inside jokes. Patrons coming out of the theater felt vaguely embarrassed: This is not the next big thing .... this is silly.
Godzilla is a case of oversell but also an example of mob psychology. Once the movie was on screen viewers seduced by the advertising woke up as if from a hypnotic trance. Bad word of mouth started on opening night and the critics closed in for the kill. After marketing costs, the $130 million dollar movie never came close to breaking even.
Emmerich and Devlin embraced the project after Sony had spent several years working with other directors. Their human story is a generic romance between a researcher and his ex-girlfriend: Boy discovers monster, Boy finds old girlfriend, boy loses monster, girlfriend exploits boy, boy re-finds monster and girlfriend, kills one and kisses the other. The monster plot has almost nothing to do with the fire-breathing Ishiro Honda classic, being actually more of a remake of the Harryhausen movie The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Mutated from tropical lizards by nuclear testing, the monster heads for New York City, sinking fishing boats on the way. The Army hunts the monster in Manhattan's maze of skyscrapers. Like Harryhausen's Rhedosaurus, it's finally cornered in a spectacular finale, literally tangled up in a famous New York landmark.
Roland Emmerich reportedly jettisoned all previous script drafts and took off in his own direction for Godzilla. Unassuming scientist hero Nick Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick) is joined by a gung-ho news cameraman (Hank Azaria) and a French intelligence agent (Jean Reno), who runs a secret paramilitary army in the middle of Manhattan. Nick's romantic interest is Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), a news reporter made the victim of sex discrimination by her chauvinst boss Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer). Audrey and Niko's petty career problems provide story distractions from the giant predator's progress.
The film's monster content is a collection of strange decisions. Sony had planned to stick with a monster similar to Toho's bulky colossus, but Emmerich opted for an ungainly CGI dinosaur design with a pronounced anthropomorphic shape. Although described as a patchwork of inspirations, it would seem to be modeled after the last previous original movie monster superstar, Ridley Scott's 1979 Alien. The new Godzilla is skinny and has human qualities in its legs, arms and torso. Its long tail, spidery claws are reminiscent of the space insect, and its jutting jaw copies the Alien's profile as well.
The re-design displeased fans of the old Godzilla. To them "Big G" is a personality, not just a brute beast. The classic Godzilla has been benign and even comic, but he always had a cantankerous mean streak as wide as his footprints. The new monster is a big lizard with survival instincts and little else. He can't really symbolize much beyond nature on the rampage. If anything, he's the victim of human Atomic meddling (although the movie takes pains to exonerate America from culpability).
The screenplay seems to be working out a grudge against France. Irresponsible French atomic testing raises the monster from the deeps, with no mention made of decades of American tests in Pacific waters with proven negative ecological effects. Our Army officers are dopes that make mistakes in the open, while the sneaky French violate diplomatic agreements by operating an illegal spy network right on our doorstep. Star Jean Reno seems to be extending his assassin character in Leon, the Professional and he's set up as a sort-of good guy, but in a very roundabout way. Considering that American anti-French grumbling got into high gear only after 9/11, is Godzilla an example of "premature anti-Gallicism?"
The script also takes cheap shots at government and military officials, all of whom seem to be incompetent careerists. New York's bumbling Mayor and his aide are a silly lampoon of film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who dissed Emmerich's earlier pictures. The Ebert character is petty and has a sweet tooth. This running insult seems less of an in-joke than a sign of idea-challenged writers needing something to fill the slow gaps in a 2+ hour movie.
But Godzilla comes through with the spectacle when the monster touches down in The Big Apple. The grandiose scale of the destruction is undeniably impressive. Cars bounce with the impact of unseen footsteps; the monster glides through the narrow Manhattan canyons in giant strides. Skyscrapers topple and holes are left punched through buildings. The Army blasts at the monster from rooftops, just as in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. Godzilla can run at 50 mph and at one point makes an Olympian quarter-mile leap into the Hudson river. Preposterous in any physical sense, it's fun just the same -- these are the kinds of monster antics that thrill the twelve year-old boy in us.
Any self-respecting 50's monster movie would soon ring down the curtain before the excitement began to get stale. But thriller structure post- James Cameron requires at least forty minutes more of sudden-death overtime false climaxes. The cast pursues the monster through giant tunnels it has bored under the city. 1 A new threat is revealed when the clever Dr. Nick buys out a convenience store's supply of over-the-counter tests and determines that Godzilla is preggers. Like the nasty bug in Aliens, Mama G is soon hatching hundreds of toothy Baby G's in Madison Square Garden. Godzilla then mines a sidebar angle by imitating the popular Raptors from Spielberg's Jurassic Park. The pint-sized killers are good for laughs too, as when an elevator stop reveals a pack of Baby G's chomping down on giant bags of popcorn.
As in any Madap Manhattan Weekend, the action funnels down to a jolly crosstown chase scene. There's apparently nothing more durable than a New York taxicab when it comes to outracing Godzilla; as in a cartoon, the cab can escape even when it's practically halfway down the monster's giant throat. But both climaxes involve killing off the movie's fun monsters, which becomes Godzilla's final disappointment. Being infants, the hatchling dinos are deadly but cute. It's not fun seeing them incinerated with military weaponry. Because she's been established as trying to protect her young, the final cornering of Godzilla seems a cruel offense toward motherhood. Even Matthew Broderick, straining every "cute" gene he possesses, can't lighten the ending. The pro- lonesome animals sentiment that sheds a tear when King Kong bites the dust kicks in here. Big monster fans will flash back to the high point of the city-assault subgenre, 1961's Gorgo. The regal monster matriarch in that progressive tale rescues her offspring, stomps London flat and gives mankind a roaring razzing as she returns to the sea. This remake of Godzilla is certainly fun and exciting, but it's way behind the curve in its own genre. Like Emmerich's other hollow Sci-Fi films, the grandiose special effects are the whole show.
Now that the complaints and waiing have died down Sony's Blu-ray of Godzilla will find its audience, the core of fans that can relax and enjoy it for the exciting, dumb monster romp it is. One now sees hundreds of millions of dollars spent on exploitation groaners once produced for relative pennies. The few overworked technicians that made them have been replaced by hundreds of artisans working long hours at computer displays.
The HD transfer is up to Sony's high standard, adding very noticeable detail to the entire film, much of which is shot in rain or effected to simulate rain. The CGI effects are still open for criticism. Considering that the processes involved were more or less invented for Jurassic Park only five years earlier, I'm still very much impressed by the animation of the monsters and the overall effects design. The only time the illusion falls apart seems to be when Godzilla has a cut-out effect because his density contrasts slightly with the rest of the image around him. And many shots of the raptor-like Baby G's lack shadows or other visual clues to convice us that they're in contact with the floor.
The only effects that flat-out don't work are helicopters, and they're really a directorial failing. Emmerich's copters routinely fly in ridiculous numbers, in formations that resemble swarms of mosquitos. They chase the monster through the Manhattan maze, doing impossible flying between the buildings, when they could easily just blast him from high above, safe from his giant jaws. The infantile direction of these scenes belongs in a kiddie cartoon; it breaks the movie's tenuous grip on our imagination.
Effects supervisors Volker Engel and Karen Goulekas appear on the disc's only commentary. The only new film-related extra is a trivia game. Harry Shearer hosts an older publicity-oriented featurette that unfortunately has producer Dean Devlin boasting that he's done what the makers of the original Godzilla only wish they could have done. Devlin's flip references to the twin nuclear bombings of Japan also seem less than tasteful, given the context.
Other items are a promo montage for other Sony Godzilla films, some trailers and a promo for 2012. Older DVD special editions included the film's interesting teaser trailers and some effects demo comparisons, but they don't appear here.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Godzilla (1998) Blu-ray rates:
1. Wait a second: a giant lizard that digs enormous tunnels in just a few minutes? We don't want this thing dead, we want to hire it to dig a subway system for Los Angeles!
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2009 Savant Wish List. T'was Ever Thus.