Though it may seem downright laughable to suggest it, Peter Jackson's King Kong has a great deal in common with Roland Emmerich's Godzilla. Both films were the direct result of previous blockbuster efforts. Jackson parlayed his Lord of the Rings films into the chance to take on the cinematic character that lead him into moviemaking. Similarly, Emmerich had just delivered the dynamite popcorn flick Independence Day, it's ironic take on the '70s disaster epic accented with superb special effects. Each was a highly anticipated –and dismissed – remake of a classic movie monster, and each had a vocal fanbase foaming over every artistic decision.
In the end, Godzilla bombed, but only in the way the Hollywood hype machine can configure it. The movie was lambasted by critics and flagged a failure, even after worldwide box office receipts leapt past $350 million. Kong, while doing similar substandard business (that's what they're calling $500 million-plus, worldwide nowadays), is a timeless classic of auteur filmmaking a triumphant addition to the Jackson canon, no matter what the naysayers want to believe. How did one giant creature film flop, while another sailed on toward an uneasy date with destiny? Some of the clues can be found in the new Monster Edition DVD release of the berated big lizard flick.
When the French government tests a nuclear device off Polynesia in the Pacific Ocean, a strange mutation is born. As it lumbers across the ocean toward North America, some strange things start happening. A cannery ship is attacked and scuttled, the crew all dead except for one terrified eye witness. In South America, a large set of footprints is found cutting across the landscape. When the US gets wind of this event, they call for their expert, a member of the nuclear regulatory commission's scientific staff named Niko Tatopoulos to provide some answers. Seeing correlations to his work at Chernobyl, Nick quickly determines that radiation has caused a giant lizard to be born, and it appears to be headed to New York. Sure enough, an oversized amphibian lands in the Big Apple, making life miserable for the usually nonplused citizenry. Among the freak out folk is Nick's old girlfriend, wannabe news reporter Audrey Timmonds. Desperate for her big break, she suddenly finds herself in the middle of a major citywide crisis. Together with some suspicious French "insurance agents" and the full faith and credit of the US Army, Nick and Audrey have to stop the mighty monster from building its nest – and laying a horde of horrible creatures to be.
If King Kong is the gold standard on how to remake a classic monster movie from cinema's past (though there is a loud and vocal contingent who would definitely disagree), then Godzilla is the very definition of how to screw it up. Not that this is a bad movie, it's just a terribly misguided and messy one. Someone in authority should have realized that handing Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich carte blanché was a lot like giving a chainsaw to a chimpanzee; when they finally learn how to use it, somebody is gonna get hurt. That's exactly what happened here. Bad casting decisions, stupid inside jokes, a ludicrous love affair with precipitation and a number of narrative flaws more or less destined the project to total and utter failure. While the original Toho terror and his multiple sequel showdowns with plastic protagonists of varying levels of laughability was no example of realism, at least the Japanese honored their unlikeliest of heroes every time he took on another foe. For Devlin and Emmerich, the giant lizard was a gimmick, just a vehicle to mesh some of Jurassic Park's dollar producing dino-damage to the apocalyptic city destroying dynamic this combo had previously perfected in ID4.
On paper, it seemed like a surefire idea. Since CGI had made major strides in the years since Gojira tore up the Tokyo landscape, no one could doubt the amphibian's ability to kick more kaiju butt. Yet when he was finally realized, the newfangled Godzilla looked like a komodo dragon with TMJ. Indeed, the first major flaw in Godzilla is the title terror himself. An asexually reproducing reptile that walked like a raptor and bumped into every building in downtown Manhattan, this version of the nasty newt was more or less a wasted opportunity. Unlike Kong, who more or less rocks his Depression Big Apple attack, Godzilla stumbles about, bares his mandibles, and looks for a place to lay his eggs. Not really the skyscraper destroying menace we've all come to know and love. In fact, the Army (admittedly) does more damage to the city that never sleeps than our oversized maternity case. And every confrontation with Godzilla is the same – the troops set up, everyone waits around, Godzilla arrives, various elements of the industrial war machine make their usefulness known, Godzilla disappears into the vast underground caverns that NYC is known for. Sure, the underwater fight has a nice Hunt for Red October feel, and the final battle on the Brooklyn Bridge is neat, but the direction often ruins a sequence with ridiculously conceived action cop outs (the cab in the monster's mouth, for instance).
Indeed, another major flaw in this film is the incessant need for Devlin and Emmerich to air their dithering dirty laundry in public. Obviously angry that many critics hated their previous alien apocalypse film, they turn the mayor of New York and his campaign/personal assistant into a non-too subtle stab at the then movie partnership of Roger Ebert and (the late) Gene Siskel. But instead of burying the reference in something subtle, the filmmakers come right out and give the characters the critics' names. They even employ the "thumbs up/thumbs down" trademark and pick on Roger's rotund physique. And since Michael Lerner is still stuck in his blithering Barton Fink mode, we don't get any insight into the joke. It remains completely private, and fails as farce or as satire. Similarly, there's the odd enlistment of some of The Simpsons cast. Hank Azaria and Harry Shearer appear in major roles, and if you look closely, you can see the voice of bad boy Bart – Nancy Cartwright – as Caiman's secretary. The placement of such potent comedic talent in your monster movie means you must be striving for some kind of internal irony, as if the audience is supposed to respond to the sighting by saying "Look, it's APU!" It is, however, a badly drawn dynamic. It doesn't pay off, and since Shearer is only given a single character nod – read: slimeball – there is no need for his, or anyone else's, specialized satiric skills.
Frankly, all the casting here sucks. What convinced Devlin and Emmerich that theater threat Matthew Broderick would make a good action lead is truly lost on this critic. Broderick is a fine actor, but he is woefully miscast, often looking as clueless as the choice to make him the star. Even worse, he is saddled with one of those joke names that really never produces significant laughs. The Greek population must have been happy to hear their language mangled and dismissed so. As the lead love interest, Maria Pitillo is pretty and perky, all mousy cute in her overly curly hair. But what, exactly, are we supposed to make of her character. A total flake, she originally left Broderick for a shot at the big time. Yet when she has the chance to win him back, she steals his Top Secret videotape for her own selfish gains. We are supposed to root for her, to see her finally find her place among the journalistic elite in the Big Apple. But since Pitillo.constantly comes across as a sorority girl who forget to get a date for the Sadie Hawkins Dance, we never believe in her power to persevere. About the only good casting is Jean Reno, as a French Secret Service agent with a pleasant distaste for the "Amurican" way of doing things. He seems sort of lost in the action set pieces, but he does provide a great gravitas that Broderick can never evr produce.
Naturally, the question then becomes, is there anything to enjoy here. The answer, honestly, is yes. Some of the special effects are very well done (though why New York is lost in a persistent down-pouring of rain is a question someone, someday, needs to address) and there is a nice bit of tension built during the Madison Square Garden/car chase finale. And if you can ignore all the logistical lapses (why would helicopters fly FORWARD to escape a ground-bound Godzilla? Wouldn't UP be a better tactic?), you'll enjoy almost all the beast battles. While the set up falls short in the character development department, at least our creature shows up at the 30 minute mark. Still, this is an overdone film, loaded with too many loose ends to properly position itself as a satisfying thriller. It is also proof that some directors never need to be given everything they want. When graced with the cinematic candy box, Peter Jackson made the most of the moist sweet treats inside. Devlin and Emmerich, however, used the collection of confections to purge personal demons and experiment with the parameters of character casting. Some could argue that Kong employed a similar sense of self-satisfaction. But where Jackson remembered why movies are magic, our wannabe auteurs just goofed around and giggled like school children. Godzilla is a mess, and no amount of hindsight can straighten out its lockstep stupidity.
Got five bucks hanging around in your pocket? Walk over to the local Wal-Mart and pick up the bargain bin version of this disc. It's usually buried under a hundred other hopeless titles, but if you're lucky enough to unearth one, you'll find the same tech specs as you get on this DVD redo. The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent, very colorful and loaded with details. It's so clear in spots that you can see the skin mapping on Godzilla's CGI legs. Since most of this movie plays out at night, there is a real fear of scenes becoming awash in darkness. Thankfully, that never happens.
As with the previous DVD, we are treated to a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that really gives the subwoofer a workout. Our guy Gojira really does a lot of citywide stamping, and those oversized footsteps really give the channels a challenge.
Here's what's new on this new Monster Edition release of the film:
(1) All time best Godzilla fight scenes – a 10 minute infomercial for other Godzilla titles available from Sony. We get snippets of bad-ass Japanese monster mania, masked both top and bottom by a very intrusive artsy fartsy border. While the highlights are fun, the presentation is pathetic.
(2) Three Episodes of the Godzilla animated series – from the "Gamera is friend of children" school of monster movie making comes this lame animated action series. The episodes offered are nothing special and very dumb.
(3) Production Art Gallery – OOOOO, just what we've always wanted: more pictures of how artists envisioned the film. Yea!
As for the rest? It's everything that was found originally on the 1998 DVD. Same lame ass special effects commentary (talk about dull and uneventful); same EPK promotional featurette; same music video for the "One Headlight" hit wonders the Wallflowers (screwing up David Bowie's "Heroes" of all things); same selection of publicity stills and before and after NYC photos. If this is the kind of added content you think makes up a valid re-release, by all means, run right out to your local B&M and pick up a copy, pronto. If, on the other hand, you believe this is much ado about nothing, grab your fin and head down to Sam Walton's world. You'll be getting virtually the same thing for a whole lot less.
Instead of slamming King Kong for being less than an amazing masterpiece of Peter Jackson-esque proportions, you should really check out Godzilla to see how bad this kind of movie can really be. Chock full of flaws that never give the viewer a moment to rest, this is definitely a Rent It experience from beginning to end. If, after watching it, you actually enjoyed what you saw, then it's time to make a decision about ownership. For this critic, there is enough goofy grandstanding to warrant a cheaply purchased copy for his own personal collection. But laying out $20 for a Monster Edition that offers very little in the way of added content is not necessarily the way to go. Maybe, someday, someone will come along and give this kaiju character the proper motion picture update that he deserves. Until then, we are stuck with this subpar stab at bringing the giant lizard to post-modern life. Love it or loath it, King Kong is the Mona Lisa compared to this strange combination of moviemaking missteps. Godzilla is truly groan-inducing, as much for what it gets right as for the many ways it belittles the big guy.
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