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movie review by
Gary Johnson

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His claws are capable of ripping through the steel hulls of ships. His fiery breath scatters cars in his path. His huge jaws can crush cars whole. This is one mean hombre, right? But even with a notorious scene stealer such as Godzilla on hand ("It's pronounced go-JEE-ra!" yells a news reporter in one of movie's funniest bits of dialogue, in recognition of the original Japanese pronunciation of the creature's name), filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin, the team responsible for Independence Day, haven't completely forgotten about things such as characterization. While Godzilla stomps his way from the South Pacific to New York City ("because he can hide there!" we're supposed to believe), we still get small-scale personal scenes with the movie's cast of characters, including Matthew Broderick as a biologist, Maria Pitillo as a news reporter (who used to be Broderick's girlfriend), Hank Azaria as a newscast cameraman, and Harry Shearer as a pompous news anchorman.

This is part of the formula: provide a pat background for each character. And while normally I might argue that characterization is good, well, this is a goddamned Godzilla movie! The people are totally irrelevant. This is a movie named after a giant monster! It's not about a biologist getting back together again with his old girlfriend. But the filmmakers toy with that idea, even while Godzilla is crashing through the streets of Manhattan and burrowing into tunnels beneath the city. Emmerich and Devlin have taken the same approach that they used for Independence Day, where they gave us quick background sketches on each character before the aliens arrived and the White House exploded. But even in Independence Day the filmmakers had the good instincts to keep the story on the invasion after it began. Godzilla alternates scenes with a 30-stories tall monster smashing holes in skyscrapers with scenes where the sparks start flying again between Broderick and Pitillo. As a result, Godzilla himself isn't a particularly scary creation--because we know the movie's light tone means love will prevail and New York City will survive, maybe a little worse for the wear, but it'll survive just the same.

In the original Japanese version of this story, made back in the 1954 when the horrors of Hiroshima were still vivid in the minds of Japanese moviegoers, the future looked quite dim when Godzilla appeared. Godzilla was a devastating force of unimaginable ferocity. In this new Godzilla, the creature is just a big lizard, much more like the giant lizards that masquerade as dinosaurs in movies such as One Million B.C. than his progenitor from Toho Studios in Japan. The credits sequence of this new Godzilla even spells out the monster's genesis in patently obvious terms: he came from iguana eggs that were radiated by nuclear test fallout. That's that. As with so much of the rest of this movie, there is little mystery associated with Godzilla because the comedy plot structure serves as a safety valve and relieves all the stress and tension.

Not until well into the movie, when Broderick and a team of French investigators (led by Jean Reno, who you might remember from The Professional and La Femme Nikita) scramble into the city against the wishes of the U.S. military and discover a treasure trove of monster eggs, does the movie finally come to life. Even then, however, the movie ends up ripping off the raptor scenes from Jurassic Park. Why stop with just a couple raptors when you can have hundreds? And later the movie rips off the scene from Jurassic Park where the tyrannosaurus rex chases an automobile. Of course, here we don't get just a few seconds of terror. We get about 10 minutes of pursuit (although one blast of Godzilla's fiery breath would have ended the chase after only a few seconds). That's the approach of Emmerich and Devlin: scale, scale, scale (and lots of stupidity). This brand of filmmaking confuses invention with multiplication. As a result, Godzilla is less of a big lizard than he is one big turkey.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

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