Before I get into today's mayhem, links to see to first. Norma had this post about looking at reviews for her novel, The Unicorn's Daughter. Mark writes at his page about powdered alcohol. It was Friday yesterday, and so Parsnip had Square Dog Friday.
Today then, the first of two reviews. With the new film out in theatres this weekend (review expected for Monday), I thought I'd look back at the 1998 disaster as a counterpoint.
"He's not some monster trying to evade you. He's just an animal. If you find what he wants, he'll come to you." ~ Nick
"Okay, party's over, time to leave. Anyone care to join me?" ~ Philippe
In 1998, Roland Emmerich directed the big budget American Godzilla, an over the top action thriller with the big beast from Japanese films redesigned (in a way that annoyed traditionalists) and attacking New York. The film was savaged by critics, and despite making a healthy box office at the time, no sequel was ever made, and the film's largely considered a failure. For good reason.
The original concept of Godzilla in the Japanese franchise was a response in the post-World War Two era to the trauma of nuclear bombs. The beast was tied to nuclear testing and was a reminder of the consequences of the cataclysmic power of the atom. It spawned sequels, with the gigantic lizard often pitted against other monsters. Most of those films featured men in rubber suits stomping on tiny model cities- special effects were, to say the least, minimal at best. Emmerich and his production partner Dean Devlin wrote the script after their success with Stargate and Independence Day.
The film opens with unexplained incidents at sea involving a mysterious force moving through the Pacific, attacking fishing trawlers and heading east. It's attracting the attention of the American military, who enlist a scientist, Niko "Nick" Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), who's been busy studying the effects of radiation on worms around Chernobyl. He meets Colonel Hicks (Kevin Dunn), the officer assigned to oversee the search, and Elsie Chapman (Vicki Lewis), the scientist in charge of the civilian side of things. And he quickly learns that there is something very large out there, something that for its own reasons has crossed Central America and seems to be swimming for the Eastern Seaboard (the reason being that New York City is a convenient place to get totally trashed by a gigantic monster). A French spy (Jean Reno) and his team are shadowing the search. And when the cranky giant lizard finally arrives in New York, the story brings in Nick's ex girlfriend Audrey (Maria Pitillo) and a local cameraman (Hank Azaria) nicknamed Animal. What ensues is mass destruction as the beast blasts his way through town and picks fights with the military.
Where to begin with what's wrong? Emmerich and Devlin's story a good place to start with ye olde proverbial laundry list of disasters. Logic is thrown out the window. It's overblown and silly, dedicating itself entirely to action at the cost of characterization. It lifts things without shame from much better films, like Jurassic Park and The Lost World (the baby Zillas are pretty much an attempt to capitalize on the frightening raptors of those films). It asks us to accept- as other versions have asked- that an animal this big would be walking around causing destruction, when in reality the sheer weight of the animal would collapse and destroy its lungs, killing it quickly (one of those leaps of logic). The film is something that we should be shutting off our brains while watching, but it's impossible. The inaccurate science, the stupidity of the story, and the disregard of logic make it all implausible. Godzilla is all about being over the top but having little substance. Characters are sketchily developed, leaving it in the hands of actors to make what they can of the roles; some succeed, others do not. The dialogue often comes across as juvenile.
The whole movie feels like it's drowning at times. For some reason the whole thing needed to be soaked in rain- to the point where the audience feels like they've been in a downpour. New York is rendered as a drenched hellhole (even before Big G starts going ballistic). When the critter (and his offspring) start running wild, this should be the point where the special effects kick in and start really shining (and distracting one from the weaknesses of the plot). That doesn't happen. Godzilla is inconsistent at times, mostly seen in flashes and in dim lighting (convenient to allow special effects to render him underwhelming). At times we're supposed to guess how big he is; that's the problem with the inconsistencies. He goes about totaling the city, picking fights with military forces, and being a really bad houseguest (this happens with giant monsters). While the destruction of the city is rendered well enough (with the destruction of Madison Square Garden in particular spectacular), the inconsistency of the special effects teams in regards to the beast and the hatchling monsters hurts the film as a whole. One element of the crew that's worth mentioning, however, is composer David Arnold. This is one of those movies that comes along where the music score is the only redeeming quality of the film (it happens more often than you might think). Arnold had worked with Emmerich and Devlin on Stargate and Independence Day before, and this was his last collaboration with them. As with the earlier work, his score was richly dark, thrilling, and magnificent- worlds better than the material of the film itself. At the time, Arnold was just starting out the beginning of a long run of James Bond scores, so he came out of this successfully.
The inconsistency extends to the cast, some of whom are better than the material deserves, some... well, who are not. Vicki Lewis is one of the former. She plays Elsie with a sardonic air, something of a smart aleck and cynic. She's underused, but even so, there's something of a spark between her and Nick- I find myself often wondering why they didn't go with that angle instead for a love interest. I've seen her in other work, and like what she's capable of. Kevin Dunn's an actor who deserves better than the material in question. He also turned up in Michael Bay's Transformers series, which would rate as another bad choice, but I've seen him in other films that give him better material- such as the sympathetic political operative in Dave. He's wasted here. Michael Lerner's another actor who should have known better, an interesting character actor who has to play the obnoxious local mayor (paired with one of his aides, the two characters are a direct lookalike insult to the late critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert). Harry Shearer, a comedian who's done a lot of respected work as a cast member of The Simpsons and as part of the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap is also wasted as a lecherous local television anchor. And Doug Savant- whose acting skills I can't really comment on one way or another, since I haven't seen him in anything else- spends much of the film looking confused as a military sergeant who's pretty much in charge of things on the ground as infantry runs around the city trying to track down the big cranky lizard.
The leads are also inconsistent. I'll start with the weaker side of things. I have not seen Maria Pitillo in anything else, so I can't comment on her qualities as an actress. I suspect, however, that the problems with her character are more of a reflection on the profound weaknesses of the script. Her Audrey is a whiny kind of daydreamer stuck in a rut, and yet also something of an opportunist willing to do something underhanded to get ahead. It's not a sympathetic character, and yet we're supposed to like her because she had a thing years ago with the lead character and neither of them quite got over it. Her colleague Victor (aka Animal) is another problem in the cast. Hank Azaria might just be playing Hank Azaria (from the other stuff I've seen him in, aside from his voice work in The Simpsons, he doesn't strike me as having much range), and he plays Victor as a sarcastic wiseass, and he comes across as pretty obnoxious. Is it that hard for a gigantic monster to stomp someone like this into paste? The other two leads are better than the material deserves. Jean Reno is a well respected French actor who, at this point in his career, had started branching out into American films as well. He plays the spy as a decisive leader, trying to fix a problem his country has inadvertently created. He's resourceful, pragmatic, and courageous, and he comes across as someone not to be trifled with. Matthew Broderick is similarly wasted in this film; he's capable of much better. He plays the role as a knowledgeable, curious fellow who follows evidence and hard data, making leaps of logic at times. He's exasperated by the fact that people keep mispronouncing his name, and more than one time in this disaster do we see Broderick with an expression that makes us wonder if he was thinking he made a mistake when he signed onto this disaster.
Godzilla, as envisioned by Emmerich and Devlin, is an exercise in stupidity that leaves the audience needing to leave their brain at the door. It's all spectacle and little substance that glosses over the deeper issues that made the original franchise relevant (otherwise who could find a guy in a rubber dinosaur suit interesting?), and wastes the talent of some good actors who should have known better. Yes, it has its moments, but generally speaking, it's a muddled mess.