Having spent the year trapped under the foot of TriStar's massive promotional campaign, I felt like I'd already seen Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin's Godzilla when I sat down to watch it on its opening day. Turns out I had seen it, only the last time it was called Jurassic Park. During the movie's production, Emmerich and Devlin, who were the brains and brawn behind Independence Day, threw a veil of secrecy over the fire-breathing lizard they were concocting in the computer lab, apportioning us one body part at a time--eye, then foot. Now we know why: Their Godzilla is basically a T-rex with a pituitary problem, and its offspring are basically velociraptors. Why Emmerich and Devlin would want to poach on Spielberg's territory is beyond me. The movie isn't just pre-sold, it's pre-chewed.
A pity, because Godzilla is a multitalented performer who's carved out a sizable niche in our contemporary pop mythos (hence, his 1996 MTV Lifetime Achievement Award). If the sales of Godzillabilia are any indication, the big fella has always meant something to us, but it's a lot easier establishing that he means something to us than establishing what he means to us. Like any self-respecting cultural signifier, he shifts with the times. In '50s Japan, he embodied the threat of atomic annihilation, reducing Tokyo to the rubble of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Later, as post-war Japan got back on its feet, he became the best friend the Japanese ever had, defending them from even worse monsters in marathon tag-team wrestling matches. It was quite a transformation, comparable to the T-rex in Jurassic Park turning into Barney.
Consequently, Japanese kids love Godzilla, and so do American kids--used to, anyway. I never missed a Godzilla movie when I was growing up, despite 1) the flub-a-dub dubbing, 2) the long stretches when Godzilla was nowhere to be found and 3) the fact that Godzilla was obviously a guy in a Godzilla suit. I wouldn't have recognized the movies' anti-atomic subtext if it had blown up in my face, but I did recognize (and adore) the movies' esthetic of mass destruction--the beautiful way Godzilla stomped and chomped on everything and everybody. Born of "The Bomb," he was the missing link between prehistory and postwar history. For Americans of the '50s, watching Godzilla movies was a guilty pleasure--revenge, if more revenge were needed, for Pearl Harbor. But what if the Japanese behemoth were to pay New York City a visit?
That's about all Emmerich and Devlin's Godzilla has going for it in the way of originality--not a very original originality, when you consider that Godzilla already visited New York City in Destroy All Monsters. Not only does TriStar's creature feature fail to evolve past the 22 installments that Japan's Toho Studios has produced over the years, it devolves to the 1954 original (released here in the states, with the infamous Raymond Burr footage added, in 1956). Once again, nuclear tests in the South Pacific unleash the wrath of Mother Nature, except this time it's France doing the testing. (India must have blown the audition.) And, instead of razing Tokyo for the umpteenth time, Godzilla heads for the Big Apple. Why? Because he's pregnant, and New York City supposedly offers any number of places for a pregnant monster who's 20 stories tall to hide in.
Alas, this particular monster is 20 stories tall and one story short. The script, by Aladdin's Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, is almost devoid of ideas, and the ones it does have are as old and stale as Godzilla's breath. Matthew Broderick plays a scientist whose name everybody keeps mispronouncing. Maria Pitillo plays Broderick's former girlfriend Audrey, who wants to be a television reporter. And that's about it for character or story development. Independence Day wasn't exactly a Bergman film, but it had a number of deftly sketched characters--Bill Pullman's soulful president, Jeff Goldblum's brainy cable repairman, Will Smith's hearty fighter pilot. And there was a lot of humor. Godzilla's idea of humor is Broderick quipping, after a mountain of mackerel has been amassed to lure the beast out of hiding, "That's a lotta fish."
A lotta fish indeed, but it does bring on the beast, and the movie rouses from its slumbers whenever Godzilla's on-screen. Yet another triumph of computerized special effects, he barrels through Manhattan like a bull in a china shop, his footsteps setting off many earthquakes all over the island. Like two little boys playing with their toys, Emmerich and Devlin are masters at tearing things up, and they know how to create the impression of size. Still, size isn't mass; and Godzilla's Godzilla, despite roaring at the top of his Dolby-ized lungs, has the peculiar weightlessness of a computer-generated critter, even though Emmerich, who directed, is careful to shroud him in darkness and rain. At heart, he's a digitized muppet, and that's where a story and some characters might have come in handy: They help us suspend disbelief.
Without them, I found myself asking questions I wouldn't otherwise be asking, like "What are Godzilla's politics?" and "Where are his genitals?" I mean, it's wonderful that Godzilla stands 200 feet tall, but what does he stand for? That it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature? Again, "DUH." Japan's Godzilla movies contain a shadow history of the country's attempt to dig itself out from the wreckage of World War II, but what does TriStar's Godzilla tell us about ourselves other than...SIZE DOES MATTER? As I said, size has always mattered in the United States of Hollywood, and we tend to express size in terms of dollars. With its $120 million budget, its $100 million ad campaign, its $55 million opening "weekend" (I wish my weekends started on Tuesday), Godzilla is undeniably huge. But I suspect it's going to get smaller every day.