The Big One

Pedestrian traffic: Godzilla is smaller than the sum of its parts.

Godzilla
area theaters

After months of teasing glimpses, it's time for the Full monster Monty. So, how big is the big guy? Hard to say, since you almost never see the whole hog. He's almost a subway-car's-length bigger than the original Japanese "Gojira," and more than twice as expensive (In adjusted 1995 dollars, the 1954 film cost over $65 million and still ranks as the most expensive movie made in Japan). Overall, this retooled package is long (140 minutes) and soggy (it rains the whole dim time) and surprisingly underwhelming.

Weenie jokes and tape measures aside, the first and the latest Godzilla perform a similar function. While the original testified to Japanese horror and humility in the wake of atomic holocaust, Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich's inflated version registers America's post-Cold War anxiety over its international stature, even as it advertises Hollywood's hubris for the world. Considering that appendage-augmentation surgery (length and girth) costs an average of $6,200 per penis, and Viagra $10 a pop, the $175 million Sony spent on producing and promoting this cash cow looks like a bargain, if it can pump up America's beleaguered manhood. That's one big if.

Just like its Japanese godfather, the 1998 model leaves American men shaking in their suits and combat boots, their high-tech weapons no match against the mutant lizard's primeval power. "We need bigger guns," a stunned soldier stammers. But while Godzilla himself might be bigger and badder, our hero (Matthew Broderick) is small and sensitive, a nuke-protesting, beret-wearing, tea-drinking biologist known as, ahem, "the worm guy." Aside from a quivery-lipped love interest (Maria Pitillo), Broderick's compatriots include a wily Frenchman (Jean Reno) and a nervous, stuttering Sergeant (Doug Savant, once known as Matt Fielding, Melrose Place's gay neighbor). Godzilla prefers men with a tender touch, less lug (à la Stallone and Willis) and more mensch. To top it off, the revamped reptile that bullies the U.S. military is an androgynous--yet fertile--monster, driven to destroy New York by nesting instinct, not martial payback. Call him Godzilla, Queen of the Monsters.

Rehabilitating American manhood also entails revising history. This version makes everybody but the U.S. responsible for nuclear devastation and the species mutation that follows. So France gets sole credit for irradiating the South Pacific (flashback 1954: the U.S. H-bombed Bikini Atoll), and we revisit Chernobyl but not Three-Mile Island. The French get their reputation restored, though, in the form of Elvis-loving Secret Service agent Phillipe Roache (Reno) and his amiable legionnaires who match wits with the baby Gs--though it's left to American grunts to finish the job (flashback: Vietnam?).

But Devlin and Emmerich are less concerned with fighting America's past wars than engaging in flippant cinematic skirmishes. Last summer, these ID4 guys took a $600,000 swipe at Jurassic Park when their big fella crushed an ossified T. rex to skeletal bits in a preview. Here, they prolong the studio one-upmanship by, among other things, sinking Das Boot and the Jaws vessel, spoofing Hollywood's own little boy and fat man, Siskel and Ebert, and letting looters raid the Warners and Disney stores. But the bravado of the boys with the most expensive toys far exceeds their performance--the tiny bugs in Microcosmos were more impressive and the camera work more astonishing--and the high-priced fireworks can't compensate for a perfunctory script. As wise fishermen might say, the size of the ship can't disguise that there's no motion in this ocean. Haven't we learned anything from Dr. Ruth?

Still, the last laugh may belong to the hucksters if their yearlong peep show proves titillating to enough viewers. With studio accountants increasingly designating trailers as fat line items on overblown marketing budgets, promotion threatens to surmount product. It's perhaps premature to pronounce the conquest of marketing over filmmaking--or maybe too late--but if the new Godzilla has its way, neither man nor his lousy reviews can stop this commercial creature and his spawn.

 
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