Nobody Beats the Liz

Did the filmmakers responsible for the sodden Godzilla – Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich – lack confidence in their own animation techniques? Were they afraid to put their computerized beast out there in the open daylight, as Steven Spielberg did with his brontosaurus and his raptors in Jurassic Park? It certainly looks that way. Long stretches of Godzilla were shot in slate-gray light with buckets of water miserably coming down on everyone’s head, or in dark underground tunnels, or in a dim mock-up of Madison Square Garden. Godzilla is not a fiasco like Waterworld or The Postman; it is not an insult to the audience like The Last Action Hero, Starship Troopers, or Batman and Robin. Within its dreary wastes, there are a few scares, a few thrills. But the movie is soggy, murky, and depressing – a joyless and redundant experience that leaves one in a ghastly mood. It turns out that spending two hours watching a movie shot in a wet, dreary New York is not all that different from spending two hours walking around in the actual wet, dreary New York. It’s true that in Godzilla, a rather large creature shows up now and then, but you can’t always see more than a part of him (an enormous foot, the tail), and when you do, he’s half in darkness. The star of the movie isn’t quite there. And no one else is there, either.

Most of the fun is gathered into the first few minutes. Somewhere in the Pacific, in the middle of a nighttime storm, a Japanese trawler is attacked, its side smashed in by a gigantic scaly something. Later, there’s a good Spielbergian scene in which an old bum sits at the end of a rain-soaked pier in New York and hooks a very big fish indeed. As he runs back to land, the planks of the pier go flying up in the air as if propelled by an explosion. Something’s definitely coming. But even by this time in the movie – still very early on – you may begin to feel dismayed by the gray-black coloring. What, after all, is the expressive meaning of the endless downpour? The darkness and wet do not convey a necessary mood, as they did in those drenched noir thrillers of the forties that featured characters locked into neurotic or will-driven states of mind. I believe you can fight a 200-foot lizard in almost any kind of weather.

The practical reason for the shrouded imagery, I assume, is that it covers the seams – the places where the computer-generated monster is joined to the real-world backgrounds. Some of us may feel, however, that we’ve been cheated more than a little. At first, Devlin and Emmerich tease us by showing the monster only in parts; there is a good moment when Hank Azaria, as a daredevil local-TV cameraman, is so paralyzed by a combination of bravado and fear that he forgets to get out of the way and almost gets squished outside Grand Central Terminal by a taxi-crushing foot. But there isn’t one great stunning moment when we see Godzilla clearly in all his glory. As the monster runs through streets, tossing automobiles, gouging skyscrapers with his swinging tail, the camera races after him, sometimes from the point of view of helicopters flying through the stone canyons in pursuit. Such imagery is thrilling at first, but when it’s repeated again and again, we begin to notice that the shots have the glib, too-easy virtuosity of an advanced video game. In movies, computer-generated animation may be a double-edged sword: You can do anything with it, but if you leave plausible, photographed reality too far behind, the thrill evaporates instantly. As a pop experience – and I can’t imagine any other way of experiencing it – the movie is turgid and only occasionally exciting.

The depressingness extends to the characters and actors. Matthew Broderick, as a serious young scientist summoned straight from Chernobyl, talks very deliberately and just seems sweet and out of it, as if he had no real sense of what was going on. Maria Pitillo, from the TV series House Rules, plays an ambitious young woman stuck in her low-status job as assistant to a pompous local-news anchorman; Pitillo, it turns out, once had a fling with Broderick and has always longed for him. But Maria Pitillo has an empty space in her eyes and a tinge of unredeemed ordinariness in her manner. Who cares whether she gets back together with Broderick or goes on the air as a reporter? Framing the disaster with local-news reports is just obtuse and banal in the most movieish way. The script has a tired, halfhearted sound to it, as if it had been intentionally simplified for the meanest intelligence in Bangkok.

The festive Independence Day was not my kind of movie, but in that one, at least, Emmerich and Devlin seemed shrewd. Now I’m not so sure. They allow such talented actors as Michael Lerner and Kevin Dunn (playing, respectively, the mayor and a lizard-fighting Army colonel) to shout and carry on like second-raters in a sitcom. No one in the movie has any authority or stature. And there’s no suffering, no terror – no blood, no bodies. The monster rampages without, apparently, hurting anyone. All of this can be justified (and doubtless will be justified) as intentionally schlocky and antiseptic, but mediocrity is finally just mediocrity. As a director, Emmerich doesn’t have the kind of tactile and sensuous style that makes a monster movie an alarming experience of the dangerous and the deformed.

The original Japanese Godzilla, from 1954, was made in the wake of American H-bomb tests in the Pacific, and fed into queasy memories of America’s nuclear attacks on Japan; the monster, which was produced by genetic mutation, could be seen as an emanation of nuclear paranoia. The Japanese masochistically turned Godzilla loose on Tokyo, not on New York (they may have been too afraid of Americans to create a revenge fantasy). In the new Godzilla, however, the mutations occur after French nuclear testing in the Pacific. When the beast attacks New York, we’re told that he likes the city because there are plenty of places to hide there, which is nonsense. Why didn’t Godzilla head for the Eiffel Tower? The political and “allegorical” sides of the pop epic have been trashed by commercial calculation. New York has been chosen for its box-office qualities, and so has the French action star Jean Reno, who turns up to protect France’s honor (i.e., to nail down the European market).

This boring, meaningless corporate product is opening on 7,363 American screens and may push some good movies into the gutter. If we accept this situation as normal, then Godzilla – however trivial in itself – will have done our damaged movie culture some further harm.

Nobody Beats the Liz