Big and Stupid

Reviews of the latest films.
May 22 1998 3:30 AM

Big and Stupid

This Godzilla is too dumb to survive.

Godzilla
Directed by Roland Emmerich
TriStar Pictures

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What the new, monstrously budgeted Godzilla brings home is that size doesn't matter--that tacky crudeness harnessed to a real vision can have more brute power than all the state-of-the-art computer wizardry that Hollywood's money can buy. This time, the title titan is a devil-visaged lizard who convincingly wrecks Manhattan; lays a load of eggs that hatch velociraptor-like little (i.e., 9-foot) dinosaurs; and gets nailed on his way to Brooklyn by a coalition of scientists, the military, and the French secret service (don't ask). The movie, directed and co-written by Roland Emmerich, the Teutonic schlockmeister who awed (or stupefied) the world with Independence Day (1996), isn't entirely lame. The way the beast is finally snared has a certain architectural piquancy. And sequences of the great lizard winding among skyscrapers as if they're hedges in a lawn maze--his tail sheering off floors as it whips around corners--have been engineered with bravura. Otherwise, size really is about all that this tedious, underpopulated beanbag of an epic has going for it. Its brain remains disproportionately teensy.

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It's no big news that in the Japanese Godzilla (or Gojira), the creature (played by a guy in a rubber suit stomping around a miniature Tokyo) was a metaphor for the A-bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Even in the American edit, with Raymond Burr tacked on as a portentous reporter, the aura of mourning was palpable. Godzilla is the only cheesy disaster flick that feels as if it was made by people who'd actually lived through some kind of horrific devastation. And even after countless sequels of escalating silliness--in which the monster became Japan's savior, battling other mutant reptiles and space aliens and rescuing Japanese boys who'd call out (in laughably dubbed English): "Thanks, Godzilla! Come back soon!"--Godzilla retained a nuclear-haunted nobility.

I'm not just endorsing retro-chic when I say that the guy in the rubber suit is more fun. For my money, he's also scarier. I don't want an anatomically correct Godzilla. The original Godzilla is a dragon, a mythical destroyer who's close in spirit to the Jewish legend of the Golem--the colossal, indestructible clay man summoned up out of all the dark forces of this world who can't be destroyed by any of this world's weapons. The Godzilla who lumbers through a metropolis on two legs, erect, slowly crushing cars and knocking over buildings, robotically training his radioactive breath on anything and everything he sees, is a mythical vision of Armageddon.

The new, down-to-earth Godzilla is much closer to the tyrannosaurus of Jurassic Park and to American giant-monster pictures such as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. He's almost never erect--he stoops to incinerate. He's supposed to be smart. He can out-swim torpedoes and dodge heat-seeking missiles (which take out the Chrysler Building, among other man-made wonders). And just when people say, "Whew! I think I lost him!" he pops out from some cunning hiding place and gobbles them down. So why does he still strike me as a less than formidable opponent? Well, any forefather (and, given his reproductive capacities, foremother) of a new species that chooses to travel halfway around the globe to lay his eggs in the middle of Manhattan doesn't seem built to survive, evolutionarily speaking.

Emmerich cribs his basic suspense techniques (the low-angle camera riding in on open-mouthed spectators) from Spielberg's Jaws and Jurassic Park, his egg imagery from Alien, his marauding baby dinosaurs from Gremlins, and a scene of the U.S. Army striding through some South Seas devastation from Apocalypse Now. What's uniquely his own is the way the havoc periodically grinds to a halt to make room for "relationship" scenes, in which the characters maintain a soap-opera obliviousness to everything (crumbling skyscrapers, fire-breathing beasts) but their feelings.

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Oh yes, there are human characters, sort of. Matthew Broderick, that charmingly worried wise guy, plays an expert in radioactive genetic mutations. He stays heroically credible even as the film grows insanely incredible, as when he has to pretend to outrun the rampaging 30-story Godzilla for half the length of Manhattan island in a tiny yellow cab. The other performances are as crude as the writing, although Hank Azaria brings terrific bonhomie to the part of a daredevil TV cameraman, and the brilliant Harry Shearer doesn't entirely disgrace himself as a pompous anchorman. As a member of Broderick's team, the spiky, forward redhead Vicki Lewis could have walked off with the picture if she hadn't been brushed aside in favor of a dumb blond aspiring TV reporter, played by Maria Pitillo--a sitcom actress who can't utter a line without the left side of her mouth curling up in Valley Girl incredulity or down in Valley Girl petulance. Contrary to what you might have read (or awaited hopefully), Mayor Ebert and his contentious aide, Siskel, do not get squashed.

Which brings me to another well-known critic: Aristotle, who, at the dawn of Western drama, deemed spectacle the medium's least important component. It's true that cinema is a less cerebral form, and that much of what Aristotle considered a thrilling night out would make us commit suicide out of boredom. But if, as a filmmaker, you're going to make spectacle the top priority, you'd better show us stuff we've never seen before. You'd better keep those miracles coming, or we're apt to grow nostalgic rather quickly for the days of spaceships on wires and monsters in rubber suits.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.