Sometimes a movie’s reputation precedes it. Even my son had heard that the 1998 version of “Godzilla” wasn’t very good . . . which is probably why he remarked halfway through, “It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.”
But critics be damned (present company excepted, of course), the test of a movie in our household is if people think they’d want to watch it again. Do we keep it, or do we give it away to make room on the shelves for better films? Both kids agreed: get rid of it. Which is to say that Roland Emmerich’s version of “Godzilla” was entertaining for an evening, but there were enough things wrong with it to prevent it from being a winner.
Just as the Chicago Bears have been floundering this year in part because of their quarterback’s league-leading 17 interceptions, you have to start with the lead player: Matthew Broderick. This is not the same Matthew Broderick who made us laugh in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” (1986) or who made us feel something deep inside us in “Glory” (1989). In “Godzilla,” Broderick is like the proverbial deer in headlights, finding it difficult to play an übernerd professor who rises to the occasion and behaves in heroic fashion. In too many scenes his acting seems like “Matthew Broderick’s Day Off.” He’s just not there, or he’s not on the same page as Emmerich and his co-writer and producer Dean Devlin. Emmerich fared much better in the Everyman department with Will Smith in “Independence Day” (1996). Whether it was Broderick’s idea or Emmerich’s, the way that Broderick’s character of Dr. Niko Tatopoulos is played seems WAY off. And that’s a major distraction.
So, at times, is the monster himself. Just as Broderick and the filmmakers don’t seem to be on the same page, neither are the CGI artists and animators. One minute Godzilla has ripped, human-shaped legs, while the next he looks more like a T-Rex mutation, and in still other scenes he comes closer to looking and moving like those marine iguanas we see in the film’s title sequence. It’s as if no one was working from the same model pages. Sometimes the monster looks convincing; other times it looks hokey and obviously computer-generated. The best-looking creatures are the Spawn of Godzilla, angry little rascals that mill around Madison Square Garden like basketball fans after a humiliating Knicks loss. In scenes that owe an unmistakable debt to “Jurassic Park” (1993), Emmerich & Co. have packs of mini-Godzillas chasing after the humans and trying to break into rooms where they’re hiding, just like those raptors of Steven Spielberg. And when the little monsters roar, the insides of their mouths look wonderfully real. So why didn’t they do a better job with the Big Guy? At times he looks more like Ray Harryhausen’s Ymir than he does the original Toho Godzilla.
Logic isn’t supposed to be a factor in thrill-rides like this, and both of my kids commented that it would make a good theme-park ride. But when the lead actor and monster give you pause, well, you also start noticing other things that you’d overlook in better thrill-rides like “Independence Day.” Like, if nerdy Dr. Niko has been doing a three-year study of Chernobyl earthworms and he’s in a field that’s been roped off to the public, harvesting worms that have grown “17 percent larger” because of radiation, why isn’t he wearing anything protective? No one is in this film, and it doesn’t make sense. It’s also illogical that Dr. Niko buys human pregnancy tests in order to check if a giant reptile is pregnant (do we really have the same hormonal make-up?), and equally silly that he buys a disposable camera and shoots away in the dark, apparently expecting the pictures to turn out. What’s more laughable is that Godzilla rears back at the flash from this little cardboard camera, though Dr. Niko is some 40 feet away and the camera’s flash is only good for around eight feet. But see, these are the things you start to notice once a film breaks down its own wall of illusion.
Jean Reno plays a cleaner again, this time as super-secret military man Phillipe Roaché, who manages to sneak into the U.S. with a team of French guerillas to try to seek out Godzilla’s nest and atone for the French nuclear test in the South Pacific that gave rise to the creature. So, why must their operation be so clandestine and apart from the American military, and why can’t mayor of New York (Michael Lerner) get his Rudy Giuliani moment? And what’s up with a female scientist (Vicki Lewis as Dr. Elsie Chapman) who has nothing to do with the plot and seems inserted only to give us tired jokes about a desperate, oversexed woman?
Though production values are generally good, like the monsters themselves, the special effects are all over the map. They range from jaw-dropping believable to nose-snorting laughable–the latter coming with fake-looking fish flopping mechanically inside a basketball hoop in the ruins of the Garden. Yeah, much of New York City gets ruined, because while the monster starts out in the South Pacific, he makes a beeline for and takes a pretty good bite out of the Big Apple. There’s no logical reason for his journey, unless it’s an overly clever allusion to Godzilla returning to his “roots” to lay eggs–those roots being the Manhattan Project that gave birth to the nuclear age. But I doubt it was deliberate. Nothing to this point has been terribly clever.
But as I said, “Godzilla” in its 1998 reincarnation is still fun-enough entertainment for a single evening. There’s non-stop action, some laughs (too many, sadly, unintentional), and a few engaging characters. That would be Maria Pitillo as a would-be news anchor named Audrey Timmonds, and the news station photographer, “Animal” (Hank Azaria), whose exploits we follow with a little more emotional investment because their characters are more consistent and more consistently likable. Doug Savant (“Desperate Housewives”) also makes the most out of a bit part, and Kevin Dunn is convincing as the American colonel on the ground trying to coordinate the Godzilla search-and-destroy mission. Tonally, though, this film never knows which way it wants to go: serious, tongue-in-cheek, or broadly comic.
Finally, it’s a nice twist to give Godzilla a gazillion offspring, but then Emmerich and Devlin spoil it with an ending so obvious that both of my children called it well in advance. Did I have fun watching “Godzilla”? It wasn’t as painful as watching a clumsy ballerina, but it was just as unintentionally funny. “Godzilla” is the kind of film that teens watch in a group and have fun making sarcastic remarks.
Considering that so much of this film is staged in darkness (or dimness), the 1080p picture looks pretty good, with an appreciable amount of detail. Black levels are strong enough to keep shadows from looking like mud, and skin tones and colors are natural looking. But don’t look for much saturation. Most of the scenes are shot at night or in the cavernous subway system. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer looks decent, despite a thin layer of grain that keeps the film from being anybody’s demo. Well, that and those flopping fish. I didn’t see this in the theaters when it came out, but Imdb.com lists the original aspect ratio at 2.35:1, while the box and press release says the Blu-ray aspect ratio is 2.40:1. If you measure, it probably falls in between the two numbers, whatever that says.
If you watch this film, watch it with the sound cranked up. This is the kind of movie that was meant to be played loud, and the soundtrack is near-perfect. At times the mix could have allowed for more emphasis on the dialogue and less on ambient sound, but it’s the ambient sound and special effects audio that brings this film to life. Godzilla’s roars are supposed to tumble cars and flame-shoot people, and he puts a nice rumble into your home theater space. The entire sound design is wonderful, with active effects speakers constantly involved and a dynamic sonic structure that doesn’t just fill the room, it permeates it. Simply put, the sound design plays a major part in creating and sustaining tension. Sony went with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 in English, French, and Portuguese, with those poor Spaniards relegated once again to a simple Dolby Digital 5.1. Why is this? I have no idea. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, and Spanish.
The big bonus for many will be the Digital Copy that’s exclusive to Blu-ray but downloadable only for PSP via this disc and a PlayStation 3. But the rest of the bonus features are pretty standard. Two visual effects supervisors give a commentary that covers all the technical aspects of the film’s visual design, including concept to post production, but they also touch a little on shooting. If you’re into MovieIQ, you can get “up to date” pop-up details while you watch the film–a standard trivia track that pretends to be more. The only other bonus features apart from BD-Live functionality and trailers are a so-so multi-player multiple choice trivia game, a clip reel of the “best” Godzilla fight scenes (from other films too, thankfully) which runs around 10 minutes, an in-character throwaway “Behind the Scenes of ‘Godzilla’ with Charles Caiman (Harry Shearer)” that runs seven minutes, and a music video (“Heroes,” by The Wallflowers).
As my son said, “It’s not as bad as I expected.” But of course that’s the most backhanded compliment one can give. “Godzilla” is inconsistent, and that makes it a roller coaster of a thrill ride. And that’s another backhanded compliment.