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“It’s Gojira, you freakin’ moron!”
– Audrey (Maria Pitillo) reacts to a news report in
Godzilla

For years Hollywood has done everything it could to American-ize Godzilla – all the way back to when they dropped Raymond Burr into the first film and changed its name to Godzilla from Gojira.

Gojira. That’s pronounced “Go-ZHEER-uh.” One of the wittier moments in this new Godzilla makes a note of that – an inaccurate news report calls the creature Godzilla, and the name catches on.

There was almost a new film that would’ve come out summer 1996. Jan DeBont of Speed was going to direct, but he said no and made Twister instead. That script [by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who went on to write the Pirates of the Caribbean films] had Godzilla coming ashore at San Francisco and doing damage until we incapacitate him, tie him up and carry him with a fleet of helicopters to a research facility on the East Coast, where disaster strikes and the giant reptile breaks out…into New York.

You know, that would’ve been cool. It would’ve been cheesy and full of problems – why would the only place to take a 200-foot-tall monster be within Godzilla-walking distance of New York? – but it would’ve been cool; I’d’ve loved to have seen Godzilla strapped down like he were Gulliver in a flying hammock, or something.

You see, Godzilla is not fundamentally cheesy or ridiculous (the first film in 1954, from what I hear, is actually pretty harrowing) but he became that in all those sequels – and Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s new Godzilla really doesn’t do much to change that, despite the monster’s sleek new look, the special effects detail or the witty ad campaign.

In fact, the film itself barely made an impression on me. Uh oh.

In this version, French nuclear tests in the South Pacific have mutated a reptile into 21 stories of pregnant lizard looking for a nest. In quick fashion he rampages across the South Pacific, Tahiti, Panama, Jamaica and the North Atlantic until arriving in New York, like he knew it was a place he could hide. That’s the problem: why New York? Obviously it’s because New York is a famous town and it’s fun for us to see it demolished, but it would’ve been nice if they had come up with some pseudo-scientific explanation for a lizard crossing half the world so he could lay eggs in Madison Square Garden.

It’s this problem of not thinking the story through that’s frustrating, especially for a wannabe storyteller like me. Emmerich and Devlin (let’s call them E & D for short) work in the pulp science fiction tradition, full of joyful demolition and flat characters. That’s what StarGate, Independence Day and Godzilla boil down to – and because these two guys write their films so fast, like the pulp science fiction writers did in the 1930s, there are mistakes galore.

The thing is, I think E & D could really do some wonderfully memorable films…if they discipline themselves to be as intelligent and interesting in their scripts as in their visuals.

You see, I like E & D’s visuals, because they happen on such a huge scale – I loved watching dozens of helicopters swarm over Manhattan, or the battle between Godzilla and three submarines, or when a cab with our main characters stays less than one step ahead of the creature during a chase in the film’s final act. And the monster here, as redesigned by three-time E & D collaborator Patrick Tatapoulos (they even named Matthew Broderick’s character, Niko Tatapoulos, after him) is a smart job of making Godzilla work as a seemingly real animal, not the infamous man-in-a-suit.

But E & D have an odd sense of casting, which can backfire; many of the actors in Independence Day seemed to be in their own little movies. Godzilla is mainly peopled with TV actors – including not one, not two, but three Simpsons voice talents – and an Army major is played by a guy from Hot Shots!

The actors just don’t have the presence to make an impression, unlike Will Smith’s star turn in Independence Day. (Of the principal actors here, Hank Azaria seems to fit the best, with his nicely off-kilter face and New York attitude, but Broderick is mostly bland.) There’s also the Asian terrorist from Die Hard at the beginning.

The things I notice when a film is not making an impression…

And a running joke at the expense of Siskel and Ebert, who are not E & D fans, is a cheap shot in a film loaded with cheap shots.

But amidst all the noise and screeching characters, one of my favorite scenes was actually a moment of calm, with Godzilla blinking at Tatapoulos while composer David Arnold plays his “in awe of Godzilla” theme – which is a pretty cool piece of music. And a little detail I enjoyed appears after Manhattan is evacuated, and electric signs at the tunnels read “N Y C CLOSED TO THRU TRAFFIC.”

To sum up, Godzilla himself is actually pretty cool – but he’s surrounded by silliness. And what Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich came up with is numbing silliness that didn’t make an impression on me…which is the wrong kind of silliness.

And Godzilla doesn’t even use his roar that much. Tsk tsk.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
greyaenigma
Apr. 6th, 2009 05:26 pm (UTC)
Wow, really? They blamed the French? Regardless of how little they tested and how much we did? How American of the producers.

I remember liking that they used the original "Gojira" briefly in this, but that's about all I liked.
chris_walsh
Apr. 6th, 2009 06:27 pm (UTC)
To their credit, the French characters are trying to clean up the unexpected mess (Jean Reno plays one of the researchers tracking Godzilla because of this). And when about 2/3 of the film's producers were European, it's not necessarily a "how American of the producers" situation. It's the hook they chose; I try not to read too much into it. I doubt Emmerich and Devlin read too much into it, either.

(I'll add that I've liked Devlin's more recent work; I think he's more fully embraced his fondness for B-movies and that he and his fellow film- and show-makers can get them made with a sense of humor. The Librarian and the show Leverage are both fun that way. I don't see nearly as much of a sense of humor in Emmerich's work since he and Devlin stopped working together.)

I still think Elliot and Rossio's story would've been fundamentally cooler. They were bringing the storytelling crack at least that many years before the Pirates of the Caribbean films!

Edited at 2009-04-06 06:30 pm (UTC)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )