Even if I told you that "Godzilla" sucks, it probably wouldn't influence your decision whether or not to go see it. The good news is that the first big 'event' pic of the summer movie season doesn't completely suck-- it is by no means "The English Patient", but neither is it "Independence Day" either, though it does have a few redeeming qualities. But regardless of what anyone says, "Godzilla" is guaranteed at least a $100 million North American box office take in its first week, on the account of the record number of screens it opens on (assuming it maintains a 60% market share on the 7,363 screens it is showing on this week).
This celebration of cinematic and special effects excess reinvents the classic Japanese monster Godzilla, and like the Toho Studios creation of the Fifties, this latest incarnation is the result of nuclear testing in the South Pacific. Nick Tatopolous (Matthew Broderick, last seen in "Addicted to Love") is a biologist studying the mutating effects of radiation on earthworms at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. He is pressed into the service of the United States government after two unusual events-- the destruction of a large Japanese fishing trawler and the discovery of a track of gigantic footprints in Panama. But before Nick can figure out exactly what he is dealing with, Godzilla (looking more like a T-Rex) surfaces in Manhattan, and generally makes a pest of himself by trashing the local landmarks and trampling the city's inhabitants.
Caught in the ensuing chaos are various slice-'o-life characters, each with their own little problems to solve. Audrey (Maria Pitillo) is an airhead reporter-wannabe looking for the big story that will launch her career, while spurning the sexual advances of her pig-headed boss (Harry Shearer, the voice of newscaster Kent Brockman on "The Simpsons"). 'Animal' (Hank Azaria, another "Simpsons" alumnus, who does Chief Wiggum) is the risk-taking cameraman who tracks the giant monster with Audrey. Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner), who is seeking re-election with a "Thumbs up for New York" campaign, wants to do whatever he can to use this disaster as a platform for re-election, despite the objections of his campaign manager Gene (Lorry Goldman). Finally, there's the enigmatic Frenchman (Jean Reno of "Mission: Impossible"), who calls himself an insurance investigator, but seems to have a secret agenda of his own. Together, they must not only face the four-hundred foot tall behemoth and save Manhattan from destruction, but also avert an even larger disaster awaiting in Godzilla's lair, where his/her/its progeny is waiting to be born.
"Godzilla" almost never made it to the screen. The project first had director Jan De Bont ("Speed", "Twister") attached to it, but when the De Bont balked at having to keep the budget under $100 million, the production was passed on to the writing/directing/producing duo of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin. The duo that brought the runaway hit "Independence Day" to the screen were both enthusiastic about bringing the big green lizard to the big screen, and had promised to do it on budget. Then earlier this year, when the pic was in post-production, the filmmakers were running into a major time crunch with respect to the insertion of the special effects, and ended up having to trim down of the number and types of effects used (i.e. more 'body parts' shots in place of full body shots for Godzilla).
The final product, at its very best, is disappointing. Whereas "Independence Day" had likeable characters and a great sense of humor, allowing you to overlook its B-movie trappings, "Godzilla" is loaded with unremarkable characters and a very lame sense of humor, within the confines of a B-movie. Other than a running 'Siskel & Ebert' joke, the script's many attempts at humor fall flat. Similarly, Devlin's attempts to create a romantic subplot between Nick and Audrey also fail, resulting in some stilted expository scenes that grind the movie to a halt.
In the area of special effects, "Godzilla" also doesn't hit the anticipated highs. I admit growing up on a steady diet of the tacky Godzilla movies of the Sixties and Seventies, and these low-budget offerings satisfied my cravings for scenes of mass destruction and the futile efforts of the Japanese government to contain it, despite throwing the full brunt of the Japanese defensive force at it. The new "Godzilla" has plenty of carnage, with buildings being smashed and cars being tossed about, but the destruction lacks the epic scale of the old man-in-the-rubber-suit outings. With pressure to reduce the number of full-body effects shots, most of the scenes involving Godzilla only show a foot, or its tail, diminishing the scope of the movie. And instead of squadrons of jets hurling their volleys of missiles at the monster, the air battle is scaled down to three F-18s, and a handful of Apache helicopters. And in similar fashion to how "Independence Day" paid homage (polite term for 'ripping off') to "Star Wars", a fairly large chunk of the action is small-scale, taking place within Madison Square Gardens, where Godzilla's nine-foot tall offspring wreak havoc in a contained environment, 'raptor-style. Though moviegoers with an appetite for destruction will find some satisfaction in the wholesale devastation, especially in an engaging sequence where Godzilla chases after a taxi cab that our heroes have commandeered, the barrage of never-ending destruction comes close to becoming tedious, especially towards the end of the bloated two hour and twenty minute running time.
But of course, you'll probably go see it anyways, despite what anyone says about it, because "Godzilla" is an event, and everyone else you know is going to see it. So hurry to your local multiplex, plunk your money down, chow down on your deluxe "Godzilla" popcorn and pop combo, turn off your brain, and enjoy the mindless ride. Because this is what a summer night at the movie theater is all about.