June 1998
s m u g
feed hollywood
by Brian Thomas

The Sense of Scale

After school one day in 1967, I came home and caught the last half of the afternoon movie on channel 7 - something weird and wonderful called Godzilla Versus the Thing. I had no idea what was going on, but I assumed that the Thing was the big dinosaur-like monster the army was firing missiles at and Godzilla was a Herculian hero about to fight the monster. A pair of fairy princesses, a gigantic moth, a big egg hatching twin giant caterpillars, were all so wonderful I couldn't tear my eyes away. Eventually I realized Godzilla was the name of the monster I was already hooked. I had to find out more about this movie and the scary but loveable monster that starred in it. Unfortunately, information was hard to come by - I found out there were other Godzilla movies, all made in Japan, and adults didn't think too much of them. Any real knowledge of the subject was obscured enough by indifference that it seemed forbidden.

It may sound silly now that almost every Godzilla movie is available for video rental in the USA (the last three are not), but I grew up Godzilla-deprived. I met Godzilla again in a theater as part of my all-time favorite double feature, the pairing of War of the Gargantuas with Monster Zero.That afternoon spent with my father in a dingy neighborhood theater was a pivotal point in my life (don't tell him though, okay?). Later, I caught up on Godzilla history. I saw the revamped original with Raymond Burr on Creature Features. Others showed up frequently on local TV, and if I missed a single showing it made me a little crazy. Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine gave me tiny scraps of information. I didn't know it at the time - none of us did - but I was growing up among an invisible cult of Godzilla addicts.

As I grew, so did my knowledge of Godzilla lore. The original film was an expression of national grief, guilt and horror. Within a years time, the Japanese suffered the first and hopefully last aggressive use of atomic weapons, a humiliating defeat in World War 2, and the announcement by their emperor that he was not an actual deity after all. Imagine the sudden and crushing effect on a nation's psyche to learn that God is dead and your enemies can tear your atoms to shreds at any moment. Godzilla arrived as a powerful release, an instant play-acting creature of myth to mete out cinematic punishment for the nightmares they'd brought to bear on themselves.

Becoming an adult usually means you discard the obsessions of your youth. Not in my case - luckily I have a career that smiles knowingly upon eccentricities and earning a living means you just have more money to pursue your obsessions. Now my house is filled with the paraphernalia of my favorite movie star. My house is full of posters, CDs, toys, etc. glorifying Godzilla. I have multiple versions of all the films on video, and watch them whenever I need a fix. I'm a giant monster nerd and not afraid to admit it.

The American Godzilla project has been hanging around the studio back alleys for years, in both big and small budget arenas. A 3-D version was headed for the launch pad in the G-free early 80s, only to be quashed when Toho decided to revive the series themselves. The Batman craze of the early 90s brought all kinds of pop icons back to the cinema marketplace, Godzilla included. Speed director Jan DeBont almost got his version made, but the studio balked at his suggested budget. That was 3 years ago, when you could make a blockbuster for under a hundred million dollars. With the huge hit Independence Day under their belts, producer Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich eagerly signed on for a project that promised even more focus on pell-mell destruction.

The team announced they would deliver a whole new Godzilla, all slicked up for the 90s. This triggered immediate apprehension amongst the faithful G-fans, who took the news with all the grace of the Pope when he heard they were also working on a new, improved Jesus Christ. Ever since, in fanzines, at conventions, and especially over the internet, rumors and innuendoes have been as common as garlic at a mafia wedding.

The new Godzilla is a fine monster movie with awesome special effects and some really clever ideas. The problem I have with it is that it's called Godzilla at all, when it really doesn't have Godzilla in it. The monster that shows up here bears little resemblance to Godzilla in any of his movie incarnations - yet another case of a movie studio buying something successful for their own use, only to change it all for no apparent reason. All would be forgiven if they'd added one tiny change: instead of having the beast get his name from a legend among Japanese fishermen, they should've just said it was named after a Japanese movie monster, creating a distinction and dispelling the idea they were trying to replace a cherished pop culture icon.

The music was disappointing.. Not that it's all bad - standard but indistinct movie music mixed with occasional snippets of nicely covered pop songs. Stuff to play over the closing credits and fill up a soundtrack album. What makes it such a disappointment is that Godzilla movies are full of wonderful classic themes by respected composers like Akira Ifukube. It's just another way the movie fails to measure up.

On reflection though, I like this movie quite a bit. Welcome twists are applied to familiar monster movie conventions. The acting's not great, but it's nice to see Matthew Broderick doing new things in the hero/scientist role. Devlin and Emmerich are not great at comedy - the Siskel and Ebert clones, and all the other bits of inside humor that show up here wear thin almost immediately. If a gag does score a laugh, it's more likely because of the performer's delivery. Jean Reno, as a French Secret Service agent, shows the depth of his talent by filling out his character without much to work with.

All of the characters, including the title role, are woefully underwritten. When Broderick and Patillo talk about their past relationship, it comes across as what it is: phony dramatics meant to fill time and emotional space while waiting for the monster to show up again. Important details are routinely glossed over, such as the monster's reason for coming to Manhattan. As if it couldn't find an island to nest on without travelling all the way around the world.

When the monster does show up, it's worth the wait. It's a pumped up and hyper beastie, an overgrown T. Rex from Jurassic Park, followed later in an extended sequence by baby monsters ripped off directly from the same picture's Velociraptors. As an engaging change of pace, the military forces hunting the creature do far more damage than the monster does on its own. Predictably, it's in these scenes of mayhem that the movie really shines. It's tough to resist the spectacle of a huge animal bounding and thundering through the streets of New York pursued by swarms of helicopter gunboats blasting away at everything in sight. I choose not to try. This is the kind of thing that Emmerich excels at.

He's even developed here what amounts to a distinctive directorial style. Watch closely and you'll notice how he tends to focus on moving objects and moves his frame around them, rather than placing images within a mis en scene. Certainly a unique way to film a giant monster epic - he increases the perceived size of the subject by rarely keeping it fully in frame.

A lot of material that leaked out in the past 2 years was claimed by Devlin to be false, a lure to ferret out the security leaks. The fact that a lot of these debunked rumors and such have turned out to be genuine, like several pieces of artwork depicting their new Godzilla design, has understandably led to even more bad feelings between Devlin and the G-fans.

As a peacemaking gesture, Devlin has agreed to share with Smug how the amazing special effects of Godzilla were created.

"We wanted to get away from the old way of doing things as much as possible, you know, the whole bit with the guy in a rubber suit smashing model buildings. We've got computers now."

DOUBLE-DIPPERS DEPARTMENT Yeah, there's a whole bunch of actors hogging multiple screens this month, but I have to ignore them this month. I just want to point out here to everyone that the Chrysler Building gets destroyed in three different movies this month. Just in case you didn't notice.

brian@smug.com

*

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