Originality does matter

by Ben Mandelker | 5/20/98 5:00am

Perhaps anticipating the bad reviews it is likely to receive, "Godzilla" features two bumbling characters, one obese and named Ebert, the other bald and named Gene, who just don't seem to understand the monster. This witty in-joke turns out to be one of the only few genuinely humorous moments in a surprisingly dark and leaden film.

"Godzilla," the much-hyped and much anticipated blockbuster, is the display of extreme destruction that it promises to be. But where's the sense of kick-ass fun that made "Independence Day" -- which shares the same writing/directing/producing team -- such a blast?

After seeing some pseudo-documentary footage of lizards observing the fallout of nuclear testing during the fifties, the film leaps forward to the present. On a dark and stormy night in the Pacific, a ship carrying large amounts of fish is besieged by some claws. This happens again to three fishing boats near the United States coastline.

That's when the Army calls in Nick Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), a dorky scientist who specializes in the effects of radiation on organisms. It's not long before he postulates just what this ship-eating beast is, but by then it's too late because Godzilla is rearing his head at the piers of New York City.

The movie jumps into the destruction of the metropolis rather quickly, and unfortunately, valuable build-up time is lost. At that stage of the film, we don't care enough about anything to mourn its loss. Godzilla's first rampage is sort of fun, but not very awe-inspiring. For a long time we only see isolated body parts, like the feet or tail.

Then, without much warning, Godzilla inexplicably disappears. Apparently he came to Manhattan because it is the perfect hiding place. Now, instead of running from the lizard, everyone's searching for it.

The first half of the film is uneven at best. It throws us a bunch of cornball characters and expects us to empathize with them. Aside from Nick, there's Audrey (Maria Pitillo), Nick's ex-flame who wants to be a big time reporter but can't seem to figure out how. There's her cameraman pal, Animal (a wasted Hank Azaria), and a truly irrelevant character played by Vicki Lewis ("News Radio").

Luckily, Jean Reno is also along for the ride as Philippe Roche, a crafty French insurance man -- or is he? Reno is having a ball with his role, and it shows. It's a shame he's not in more of the film.

These characters all intertwine in the quest to stop Godzilla and wind up saying some pretty cheesy things. The romance that inevitably blossoms between Nick and Audrey is predictable and trite.

By the halfway point, the movie feels like a real disappointment, but suddenly it comes alive and turns around. An extended and clever sequence in Madison Square Garden is exciting and fun and gives the movie a much needed jolt of energy. The film does an impressive rally to the end, almost leaving the viewer out of breath. Perhaps the movie does a turnaround here because for once the actions of Godzilla affect the characters directly. There's more at risk in the latter portion of the film, people are being destroyed as opposed to buildings.

As for the special effects, they are pretty spectacular. The monster is realistic, although some shots look a little fake. What's even more impressive is the destruction of the city. The buildings collapse and explode so effectively that they pass for reality. We don't even question half of the disaster.

The lizard itself is also pretty well conceived, but it unfortunately is too similar to the notorious T-Rexes from "Jurassic Park" merged with a the beast from the "Alien" films. In fact, half the movie's scenes seem to have been borrowed from "Jurassic Park" and have considerably less style here.

Nevertheless, the actual movement of Godzilla is fluid and well-conceived. We see him jump, swim, run, trip and even breathe fire once or twice.

Godzilla is a mighty beast here and, despite his size, is pretty swift. He slides out of the way of many heat seeking missiles and ultimately puts the Army to shame. As depicted here, the Army is so incompetent that it perhaps does more damage than Godzilla himself, recklessly destroying the city in their futile attempts to stop the monster.

The use of Manhattan in the film is at times very amusing. A shot of the gutted Met Life building is humorous, and an episode with the Brooklyn Bridge is truly a sight worthy of the big screen.

Not everything is destroyed though. I guess we should be thankful that while Godzilla is busy ruining a newly restored Grand Central Terminal, the Dartmouth Club across the street manages to survive intact.