The best thing about Japanese monster movies is the machine guns. As a 500-foot behemoth rises from Tokyo Bay for the umpteenth time, bellowing and belching nuclear fire and laying waste to enough model railroad houses to fill a good-sized living room, you can always count on the Japanese to send in as the crucial first line of defense a crack detachment specially equipped with the Imperial Army's lowest-caliber weapons. These teeth-gritting worthies, apparently frustrated kamikaze shortlisters, are placed in a dinky ditch that would be inadequate even to stop a water balloon and given the honor of firing their popguns madly away at the monster for a few glorious frames before being vaporized.
There is little about the new "Godzilla" that recalls the kitsch-dementia glories of Mothra and Rodan and Star-Man and tiny twins twittering, "Please return the egg to us." (Speaking of kitsch dementia, it has never been satisfactorily explained why, in the justly ignored "Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster," all of the characters are forced to speak English with such exaggerated Japanese accents that they sound completely imbecilic. Was this linguistic humiliation imposed by America as part of the surrender terms?) But fans of the genre will be pleased to know that even in a high-tech update featuring mind-blowingly fast helicopter chases and nuclear submarines blasting torpedoes under New York Harbor, the Doomed Machine Gun Strategy is still operative. In fact, I think I actually saw some clown firing a rifle at the Big Guy, which earns bonus points for futility.
The reason you go to the new "Godzilla" is not to savor such moments (kitsch, alas, doesn't update well), but to see how many times it can make your 9-year-old go to the bathroom. In my kid's case, it was five -- one before, two after, two during. The second time he popped up out of his seat, I asked, "Do you have an upset tummy?" "No, I'm just excited," he whispered frantically. When we walked out of the theater, he looked flushed and dazed. Whatever its defects as a drama, and they are legion, it cannot be denied that "Godzilla" has a profound effect on the urinary tracts of the young.
As this fact might indicate, "Godzilla" does have really, really good special effects -- and if you're going to a movie like this for any other reason, I can get you some prime machine-gun-nest land facing Tokyo Bay. The mighty lizard has come a long way from his first appearance in "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" (1954), when he was played by a man stumbling around in a hundred-pound latex suit. This Godzilla is excruciatingly realistic and frighteningly huge, like some monstrously oversized version of a "Jurassic Park" T-Rex. Instead of lumbering around with the vaguely toddlerlike gait of the early Godzillas (an infantile resonance that may have contributed to his frequent casting as a good guy who saves Japan from really bad monsters), he runs bent over like a real dinosaur and strikes with devastating speed. Watching "Godzilla" is like being inside a two-hour train wreck: The monster's sheer scale, the ear-shattering soundtrack (dominated by the sound of cars exploding onto sidewalks after being dropped from 10 stories up), the super-fast tracking camera work and computer-graphic wizardry, operate on you like a drug -- a weirdly tacky one, but with undeniable cheesy short-term addictive power.
Director Roland Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin don't make movies, they make cartoons. They have perfected the depiction of consequence-free violence, suitable for all ages: ApocalypseLite: All the thrill of Death (TM) with none of the finality! "Godzilla" features the biggest and most realistic collisions of all time, with nary a drop of icky and disturbing blood. No corpses are seen, barely even an anguished shriek is heard as Godzilla runs wildly through the streets of Manhattan, smashing 20-story holes in the Pan Am building. The team's universe is as utterly artificial as that of Wile E. Coyote, who used to get blown up in one scene and appear merely bandaged in the next. This makes their movies (they also made the vacuously jingoistic and even stupider "Independence Day") "suitable" for younger viewers, who would otherwise probably be completely wigged out by their visceral, mainlining-coke style. But it also makes them completely silly, nothing more than video-game experiences. Viewed as art, "Independence Day" and "Godzilla" rank somewhere below the average porno movie. But you don't go to porno for the dialogue.
"Godzilla" inaugurates a new, lame romantic-leads twist: Dueling wimps. Hero Nick Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick) is a wimpy biologist, heroine Audrey (Maria Pitillo) is a wimpy reporter wannabe. There is a reason why writers have traditionally avoided pairing up two wimps: Asexual reproduction may be good for Godzilla (who uses this exciting technique to lay lots of eggs), but it is a dubious attraction on the big screen. But the Barbie-and-Ken show works well for Emmerich and Devlin's target 9-year-old audience: Who wants yucky stuff getting in the way of BIG MONSTERS BLOWING UP THE CHRYSLER BUILDING 'N' STUFF?
The plot is about as ridiculous as you'd expect, but for the most part its absurdities are tolerable. There's nothing quite as nauseating, in its formulaic, we must tidy up those moral loose ends way, as the scene in "Independence Day" when a general consoles a kid whose father has just heroically killed himself by saying, "Your father did a very brave thing," whereupon the son brightens up and says, "I know." I did get a bit weary of the repeated scenes in which the heroes were inexplicably able to run past snapping baby monsters, and the casual use of nuclear weapons and depiction of mass death as a loss in a video game was a bit odd, but these are minor points.
So: A monster created by French nuclear testing in the South Pacific gets the world's attention when it sinks a Japanese ship by pulling it under the water (an echo of the original film). Broderick is called in because of his expertise in working with radiation-mutated animals. After wandering here and there and leaving enormous footprints (the big-feet-coming-down-on-you schtick is excellent throughout), Godzilla attacks Manhattan, which is oddly unprepared: Instead of being greeted with shoulder-fired missiles and robot planes packed with explosives, he is met with those aforementioned machine gunners. A wild helicopter chase ensues, giving Emmerich, his computer people and his editors a chance to show off their considerable action skills.
Meanwhile, the moony-eyed Pitillo, who happens to be Broderick's ex, is being sexually harassed by her creepy anchorman boss (a major drawback of the movie's sanitized, kiddy-friendly style is that the boss is not chomped, stomped or otherwise obliterated) and desperately needs a big story to break in as a reporter. Hoping for a scoop, she steals a top-secret tape from Broderick, which results in him being kicked off the team and getting mad at her. (Typical subtle Devlin and Emmerich touch: As she quaveringly watches him driving off, she says "Sorry ... sorry!" to herself. You almost expect a big subtitle reading, "She's Sorry!" to appear on the screen.)
The French nuclear-testing tie-in justifies the presence of a mysterious Frog named Philippe (Jean Reno), a "Beau Geste" kinda guy whose shadowy commando force follows Godzilla around the world. Reno's team acts as the traditional Underdog Team of Warriors With Whom the Hero Joins Up After He Is Foolishly Kicked Off the Official Force. Aside from one funny scene where Philippe, whose men are all madly chewing gum because it makes them "look more American," uses his best Elvis Presley accent to get past a checkpoint, it's a bit hard to figure out just why he's there, but you take your vaguely troubling second lead where you can get him.
Forget the plot, though: All these guys know how to do is high-tech bang-bang, and at times they do it pretty well. The scene in which our heroes are trapped in Madison Square Garden as hundreds of 9-foot Baby Godzillas begin to hatch is pretty scary (in one of the film's rare moments of humor, a desperate Broderick, pursued by the voracious lizards, opens an elevator door only to confront two monsters eating big commercial bags of popcorn. "Sorry, wrong floor," he says). And the taxicab chase scene that follows their escape from the Garden is wild and woolly.
But despite all their slickness, the odd thing about movies like "Godzilla" and "Independence Day" -- and, to a lesser degree, "Jurassic Park" -- is how unfrightening they are. The original "Godzilla," despite its low-tech special effects, is actually disturbing: It evokes a sense of devastation and loss, of tragedy. It is impossible to believe that 1954's latex, black-and-white Godzilla exists in the real world -- but the horror that he stands for is palpable. Conversely, in the new monster films, you can believe that a hundred-foot-high monster does really exist -- but you get no sense that the universe holds anything darker than a joystick. "Godzilla" is about as metaphysically disturbing as Barney. This is too bad: Fear is a deep human emotion, a glimpse of the dark underside of existence. Sanitize fear, and you shrink death; shrink death, and you shrink life. Fear deserves better -- and it also deserves better than the merely visceral slasher flicks where it has taken up residence. It may not be possible to combine the technical prowess of the new monster-mashers with a genuine vision. But if anyone ever does it, they won't be selling E-tickets to Disneyland -- they'll be selling them to hell