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Wednesday, May 20 1998
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The Monster Mash
The American remake of the beloved Japanese monster movie has the faux sophistication to tell us that the creature should be called "Gojira." The new film should be called Gojillions -- it's as sure-fire and pro forma as the Federal Mint. Although the 1998 Godzilla is supposed to be a mutant megalizard (the spawn of French nuclear testing in the Polynesian isles), it is merely the mind-numbing psychic outgrowth of filmmakers attempting to top their previous megahit, Independence Day. Once again, writer/director Roland Emmerich and writer/producer Dean Devlin have come up with a 100 percent ersatz fantasy-and-effects film. Despite this movie's early introduction of global rainstorms and oceanic undertows, Godzilla is situation sci-fi; it sounds no murky depths, explores no outer limits. This time, Matthew Broderick, not Jeff Goldblum, plays the cute and quirky brain (here, a biologist who specializes in radiation studies). As soon as you see and hear him singing "Singin' in the Rain" in the rain, you know that the filmmakers want us to take everything at face value. A smirkyface value.

Emmerich and Devlin think that casting farceurs like Broderick, Hank Azaria, Harry Shearer, and Vicki Lewis, and cooking up sitcom complications, will lighten the load of their leaden joint imagination. No such luck. The filmmakers' humor is jejune: for example, they name their craven, portly New York mayor Ebert and have him joust with a balding aide named Gene. (Why can't multimillionaire movie people lay off the few critics who attack them? Lucas once gave us a villainous Gen. Kael; will James Cameron be giving us an evil Turan?) But this stale fluff is just marking time between monster mashes.

In his millennial makeover, Godzilla looks like a cross between a dinosaur and the alien of the Alien series. He's big and strong enough to punch through most of the MetLife skyscraper, but the context surrounding him is puny. For all the bravado of the "Size does matter" ad slogan, scale is one of the movie's weak points. Millions of civilians evacuate New York in, oh, an hour or two -- as if the city were the size of Gilroy. And rather than send in enough troops to replace them, the military establishes a small command base in New Jersey and gives Godzilla plenty of time to nest and lay eggs.

The original Godzilla was no masterpiece -- the monster was obviously a man in a rubber suit -- but it had some genuine pulp magic. The concept of H-bombs rousing a sea dragon allowed the director, Inoshiro Honda, to meld medieval tableaux of a remote Japanese island with images of futuristic terror, like an oxygen-depleting chemical reducing fish to skeletons. Much has been made of the current monster's swiftness, but I loved the old monster's slowness; underwater he was as glacially creepy as the dragon in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen. There's nothing comparably haunting or even memorable about Emmerich and Devlin's Godzilla. The film comes alive only when the babies hatch: These moviemakers have more fun when they're handling 9-footers. They provide funny shots of leaping lizards slipping and sliding over gumballs and trying to pig out on popcorn when they run out of fish snacks. And by the end, the mammoth parent takes on a bit of poignancy; the filmmakers knock audience sympathies off-balance. That's partly because this is not a movie that makes you empathize with humans. Jean Reno, as a French secret service agent, transcends the script's corny jokes about American coffee and provides the sole shot of bona fide testosterone. Indeed, if this film brings forth a sequel, it will prove that contemporary movies, like contemporary Godzillas, can reproduce asexually.

-- Michael Sragow

Godzilla opens Wednesday, May 20, at area theaters.

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Michael Sragow

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