The best moment in Godzilla (TriStar) — I dare say you could call it witty — arrives early on. Godzilla, the gargantuan mutant reptile spawned by nuclear testing in French Polynesia, has swum the Atlantic Ocean and charged into Manhattan. He has chosen the urban island, for reasons I never did understand, as the perfect place to lay his eggs. (Does he intend to raise his kids there? Hasn’t he heard about the rents?) Heralded by the boom…boom…boom of thunderous kettledrum footsteps, the big guy makes his first headline appearance on Park Avenue, where a whacked TV-news cameraman (Hank Azaria) dashes right over to him. Danger be damned! The cameraman wants a good shot, and as Godzilla passes above him, we’re treated to a spectacular ground’s-eye view of the towering creature in motion. It’s a giddy, vertiginous image — the cameraman giggles and hyperventilates out of sheer terror and exhilaration, and so, more or less, does the audience.
If only there were more moments like that one! An update of Godzilla doesn’t need to do much besides tickle the 8-year-old monster-movie freak in us all. Despite some clever and exciting sequences, though, this $120 million epic of reconstituted Atomic Age trash, created by the same team that made the joshing, slapdash Independence Day (writer-producer Dean Devlin and writer-director Roland Emmerich), lumbers more than it thrills. Nifty as it is to see Godzilla tromp his way around Manhattan’s glistening, rain-swept corridors, the film, at a gaseous two hours and 19 minutes, leaves us wanting both less and more — less of the dull, sketchbook characters (will boyish nuclear scientist Matthew Broderick reunite with his college sweetheart? Will French intelligence agent Jean Reno ever locate a decent cup of coffee?) and more of Godzilla rocking and rolling the Big Apple. The movie turns Manhattan into a grandly sinister maze, like something out of the Batman pictures, but once Godzilla settles into the city, he simply runs through the maze, like an angry bull in Pamplona.
In place of the famously rubbery, upright beast who once stomped Tokyo, the new Godzilla, a product of computer-generated technology, is essentially a glorified amalgam of Steven Spielberg’s dinosaurs. He’s got the small upper claws and bulging body of a T. rex, and he moves forward with that same scary horizontal thrust, but he also has a raptorish fleetness; there’s a hint, as well, of the machinelike ecto-skeletal design of the Alien creatures. All that’s left of the old Godzilla, really, is his roar, as well as a hint of that mournful snub nose.
This isn’t necessarily a tragic loss. For baby boomers, the early Godzilla films, notably Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1954) and the triumphantly loopy Godzilla vs. the Thing (1964), had a cardboard-kitsch resonance that sprang from the tension between the lunatic cheapness of their effects (Look! Man in plated dinosaur suit destroys miniature fake city!) and the somber topicality of their apocalyptic, here’s-what-the-bomb-did-to-the-Japanese horror. These were monster movies that wore their stitches and seams on the outside. Watching them was like seeing a toy train set overrun by primeval beasties.
There’s no resonance to the new Godzilla, and no built-in cheese value, either. For a while, the filmmakers honor the sentimental paradox that seeped into the later Godzilla films: that this primitive destroyer, like King Kong, doesn’t actually mean any harm. Here, he’s provoked to violence by the military’s guns, and so the film appears to be reversing the popcorn jingoism of Independence Day. But then the heroes stumble into Madison Square Garden, where Godzilla, who reproduces asexually, has laid his eggs. When they hatch, hundreds of 9-foot-tall baby reptiles begin to hop about threateningly, and the film offers an endless, lamely choreographed variation on the raptor-attack sequences from Jurassic Park and The Lost World. The babies must be killed! Fine, but the filmmakers don’t realize that it’s nonsensical to ”humanize” Godzilla and then ask us to root for the murder of his offspring.
In the end, Emmerich and Devlin finally stage an enthralling sequence with Godzilla chasing a taxi full of our heroes, then entwining himself in the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. The episode has a madcap audacity and visual verve — exactly what should have been there throughout the movie. It got me to thinking about all the opportunities that had been missed. What about Godzilla butting heads with the Statue of Liberty? Swatting planes at JFK? Making a shattered light show out of the decimation of Times Square? It says much about today’s blockbuster filmmakers that they could spend so much money on Godzilla and still fail to do justice to something that was fairy-tale destructo schlock to begin with.C+