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Roland Emmerich specializes in movies that are practically critic proof. He populates his films with amazing spectacle, blockbusters packed with explosions, disasters, and well known landmarks destroyed in various ridiculous ways -- exactly what people want to see when they desire entertainment that won't spoil the taste of their movie theater popcorn with intellectually challenging issues or drama. Emmerich therefore makes sure to keep things simple with his films, which means a sacrifice of character development and depth, logic, and general believability. Emmerich's 1998 remake of Godzilla is no exception to the rule. While there's a definite sense of grandeur and epic destruction, it is like a paper-mache pinata. When you hit it hard enough with a bat, there is certainly some disposable candy to be found. But what's truly there is now a broken, empty hull that never really had any substance.
The plot manages to be simple and yet garbled. The US military recruits a humble Nuclear Regulatory Commission scientist, Niko Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), to investigate some strange discoveries, namely a shipwreck with giant claw marks in the hull and equally giant footprints in the French Pacific. Before Niko figures out what's really going on, a giant pregnant lizard starts attacking New York City. It lays eggs in Madison Square Garden and smashes up the skyline. There's also some business with the French Secret Service, and Niko's college sweetheart, but these subplots are thin and underdeveloped. The focus of the movie is really about a giant lizard destroying NYC.
What Emmerich gets right is the spectacle. While nothing on the scale of global destruction of his earlier Independance Day, he again shows that he knows how to deliver shock and awe in an entertaining way. The sequence where Godzilla chases a taxi through the streets of New York, and the taxi (defying all reason) desperately manages to evade the giant lizard is just one of many that simply work on a visual and visceral level. The action keeps a swift pace punctuated with destruction, distracting your brain with explosions and the like so you don't have time to think about any flaws in logic that might come up. You can't really knock the effects and the action sequences, even if the CGI of Godzilla seems a little clunky and obvious by modern standards. The reason Emmerich manages to keep getting audiences to come see his films is that he delivers pure eye candy, the kind that appeals to a mass audience.
This would work just fine and dandy if Emmerich kept the pace plowing forward without pausing. Sadly, he takes the time to try and explain things. The instant the pace slows down and we return to the characters, we can't help but notice that they're cardboard cutouts, shambling around New York City having conversations that don't sound anything like how real people talk. Every time we get into a slow sequence, there's practically has a neon sign in the background flashing the word 'Exposition' just in case anyone was missing that fact. We are taken out of the action into these sequences that are utterly useless and draw attention to the weaknesses of Emmerich's style. Lets face it, do any of us really care about the particulars of why Godzilla is smashing up New York? No. We just want him to carry on doing it, while we enjoy our buttery popcorn and big gulp sodas.
Now, Emmerich does have a reason for this exposition. It's a sad attempt to make us feel for this Godzilla creature. In many ways, he's trying to set up this empathy, in that 'the animal was just scared and doing what came natural, it didn't want to hurt anyone' sort of way. You see, Godzilla is rampaging New York just because he came to lay some eggs and make a nest. So it's just Godzilla's hermaphroditic mother bear rage, and who can't empathize with that, right?
...Okay, yeah, it's totally ridiculous and feels like the plot point was plucked straight from Jurassic Park. The entire effort to make Godzilla empathetic while at the same time more beastly and unintelligent than the old Toho version simply doesn't work.
Godzilla in this movie is a completely different creature than the familiar dinosaur of the Toho incarnation. Patrick Tatopoulos' design is much more lizard-like, and is nominally more realistic looking (if giant monstrous lizards can be realistic at all). The difficulty here is that the beast is almost too based in reality. It's just a giant grey lizard, with little true character or feeling of intelligence. When we get flooded by a ton of raptor-like baby-zillas, it's again feels like an attempt to cash in on the success of Jurassic Park. This Godzilla, often mockingly labelled 'Notzilla', is so bland and characterless that we miss the joy of watching a Godzilla movie. Emmerich's movie gives us a generic monster with the name Godzilla slapped on, and it really isn't worthy of the name.
The human characters fare no better than the title character. You can easily sum up all of them in a single sentence. Niko Tatopoulos is the goodnatured scientist who's still hung-up on his college sweetheart. Victor Palotti (Hank Azaria) is a snarky Brooklyn-born camera man. They get little backstory, and in most cases none. You simply take them at their face value, stereotypes that are tired yet familiar. If you form any sort of attachment to these characters, its for reasons external to the movie. Maybe you really love Ferris Bueller, and that will help you be attached to Niko. Personally, I'm a fan of Jean Reno, so I really only cared about his character solely on that basis. This is utterly ridiculous for a film, that we form no sort of real attachment. We have no reason to actually care if Godzilla actually murders them all. In fact, given how obnoxious some of the characters are, you might actually hope Godzilla wins.
The most ridiculous of the characters is actually the mayor of New York. This is not merely a cardboard-depth character. It is a wafer-thin caricature of famous film critic Roger Ebert. Emmerich's earlier films had been rightly blasted by the man, so Emmerich takes revenge in a childish and immature way. He places Ebert into the film as an inept, sleazy, sugar-guzzling political opportunist. Mayor Ebert is constantly making decisions for his own sake, not the good of the city. He's probably the least sympathetic character in the whole film, and it just feels like a stupid joke gone too far. It detracts from the film immensely.
I also have to make note of something that is of no fault of the filmmakers. Godzilla was released in 1998, three years before the 9/11 tragedy. Every time you see NYC skyline, you can't help but stare at the World Trade Center. The film even has a terribly creepy line from Harry Shearer's reporter character, talking about how the initial devastation from Godzilla is "worst since the World Trade Center bombing." Obviously, this is in reference to the 1993 bombing, but now it serves as a terrible reminder of the more recent tragedy. When the helicopters blow up the Chrysler building, it hits the viewer in a terrible and unsettling way, and a dreadful unease takes you out of the movie.
Emmerich brings nothing new to the giant monster table other than a large budget, creating something that is pure edifice and no real substance. His Godzilla is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing -- which is really not too much of a problem for the undiscerning movie goer. Going back to the earlier analogy, there's nothing wrong with a pinata full of candy. You just have to ignore the sad, broken hull that remains afterward. So either you can shut off your brain and enjoy this bastard child of Emmerich's making, or you don't bother and watch something like Cloverfield instead.