GODZILLA

PG-13

-By Ed Kelleher


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He started out as Godzilla, King of the Monsters in the summer of 1954. Since then, he's battled Gigantis, Mothra, Ghidrah, The Smog Monster, The Cosmic Monster, Megalon and Gigan. He's threatened civilization in Tokyo on several occasions, and now he wants to rock New York.

Given Godzilla's four-decade-plus screen history, it was inevitable that Hollywood would get around to appropriating this Japanese lizard king for a costly spectacular-budget reports range as high as $125 million-so producer Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich, the team that gave us Stargate and Independence Day, stepped up to the plate. Did they hit a home run? In terms of computer-generated monsters wreaking havoc, yes. In terms of believable characters and a convincing story, not quite.

In the time-honored tradition of monster movies, Godzilla's first few reels contain only fleeting glimpses of the huge reptile's trail of destruction: A capsized freighter, gigantic footprints, a dying crew member muttering 'Gojira...' (the original name of the monster). Enter Dr. Niko Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick), a nuclear biologist on a three-year study of earthworms at Chernobyl, who is whisked away by the U.S. military to solve the more important problem of Godzilla, which, it turns out, can be blamed on the French for their nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

And quite a nasty problem it is, as the humongous, ill-tempered beast makes a beeline for New York, arriving at no less a Manhattan landmark than the Fulton Fish Market. Once in Gotham, we get to know a cross-section of characters, including Audrey (Maria Pitillo), a would-be TV reporter (shades of Tea Leoni in Deep Impact); 'Animal' (Hank Azaria), a TV cameraman; Philippe (Jean Reno), a French secret agent who does a passable Elvis impression; and let's not forget the comic duo of Mayor Ebert (Michael Lerner), a hefty incompetent, and Gene (Lorry Goldman), his balding sidekick. Hmm.

Lampooning TV movie critics is right in keeping with Emmerich and Devlin's approach to screenwriting-fill in the downtime between action sequences with wisecracks, putdowns and ironies ('This could be my lucky day,' an old East River fisherman exclaims, not realizing he's hooked Godzilla), plus some genuine oddities, as when a newscaster describes Godzilla's pulverizing of midtown Manhattan as the worst disaster 'since the World Trade bombing.' Even more egregious is a scene in which Niko and Audrey, who haven't seen each other in years, re-meet cute in a drugstore and immediately begin chatting about their relationship, with nary a word about the cranky prehistoric dinosaur which has been prowling the city all day and is, in fact, just down the street.

But then, moviegoers don't always look for narrative coherence in a big summer blockbuster, which is what Godzilla is, even if the film's early grosses didn't reach the stratosphere. Certainly, nothing on the screen in those good old days of battling Gigantis, Mothra and The Smog Monster compares with the state-of-the-art, computer-generated images to be seen here. (It helps that it's dark and rainy most of the time.) Just one question: Did they have to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge and the Chrysler Building?

--Ed Kelleher


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