When considering the development of the ultra-sophisticated, big budget, sci-fi blockbuster, it is hard to overlook the director-producer team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin.
Their grasp of the logistics of a busy plot, their manipulation of the newest advances in image and sound technology, and their ability to serve up what one old Hollywood pro once referred to as "a whole piece of entertainment" is unequalled.
And yet why have the Emmerich-Devlin specials, from Stargate (1994) through Independence Day (1996) to their version of Godzilla – seemed progressively less inspired and satisfying, while advancing in sheer proficiency? There is something dour and joyless about these spectaculars.
For me, only a single set-piece in Godzilla – the exciting scene of a car full of passengers stuck in the monster's mouth – carried any true buzz of fun and cleverness.
Thanks to the manga and anime phenomena, the richness of Japanese popular culture is more widely appreciated and disseminated around the globe than ever before. Strangely, Emmerich and Devlin choose to take only one central element from the original Godzilla movies – the fact that the creature is an evolutionary mutant created by nuclear radiation – and plug in a tiny joke about the correct pronunciation of the monster's name.
For the rest of its running time, this Godzilla is very ordinary Hollywood fare. The Human Interest angle in the script is listless. Matthew Broderick plays the concerned scientist Nick Tatopoulos. The surname comes from the member of the special effects crew who designed and supervised the figure of Godzilla – which is surely an odd first in cinema history.
Broderick – an actor imprisoned within his eternal boyishness – runs about the movie lamely stating what is always screamingly obvious: "I'm standing in a footprint", "That's a lot of fish", "She thinks I'm cute". The humour quotient allotted to Nick's companions – especially the earthy, working-class trio of Animal (Hank Azaria), Audrey (Maria Pitillo) and Lucy (Arabella Field) – falls just as flat.
The script by Emmerich and Devlin attempts to contrive a love intrigue between Nick and Audrey – but the echoes of romantic comedy here are as formulaic, inert and uninvolving as similar character arcs in Twister (1996) and Independence Day. Only Jean Reno as the mysterious insurance agent Philippe manages to smuggle in some droll, clipped, Gallic charm to these proceedings – whenever he strikes a pose and speaks, the film instantly becomes more cinematic.
But this movie, ultimately, has less to do with the interactions between its human characters than the auspicious meeting between a rampaging monster and a big city. It could just as well have been titled Godzilla Trashes New York.
There are two intriguing aspects to this particular brand of spectacle. Firstly, Emmerich and Devlin hit upon a clever way of minimising the often lamented body count in contemporary action films: they evacuate the city centre, leaving Godzilla the solitary fun of stomping on cars, smashing out windows and unsettling the foundations of buildings. The small amount of death necessary to the plot is swift, bloodless and usually off-screen.
Secondly, the film appeals to a childlike sort of destructive fantasy. These days, architectural theory is full of paeans to virtual cities: urban zones not as they are but as they might be imagined. Godzilla is one of those movie blockbusters that adds to our store of fantasies of New York as a virtual space – not by extending or re-creating it, but precisely by smashing it up and scattering the pieces everywhere. The long, climactic sequence set within a sports stadium is an especially delightful example of this surreal process.
Nonetheless, even on this level, Godzilla seems a cautious, constricted film, unwilling to broach any really wild or outrageous ideas. What Mighty Morphin Power Rangers (1995) did to Sydney is more inventive than what happens here to New York. Thirty-five years ago, Susan Sontag wrote the seminal essay on the disaster movie genre (including the original Godzilla, King of the Monsters ) and called it "The Imagination of Disaster". And that is exactly what this Godzilla lacks: an imagination of disaster.
© Adrian Martin June 1998