Godzilla (1998)
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
Cast: Matthew Broderick, Hank Azaria
Extras: Trailer, Commentary Track, Featurette, Photo Gallery, Music Video

"Godzilla" got a bum rap. The movie, that is, not the monster. Any large mutant lizard that regularly stomps densly populated urban areas deserves a little bad PR. I’m talking about the mega-budget Roland Emmerich/Dean Devlin feature from last year. It got hammered by the press. It got slaughtered in the box office. Only on home video and DVD did it finally earn a modicum of respect. And, frankly, it really wasn’t all that bad. For those of us who are true Zillaphiles (I own all the original movies and fair selection of toys) the announcement that a couple of young punks were going to "reinvent" Toho Studios’ much loved monster franchise was greeted with skepticism to say the least. Why reinvent him? There’s only one Zilla. He (or maybe she, since the original had a son) was a charming cad: sometimes the bad guy, sometimes the good guy "beloved by children." (I guess when a giant blob of protoplasmic smog is threatening a city, the big lizard doesn’t look so bad any more.) He was always, and quite obviously, just a guy in a rubber suit. But somehow the succession of actors who filled that suit always brought him to life and imbued him with personality. In his later films he achieved an almost Carey Grant-like suavity.

And then the guys with all the big bucks and Silicon Graphics workstations rolled into town. Hot off successes like "Stargate" and "Independence Day," the producer/writer Dean Devlin and director/writer Roland Emmerich were willing to spend many millions to recreate a series made for a fraction of that. Hell, the original rubber Godzilla suit probably cost less than the Evian bill on the new production. These guys weren’t going to make a "fun" Godzilla: theirs would be, in the words of Devlin, "scary." No rubber suit. No campy space aliens. No giant lobsters. Just Zilla. Nothin’ but the Zilla. Using a battery of CG designers, they created an entirely new Godzilla, one that was more clearly a mutant iguana. He was sleek and fast, with few of the traits we loved in the old Zill. He didn’t stomp large buildings: he bumped into them. He had radioactive breath, but he decided not be a showoff and used it only once in the film. And though he had offspring, it wasn’t a talking doughboy puffing smoke-rings, but a bunch of refugees from Jurassic Park.

In truth, though, the new Godzilla wasn’t really the problem. He wasn’t really Godzilla, of course, but he was okay. He did his share of destruction, eventually got pissed off enough to destroy something on purpose instead of by accident, and generally looked pretty cool. The problem with Godzilla was, as it so often is, with the people.

"Godzilla" begins with a good, almost traditional, scene of a Japanese fishing boat being torn apart. The beast has surfaced for the first time and begun to make his way around the world towards New York, for no discernable reason and with improbable speed. Along the way he picks up some trackers. Matthew Broderick plays Nick Tatopoulis, an expert in mutant worms called in to analyze the as-yet-unseen beast. Jean Reno is a French soldier who needs to stop the monster, since it was probably created by French nuclear testing. Hank Azaria is the news cameraman looking for great footage. Maria Pitillo is an aspiring reporter trying to earn her bones, even if it means betraying former boyfriend Nick.

The problem is that these characters are not only unconvincing, but unsympathetic and often annoying. Azaria’s reporter is a sloppy throwaway, and we know from his work on "The Birdcage" and "The Simpsons" that he can do much better. Broderick, who can be charming (as in "Ferris Bueller’s Day Off") if not exactly brilliant, is here simply puzzled and lost. Sleepy-eyed French star Reno is adequately stalwart but little more. And, finally, newcomer Maria Pitillo is simply dreadful. Her character is unsympathetic and she is flat-out annoying. Her scenes need to be watched on fast-forward to make the film bearable.

In a bubble-gum movie like "Godzilla," character is hardly key, but we need a little more than we get in order to have some emotional investment in the action. Even big dumb action movies have someone to ground them in reality, whether it’s a personable star like Bruce, Arnold, or Sly, or a good ensemble like that found in "Independence Day" or "Armageddon." Director Roland Emmerich has a sure hand with action and effects scenes, but an utterly hamfisted approach to directing actors.

But "Godzilla" is not about characters, and if you can get past that it really is quite a lot of fun. There are movies you watch that just work on a gut level because you likes to see stuff blown up real good, y’know? Godzilla has that in spades. As an action/effects movie, it rollicks right along, casting character and logic aside as fast as possible to get to the next big scene. Godzilla himself is brought on the scene slowly and in pieces: a horn here, a tail there, a foot over yonder. The build up is fairly well-paced, so you never feel all that cheated by not seeing him, especially since some of the scenes and images are so good: Godzilla tearing up a pier coming ashore, shaking boats off his back as his stomps across the road, hiding in a cloud of dust and debris and he crashes through some Manhattan sky scrapers.

Not until 45 minutes into the flick do we get a good look at his new makeover, and though he’s not really truly "Godzilla," he’s a pretty sharp looking beast, with plenty of claws and teeth and nice way of knocking over buildings with his tail. If there is a big problem it’s with this Godzilla’s passivity. Instead of thoroughly and deliberately stomping the Chrysler building flat, he merely hits it with his tail. A misguided missile actually destroys it. Ditto for the Flatiron Building. Most of the destruction is either caused by humans or by Godzilla’s attempt to avoid humans. Only in the end does he start stalking the heroes with a purpose. Still, the movie’s set pieces, particularly the helicopter chase through the canyons of Manhattan, are pretty effective. The computer generated Godzilla looks good and moves well. Most of the effects shots are pretty well integrated, and the dark, rainy New York provides a good backdrop.

The Columbia TriStar DVD of "Godzilla" delivers this high-tech feature in pristine quality and with some decent extras. The <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> image is flawless, with no <$pixelation,pixelation> or <$chroma,chroma noise>. The <$DD,Dolby Digital> <$5.1,5.1 channel> soundtrack is very effective, particularly in chase scenes and scenes when the actors are surrounded by a lot of little Zillas. There’s a wide dynamic range with plenty of highs and solid, thumping lows. The extras are, for the most part, pretty good, though it feels like a movie of this scope should have had more. There’s an interesting <$commentary,commentary track> from the special effects team describing how they brought "Godzilla" to life. Several teasers and trailers are offered, including the very clever one with Zilla’s foot crushing the dinosaur skeleton in the museum of natural history. The photo galleries, including production stills and before and after shots of the monster against New York locations, are okay. Finally, the mini-documentary is a big disappointment, since it’s merely a poorly produced promo piece hosted as a fake news story by Harry Shearer. A more thorough special effects documentary would have been in order.

Overall, however, "Godzilla" fits the bill for a good DVD, with excellent sounds, sharp images, and plenty of opportunities to show off the capabilities of your home theater. Though utterly devoid of good characters, it is a fast paced, slickly made action movie that keeps your interest, and more than serves its purpose of offering a couple hours of mindless entertainment.