Godzilla ’98 is big and it’s noisy, and while it’s not particularly good, it is just good enough. Yes, the storyline is stupefyingly unimaginative. No, there are no characters to speak of. For that matter, there are no performances to speak of. Meaning is in short supply — this version of the classic Gojira tale has none of the apocalyptic menace of the original monster, himself the physical manifestation of Japan’s post-World War II nuclear trauma.

At the same time, there’s a lot of power in the ancient monster movie archetypes, and even director Roland Emmerich and co-writer Dean Devlin (whose Stargate and Independence Day left me unimpressed) have a feel for them. To wit: if you’re making a monster movie, it helps if at some point you show stupid humans trying to hurt the beast with some disastrously inappropriate firepower. Next, the monster goes berserk and wreaks lots of havoc. As soon as the audience starts rooting for the monster, you’ve done something right.

Granted, this is all recycled from the older movies that originated what we now think of as cliches (from King Kong all the way up through last year’s The Lost World). But if this particular ‘zilla is derivative of a dozen more worthy beasts, at least he’s a sleek new model. Some of the special effects are surprisingly mediocre, but others are excellent. In particular, the finale — a rousing taxicab chase through the streets of Manhattan that winds up taking out one of the city’s most splendid landmarks — is spectacular without being stupid. Well, it’s a little stupid, and I could have done without the part that takes place in Godzilla’s mouth. But at the end, I noticed my mouth hanging open, which is another sign that Godzilla is doing something right.

In this version of the story, it seems that the big mutant iguana, first seen terrorizing a Japanese fishing boat in the South Pacific, made his away across Panama and up the eastern seaboard of the United States before finding something he liked — namely, Manhattan, an island with the sort of canyon-like landscape and underground tunnels that make it easy for a big lizard to lay low for a while. He’s also up to something scary underneath the city that I won’t reveal here (I will say that the resulting set piece owes a big ol’ debt to Jurassic Park, which did it first and did it better). The difficulty is that the military’s pea-shooters can’t scratch his skin, and the heat-seeking missiles wind up taking out famous architecture (like the Chrysler Building) instead of hitting the lizard. The island is evacuated, and the military tries to figure out how to nail the critter. Naturally, it takes a while.

The non-lizard portion of the story basically revolves around biologist Nick Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick) and his college sweetie, aspiring TV reporter Audrey Timmonds (Maria Politto). They make just about the cutest couple on the face of the planet — if you go for cute, you’ll like them both just fine. Nick stands off against the military types and bureaucrats who dismiss his fears that something worse than Godzilla himself may soon be unleashed in Manhattan, while Audrey grapples with advancing her career without sacrificing her principles. The most entertaining of these personal struggles is actually the one between stoic Frenchman Jean Reno (star of Luc Besson’s Leon/The Professional, who deserves this payday as much as anybody) and American coffee. Reno plays a French secret agent who’s come on behalf of his country, which had something to do with the big guy’s creation. There’s also a cameraman nicknamed “Animal” (Hank Azaria), a scumbag television reporter (Harry Shearer), and a New York City mayor named Ebert, groomed to resemble the famous film critic.

The upshot of the filmmakers’ lack of imagination is that Godzilla simply lacks substance. Some wags will claim that “substance” is hardly the point of a monster movie, but I disagree. The substance of Jurassic Park is, at some level, its tribute to childlike fascination with movies themselves. The substance of King Kong is its implicit criticism of human hubris in the face of mighty nature. And the substance of Alien is multifarious, touching on issues of gender, sexuality, biology, and even the military-industrial complex.

The substance of Godzilla, on the other hand, is more akin to that of a videogame. There’s a kind of grace in the movement, in the spectacle of it all, but its only point of reference is itself — and, oddly, other Emmerich/Devlin films. For these two, whose ID4 got two thumbs down from Ebert and TV pal Gene Siskel, there’s a certain desperate wit in creating an Ebert surrogate whose poor judgement may spell doom for millions of Americans. There’s also something sort of pathetic about filmmakers who feel that they have to spend time and energy ridiculing one of their critics, and the joke goes on too elaborately, and for too long. But you know what? If it takes a fat guy named Ebert to save us from the sort of hamfisted melodrama that passed for a story in Deep Impact, then bring him on. Bring on the lizards, too. And pass the popcorn.

Directed by Roland Emmerich
Written by Emmerich and Dean Devlin
Cinematography by Üli Steiger
Creature Effects by Patrick Tatopoulos
Starring Matthew Broderick, Maria Pitillo, Jean Reno, and Hank Azaria
USA, 1998
Theatrical aspect ratio: 2.35:1 (Super 35)

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