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Night of the Iguana

Just as the UK Tory Party aspires towards electability, so this column occasionally aspires towards being topical (usually with the same degree of success). I'm afraid the urge is upon me once more this week and a quick glance through the UK papers reveals three subjects of overwhelming interest: Big Brother 3, the Golden Jubilee, and the World Cup (there was some stuff about impending nuclear war, too, but let's get our news priorities straight). I couldn't honestly muster any enthusiasm for the first two and so the search was on for a movie I could link, however tenuously, with the football.

Escape to Victory is of course the greatest football movie ever made but I appear to have mislaid my tape of it. A lot of thought (much of it lateral) resulted in the nod going to Roland Emmerich's 1998 remake of Godzilla, simply on the basis of all the elements it incorporates: Japan! France! Germany! The USA! Magnificent spectacle! A nagging sense of disappointment when it's all over! The similarities are truly uncanny. Plus the BBC have nicked part of the soundtrack to advertise their own coverage of the tournament.

Matthew Broderick plays Nick Tatopoulos, a biologist specialising in the effects of nuclear accidents upon wildlife. (Whether all the associated radiation has impacted upon his fertility is not explored, but it certainly appears to have seriously interfered with Broderick's ability to act.) His career takes an unusual turn when he's seconded to a US army team investigating shipping losses in the Pacific: something large, fierce, and radioactive is on the loose and headed for the Eastern seaboard of America.

Well, obviously it turns out that naughty French nuclear tests in the South Pacific have spawned a bloomin' big lizard-monster whom the press christen Godzilla for no adequately explored reason. Godzilla is making a beeline for NYC in order to raise a family there1 and it's up to Nick, his irritating journalist ex-girlfriend Audrey (Maria Pitillo), a shady French secret service agent (Jean Reno), and a passing TV cameraman (Hank Azaria) to sort it all out.

(On a personal note, seeing this film again for the first time in over a year was a slightly eerie experience. Even though it's a total fantasy, any movie incorporating the widescale destruction of New York landmarks, fleeing crowds in the city's streets, and so on, will forevermore be a bit uncomfortable to watch. One character specifically refers to Godzilla wanting to make the city 'Ground Zero'.)

Godzilla was the follow-up by Emmerich and his long-time collaborator Dean Devlin to the phenomenally successful Independence Day. It wasn't nearly as successful, mainly because it isn't such a cheerfully dumb audience-pleasing extravaganza. Most obviously, the characterisations and dialogue don't have the same zip and sparkle as in the earlier film. Broderick is annoyingly bland, Pitillo is just annoying, and even the normally reliable Hank Azaria (guaranteed a place in showbiz history as the voice of Apu Nahasapeemapetalan, amongst others ) delivers a flat and unconvincing performance. Only Jean Reno really engages as the actor makes the most of the fact he gets nearly all the best lines (although there's a nice performance by Vicki Lewis buried in the large supporting cast).

There's a lot to suggest Devlin and Emmerich were attempting something with a bit more wit and edge than the traditional summer event movie. Most of Godzilla is set at night and in the rain, creating a gloomy and oppressive atmosphere. Those jokes that work are sly and self-referential: the French characters despair of the quality of American food and there's an impressively spiteful caricature of the Independence Day-hating film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, too.

But the film has serious problems with pacing and the handling of its star. Godzilla appears on screen only a quarter of the way through a fairly long film and the script completely fails to find interesting things to keep him occupied. The set piece battles between the Big G and the armed forces are stunningly well-executed but also very few and far between, resulting in long lizard-free sections. A wiser choice would have been to stretch out the tension leading up to the revelation of Godzilla's first appearance and concentrate all his big scenes in the closing part of the film.

Even this probably wouldn't have been a complete solution as Devlin and Emmerich clearly don't understand what makes Godzilla so appealing as a character. The classic Japanese Godzilla is an atomic-powered mutant dinosaur, a living engine of destruction who smashes cities out of pure malice and has levels of invulnerability that make Captain Scarlet look like an England midfielder. Devlin and Emmerich's Godzilla is an irradiated, overgrown iguana who comes to NYC looking for a place to hide and who has to bugger off sharpish when a few little missiles get shot his way. The trademark Godzilla neutron halitosis only gets used once, and it's so out of character you almost question your eyes when it happens. Purists might also add that all the best Godzilla movies involve a climactic rumble with Mothra, Rodan, or Anguillas, but I personally would have been happy to wait for the sequel to see this.

The ultimate proof that the producers were looking in the wrong place for inspiration comes from a long sequence near the end of the film, where our heroes are menaced by a brood of baby Godzillae (technically known as Godzookii). The special effects are nice enough but it's painfully clear that the beasties are in every sense a rip-off of the raptors from the Jurassic Park franchise. There's nothing wrong with the Jurassic Park films (well, not the odd-numbered ones at least) but they don't have the charm and fantasy and creative energy of the Japanese kaiju eiga movies. The biggest problem with the American Godzilla is that it's much too American and the one true Godzilla barely appears in it.

Have you ever wondered where old editions of this column go to die? Well, neither had I, but apropos of nothing here's a link to the Vault of Lies, a truly dispensable guide to the last eight-and-a-bit months of biased reviews and very bad puns.

Coming soon: Guy Pearce travels to the future in search of a time when people have forgotten that he used to be in Neighbours, as (fingers crossed) I stick the boot into Simon Wells' remake of The Time Machine. Don't fail to miss it.


06.06.02 Front Page

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1Quite how Godzilla is so well informed about the city's childcare facilities is unclear. Perhaps the New York tourist board has achieved greater market penetration than previously thought.

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