After bizarre attacks on a Japanese freighter, first the French then the U.S. learn of the existence of an apparent modern "dinosaur". When it's suspected that radiation from nuclear weapons testing in French Polynesia may have instead produced the monster, biological radiation specialist Dr. Nick Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick) is called to the scene. While investigating the monster's path of destruction, a new sighting arrives--just off the coast of New York City!
It's no secret that Godzilla has been much maligned. Even Fangoria editor Tony Timpone stated in an editorial that he thought it sucked, and he's usually willing to give movies the benefit of the doubt. The reasons why director Roland Emmerich's version of Godzilla is hated are as varied as people stating opinions. But I tend to think that there is also a strong bandwagon effect with this film that will be tempered by time. There are already signs of a number of people giving it a second look and lessening the severity of their criticism.
The chief complaint seems to come from a very vocal but relatively small crowd of fanboy purists--they dislike that Godzilla is different here. In the Japanese films, made by the Toho production company, Godzilla is a guy in a rubber suit who stomps on models of buildings and such. He tends to lumber, as irrelevant military attacks on him provide pretty fireworks. Most Godzilla films feature him fighting some other monster, "professional wrestling" style, and Godzilla arbitrarily falls down and gets back up as he is attacked and attacks with various "death rays" from his mouth, eyes, etc. Now that might sound like I don't like the typical Godzilla film, but that's not true. I like them quite a bit, but a big part of the reason why is that most of them are very cheesy. I'm a fan of bizarre cheese/camp, and you get tons of that in Godzilla films.
But I'm not a purist. To me, there's no good reason why Emmerich's Godzilla needs to be similar to the Toho incarnations, which in fact are often quite different from and inconsistent with each other, too. At this point, I see Godzilla more as a recurring character type--think of the various instantiations of Dracula or Frankenstein throughout the 20th Century. The Toho films can't really be seen as chapters in a single, long story. But whether their arguments are wrong or not, the fanboy purists are at least noisy and prolific, and too many people are followers.
If Emmerich would have given us a guy in a rubber suit, acting just like the Toho Godzillas (not "Godzilla"), with the typical gobbledy-gook of a Toho script, this film would have bombed even worse (if we can call a 100 million dollar film that made a profit a "bomb") and the fanboys would have still found something to complain about. Even though I love the Toho Godzilla films, too, we can't deny that they do not tend to be bestsellers on video in the U.S., despite the fact that they're readily available for purchase.
So what Emmerich gives us instead is an epic, expensive-looking film that spans a number of genres, features more coherent dialogue and subplots than a typical Toho Godzilla film, and showcases a redesigned, mostly cgi cast of monsters, where Godzilla looks and behaves much more like a "real" giant, mutant lizard. For those of us who are not purists, who do not care if our opinions match the majority, and who evaluate films on all or their technical and artistic levels, it's difficult to deny that Godzilla has many merits.
For example, the cinematography in this film is gorgeous. The sound design is superb and the soundtrack (score and songs) works well with the film. All of the action sequences, and they comprise a large percentage of the film, are expertly staged--Emmerich doesn't resort to darkness, blur-cams and overly quick cuts like many other directors. It's always easy to follow the narrative during action scenes, it's always easy to see what's going on, and it's always coherent. That goes for the non-action scenes, too--the entire film is ingeniously designed in terms of the progression from one sequence to another. Also, the cgi is amazing--it's often difficult to tell where it stops and mechanicals/models begin.
But the story is great, too. Broderick's Tatopoulos is an attractive anti-hero, a nerdish scientist who solve dilemmas with his professional knowledge. The other hero is Jean Reno as Philippe Roache, a humorously enigmatic French "insurance agent". The obligatory romantic subplot, involving Tatopoulos and Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo) surprisingly avoids clichés, and Timmonds provides a launching pad for an all-too-honest satire of the media.
Satire is high up on Emmerich's agenda. Godzilla not only satirizes the media, but the military, New York/New Yorkers, film critics, and even monster movies. While the film is simultaneously giving us a lot of genres--sci-fi, horror, adventure, war film, drama, etc. the most unexpected motif is the almost cartoonish, spoof-like humor. Godzilla is more frequently laugh-out-loud funny that anyone expected it to be. It's not just one-liners and overt jokes, although those are certainly present, but the amped up intentional absurdity of situations such as the final taxi cab "chase".
Even if you think that Godzilla has some internal problems as an artwork (and I agree that there is a slight clunkiness in parts of the narrative flow--it caused me to subtract a point), there's no way it deserves the trashing it's received so far. This is at least a well-made film on a technical level, and if you have any taste for slightly campy sci-fi/monster flicks, you should find much to enjoy here.