Godzilla’s Little Acre
By Gregory Solman
The advent of "Event!" instead of "movie": Gregory Solman interrogates Japan's favorite dinosaur
This time Godzilla is really dead. A child of atomic blasts, it survived attacks by every conventional and fanciful weapon industrialized nations could throw at it: jets, bombs, gunships, rockets, tanks — the whole toy chest. Once, it was enclosed in a bubble and kidnapped to outer space, recruited to do another planet's dirty work. It's been attacked by flying saucers, the Super X2 experimental craft, an oversized King Kong, electrified pylons, Biollante the biological weapon, suspiciously penile-looking, poison-spitting Mothra larvae. It's been plotted against ("Implement Plan 2, Item 4, Schedule 5") by alien Kilaaks and the Republic of Saradia, discussed by the Mental Science Exploitation Center and World Space Authority, mesmerized by teeny-bopper psychokinesis. It ate nuclear power plants, enjoyed those, thank you. It beat Rodan, Mechagodzilla, and hydra-headed King Ghidera (or Monster Zero, when controlled from the hidden fortress within Mount Fuji by aliens from Planet X in the Scorpion System). That paralyzing titanium ray in the back, just when it was about to slam down Titanosaurus? Well, let's just say that only made Godzilla's victory dance that much sweeter.
But in Godzilla vs. Das Spielbergle the beast finally meets its match. Director Roland "The Spielbergy" Emmerich (his nickname's mistranslation from his native German — surely they mean Spielburglar — might simply indicate that Germans don't get Spielberg any better than most American critics) lobotomized Godzilla's walnut-sized brain, removed its mind in extravagant digital cosmetic surgery, leaving poor Pop Toho destitute of reasons to ever make another inexpensive, innocent, adolescent mechanical/miniature adventure with ugly old analog Godzilla. The dead weight of Godzilla has permanently imbalanced the series' economy of scale.
"They show extreme intelligence, even problem solving intelligence ... especially the big one," says the Kenyan game warden Robert Muldoon of Jurassic Park's raptors. "That one, when she looks at you, you can see that she's working things out." Well, when Modzilla looks at you, you can see it hasn't a clue. This Godzilla's had his personality digitized to death, a poor example of character animation, lacking any discernible character. Unlike the Jurassic dinosaurs, which Das Spielbergle simply copied in larger scale, Godzilla exhibits no creepy, recognizable, realistic animal behavior, either. Its figuration lacks a memorable, primal snapshot. It's posed a lot like the evil one from Spawn, and even then it's only glimpsed quickly, the first rogue of The Furtive Monsters of Filmland. (The Toho effects artists weren't hiding anything; they beheld Godzilla's enthralling visage with lingering, terror-and-giggle—inducing portraits.*) If not for the Taco Bell collectors cups and Dreyer's Ice Cream cartons you'd scarcely remember this Godzilla, much less conjure it in a nightmare. It's even a dull color — hey ... it's Grey-zilla, it's Blah-zilla — not your toxic, Mountain Dew green. Seen as an atomo-mutated iguana, it has an overdeveloped lower jaw and a cruel face like a giant Alien, and mostly it's glimpsed in body parts. When a filmmaker settles on these newfangled effects, he doesn't want the audience looking too long at them. Besides, we're in New York and the meter's running.
The decision to make Godzilla an expensive effects film immediately departs from the series' aesthetic and iconographic tradition, which even resisted stop-motion (as in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms or the effect Tim Burton captured so marvelously using computer-generated imagery in Mars Attacks!). The onslaught of exploitative digital effects effectively removes Godzilla from the world of juvenile pleasure — now it would need a gargantuan audience — leaving nothing of interest for any age. It's not a good adult movie; it's not a good kids movie; it's not a good movie; it's not a movie. It's an Event.
Godzilla overdone in this manner by a junkmeister proves that movies are improving in ways that don't matter and getting worse in ways that do. And how quickly did the promise of CGI's limitless possibilities run into the productized deceit of the banal. Despite the Spielberg mimicry (the fishermen on the wharf, "I think we need bigger guns" — yes, we know), the drama hasn't the snap of Jaws (while Spielberg's works toward transforming and perfecting genre, Emmerich hasn't yet achieved tongue-in-cheek). And the effects show no improvement over the now five-year-old Jurassic Park, such as in the swish pan to successively snapping baby godzillas in Madison Square Garden, which copies, not quotes, the raptors in the kitchen scene. (And we've seen Godzilla's dopey son, Minya, before. He grew up to become Barney.) As compared to the effects achieved in the contemporary production Lost World — with its safari romp, breathtaking cliffhanger sequence (a master class in directing that would have had Hitchcock furiously taking notes), and raptors attacking at dynamic obliques seen overhead as they cut swaths across the tall grass toward their prey — well, that's on another filmmaking planet.
Interested observers of the recent sins that have been visited upon all that's been held sacred about the cinema couldn't resist heaping upon the coming of Godzilla an unintended weight. Godzilla would not just symbolize, as it always has, man's imbalance with nature in the atomic age (Godzilla's reference to French nuclear testing speaks from tradition), but it would rather represent everything that's gone wrong with the movies. As the soulless, unstoppable, hyperbole machine emerged from the roiling water and headed toward a neighborhood near you, the monstrous Event would not be, indeed could not be, about a movie with any meaning.
A reading from the Prophetess Pauline (Kael's "Why Are Movies So Bad? Or, The Numbers") predicts these apocalyptic Events. She foresaw such über-scaled product as coming from dispassionate, now unfettered directors like Emmerich, a local demigod merely because his movies StarGate and Independence Day — the cynically dumbed-down, obvious, humorless, clunkily scripted and unimaginative packets of stolen bits from better films — made money. (After The Noah's Ark Principle, Joey aka Making Contact, Hollywood-Monster aka Ghost Chase, Moon 44 aka Intruder, and Universal Soldier, no one was declaring his genius, or even his undiscovered aptitude — the Numbers in a nutshell.)
Godzilla's risk-less capitalization on a famous product trademark would promise expensive visual effects and thus create the kind of synergy between entertainment media (the $100 million in marketing buys lots of synergy) and line up TV and newspaper shills like professional advance men. Finally, since the audience for dogpatch poesy completes the prosaic act, the simple art of the genre film becomes defined downward for an audience so numb, desperate, and raddled that "all they want are noisy thrills and dumb jokes and images that move along in an undemanding way, so they can sit and react at the simplest motor level" — Prophetess Pauline, reviewing Godzilla, miraculously accurately, in 1980.
TriStar claims it begged the Dean Devlin—Roland Emmerich team four times before they agreed to make Godzilla; the Numbers mean a studio wouldn't even consider interesting Japanese directors such as Shasuke Kaneko, who made Gamera 2: Assault of the Legion as recently as 1996, or Kazuki Ohmori (Godzilla vs. Biollante shows updated technique without corruption of character), or Godzilla: 1985's Koji Hashimoto, or an American respectful of adolescent imagination such as Joe Dante. Give those guys $100 million and see what they come up with? Made-in-Japan pop can't even get distributed here.
Carefully debarked of anything objectionable or stimulating, Godzilla turns out to be far too pointedly pointless to get agitated about. It doesn't even destroy structures in New York that might resonate — the Citicorp Building (headquarters of the planet's most evil bank, by the way), the World Trade Center towers, the Limelight disco, or St. Patrick's Cathedral. The idea is to crush all meaning without mercy. Even as a study in scale, the effects are uninspiring; they lack the transfixing power of the giganticized George Michaels or Rolling Stones music videos, even the crude rear screen of the miner who discovers Rodan's nest.
What's more, the juvenile pleasure of Godzilla was suspension of suspension of disbelief, drifting between seeing Godzilla as a believable beast and/or a Japanese man in the Godzilla suit, destroying the neatest miniature city, not a photorealistic place but a spectacular diorama. It was attacked by your toy tanks and planes. Indeed, the Godzilla action figures of the Sixties were Godzilla — the movie character was not more realistic, it only moved. Did no one have the sense to ask Emmerich, at least rhetorically, "Why would you want to make a realistic Godzilla?"
Emmerich shows no sympathy for the devil. Toho's Godzilla was never Studio-sterile. Godzilla mogul Tomoyuki Tanaka's enterprise was stylized Japanese pop art for kids, replete with harmoniously singing twin-pixie girls, mod fashion, comic-book art direction, and mythic beasts in a pyrotechnic puppet-theater. The head forbade Godzilla to tromp right by the Tokyo skyscrapers and crush that delicate, precious, defenseless old pagoda; the heart secretly pounded applause to Godzilla's every destructive tantrum.
The real, famous, original Godzilla (Toho should now make this distinction, like Ray's Pizza parlors) has the face of a hopping-mad wet feline atop a long stiff neck, a house cat after a bath, with a flattened brow ridge cum fastback, an oddly likeable smirk, and irradiated dorsal fins splayed in a lovely rhythm down his spine. "That strangely innocent, and tragic monster," as memorably described by series veteran Raymond Burr in Godzilla: 1985, was essentially a pro wrestler, as likely to be cast as hero with a sentimentalized departure as a villain to vanquish, even still a misty moment, or topple over, ending the movie immediately, sometimes seconds later.
That wrestling dynamic — the movies were even promoted as big fights — meant it had simple, dramatic coherency, too, the reconfiguration of popular theater Roland Barthes critiques lovingly. Even saddled with an inexpressive Kabuki mask face, Godzilla can gloat; it just needs body language to do that, arms outstretched, in that proto-Rocky pose. It tosses a huge bolder with a giant lobster monster, back and forth, until Godzilla gets bored and breaks off a claw. Its bawl is perfectly strange and horribly funny — an elephant shriek quickly descending into an ursine/leonine roar; now it's a cataleptic Sony Dynamic Digital Sound blast (only at selected theaters!). Good old Godzilla hops into karate kicks, does a Japanese jig, and thumps its overdeveloped chest with undersized arms. It judo-throws creatures to cheesy Hammond B-3 organ-led jazz riffs. Its heroism interrupted by a death ray from a UFO hovering above, Godzilla grabs his throat with one hand and gestures with the other, looks up plaintively as if stricken with laryngitis, and shakes his head as if to apologize to all the world's children, "I'm in the grip of a death ray! What can I do?"
Where is Emmerich's contribution to Godzilla's legend? His reductive method is the least holistic gestalt of A-level directors in Hollywood. He plucks from action films setups and shots and bits, but then he combines them dispassionately, artlessly, mechanically, without any added sensibility. By their first few minutes, his films feel old. In Universal Soldier (92), he starts in the Seagal/Stallone/Schwarzenegger mode of mayhem, then settles into RoboCop (minus Verhoeven's uncomprehended neo-Sirkian Euro-irony), Terminator 2 (the unflinchingly self-cauterizing mute brute protecting the tough yet emotional broad) with a touch of the good soldier/bad soldier dynamic of Platoon. The emotion is so calculated, it feels as if Emmerich's punched through the chest and ripped out the bloody half-hour heart of character development. His notion of artistic progress is stealing from better movies.
StarGate? Close Encounters and Timecop. Independence Day? Close Encounters and Star Wars. Godzilla? Jurassic Park, Jaws, and Alien(s). There's rarely reference to anything that wasn't hugely successful, because reiteration of successful formula is all Emmerich's about. This is hit-making by the Numbers, box-office #1s, and who can blame him? Godzilla made $74 million its first Hollywood (five-day!) weekend — probably more than all previous Godzilla pictures combined — to media-muttering of industry "disappointment": The sole purpose of this product was to make more money than anything else before it, generate a reflexive response immune to critical and public opinion, then let it creep back to the mediocre-sea. But who grieves for Godzilla? This time, Godzilla won't be back. But the creature the Germans call Das Spielbergle? You'll never stop this guy.
*Mr. Inoshiro Honda, who directed most of the Toho Godzilla, exhibited old-fashioned showmanship. If Emmerich had any passion for the franchise, he'd have revised Honda's famous freeze-frame credit sequence sneak previews, which in the Sixties served the triple purpose of evoking gales of shrieking, laughter, and shouting (that's a sound one never hears anymore — movies today can't even work kids up into a frenzy); serving up instant gratification that made it easier to then settle in for plot; and giving flustered mothers the chance to scurry up the aisles with shocked, bawling infants. A black mark of our film culture, this Godzilla only excited furiously marketing and synergy-producing adults.