Raptors and Rexes and Reno, Oh My!
Okay, you know how you have a nice cheese like smoked gouda and then you have Velvetta, which is processed cheese food? Well, Godzilla is processed movie entertainment. Except Godzilla, cheesy as it is, is more like Spam — some of the parts you recognize as edible in other, more natural forms, but you probably don’t want to know where the other ingredients came from. And like Spam, Godzilla kinda leaves a funny coppery taste in your mouth.
Bad enough to be disappointed with a movie, but Godzilla failed to live up to already low expectations. Independence Day, after all, the last flick from Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, blew me out of my seat with its awesome effects and an abundance of charm and attitude from Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum. Was it a ridiculous movie? Of course. Lacking somewhat in the character department? Don’t even get me started. But it was fun and diverting. So I wanted nothing more than a similarly good popcorn flick out of Godzilla.
But sheesh, Godzilla is actually boring! Not in the least bit frightening. Who’da thunk a movie about a giant mutant lizard destroying Manhattan would be so dull? Or that the guys who convincingly blew up the White House and geekified Brent Spiner in ID4 could turn out such lousy FX? The actors look really blue-screeny in front of the king of all monsters.
Actors? What am I saying? Not only does Godzilla lack characters, it lacks actors. Doug Savant, who I’m told is “the gay guy” from Melrose Place, is almost delightful in a small part as a scared-but-can-you-blame-him army sergeant, but he’s the only one on the screen who seems to have realized that acting requires one to move one’s body around and change the expression on one’s face once in a while. Matthew Broderick as the requisite geek scientist brings new meaning to the expression “phoning it in”; Jean Reno, who used to be an interesting actor, is more reptilian than Godzilla as a mysterious insurance investigator; Maria Pitillo as an aspiring reporter should just turn around and go back to the sitcoms from whence she spawned. Hank Azaria (who Can Do No Wrong) is wasted as a wiseass news cameraman — he has a precious few moments of New York ‘tude that make you realize that the true inspiration for this flick shouldn’t have been the Toho monster movies but Ghostbusters, but those moments do not constitute an oasis in this desert.
The early previews for Godzilla, you may remember, started running last year, and consisted of Godzilla’s giant foot smashing a museum skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex — an obvious jab at the big hit at the time, The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Devlin and Emmerich must have liked Jurassic Park, however, because they stole all the raptor bits from JP and turned them into Godzilla‘s second act. And I do mean “stole”: there are scenes in Godzilla that are shamelessly lifted shot-for-shot from Jurassic Park.
I guess Devlin and Emmerich know a good thing when they see it. The Lost World: Jurassic Park is still scary on a second, third, and fourth viewing, even on the small screen. And it looks like Citizen Kane next to Godzilla.
But that’s not really fair to The Lost World — it’s a pretty decent flick by any reckoning. Probably even better than Jurassic Park. Where Jurassic Park (and Godzilla) make the animals the monsters, humans are the monsters in The Lost World, though of course there are plenty of scary dinosaurs around as well.
At its heart, The Lost World pits evil corporate raping-the-environment types against righteous conservationist types in a battle for Isla Sorna, another secret island that served as the dino breeding ground for Isla Nublar, aka Jurassic Park. Years before, scientists from Ingen — the company that owned Jurassic Park — were forced to evacuate the island before a hurricane, and the dinosaurs have been roaming free ever since.
The new regime at Ingen now wants to bring dinosaurs back to the mainland, and a team is dispatched to start collecting. In a dark and disturbing sequence, the hunters gleefully round up a passel of startlingly real-looking, realistically frightened-looking dinos. The head bastard, a big-game hunter called Roland (Pete Postlethwaite), wants to hunt a male T. rex, and sets a trap with an injured baby T. rex as the bait. The keening of this deliberately mistreated if not particularly adorable baby is enough to make you want to see Roland become snack food.
But wait. Also on the island are “chaotician” Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), his paleobehaviorist girlfriend Sarah Harding (Julianne Moore), and photojournalism Nick Van Owen (Vince Vaughn). They’re on hand to study the dinos in their natural environment as well as prevent the hunters from removing any to the mainland.
Okay, so the good guy/bad guy division falls along knee-jerk lines, but the characters turn out a trifle more complex than you might expect. Sarah and Ian’s daughter Kelly (Vanessa Lee Chester), who stowed away for the trip (don’t ask), are the kind of nicely resourceful female characters we don’t see often enough. Nick turns out to have some dark secrets. And when the two groups are forced to band together for safety, Roland shows a soft side: When one of the hunters disappears and is presumed eaten, he tells Sarah, “No one tells the little girl.”
Unlike Godzilla, The Lost World is genuinely intense. From the tiny, birdlike compys to the awesome Tyrannosaurs, these things are scary, perhaps not only because they look so real but also because the fact that they really did exist once makes you appreciate them all the more. The Lost World‘s T. rex attack gives you twice, twice the action over Jurassic Park, and the raptor attack is positively less-is-more Hitchcockian in execution.
In sum: More Spielberg. Less Devlin and Emmerich. Please.
viewed at a public multiplex screening
The Lost World: Jurassic Park
viewed at home on a small screen