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The Boston Phoenix Leaping Lizards!

A '50s movie star is reborn.

By Gary Susman

MAY 26, 1998:  A star is reborn. The new Godzilla, brought to you by the creators of Independence Day (director/co-writer Roland Emmerich and producer/co-writer Dean Devlin), is the ideal '90s movie icon -- smart, streamlined, openly emotional, androgynous, and bigger than the Titanic.

Like the Japanese movie monster who repeatedly flattened Tokyo, this Godzilla is the mutant product of radioactive fallout from nuclear testing in the South Pacific. (Curiously, the United States is let off the hook; it's French nuclear testing that's blamed.) The lizard stomps across Panama and swims to Manhattan. Biologist Nick Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick) figures that Godzilla reproduces asexually (though everyone calls the reptile he) and is laying eggs somewhere in the city. Nick and his cohort -- plucky TV journalist Audrey (Maria Pitillo), reckless cameraman Animal (The Birdcage's Hank Azaria), and mysterious French commando Philippe (The Professional's Jean Reno) -- try to find the baby zillas before they hatch; meanwhile the military fights the seemingly invincible monster -- in addition to possessing sheer size and weight, he's fast, intelligent, and has hot breath (a variation on the original Godzilla's atomic breath) that can ignite automobile gas tanks.

All great monster movies invite viewers to feel for the monster as well as for the angry mob. Indeed, Nick, enjoying a powerfully quiet, intimate moment of empathy with Godzilla, realizes that the reptile is not evil, just misunderstood and incredibly clumsy. Emmerich and Devlin have transformed his tragedy from an allegory of Japanese nuclear paranoia into a classic American immigration fable. Their Godzilla is a hungry refugee who comes to the Big Apple in search of sustenance and a place to raise a family. In these xenophobic times, however, his arrival results in massive white flight to the suburbs. Fearing that the newcomers will sap the city's infrastructure to the breaking point, an essentially all-white coalition of politicians, scientists, the military, and the news media conspire to drive the interloper and his family away.

It's especially easy to care for the monster since he's more interesting than his human antagonists; interest wanes whenever he's not on screen. The humans are cardboard cutouts defined by ethnic stereotypes, à la Independence Day. It's a running gag that Nick has a Greek last name no one can pronounce. Animal and his wife (Arabella Field) are tough-tawkin' Italian-Americans. The French characters complain frequently about New York's coffee. A dull backstory involves a long-ago romance between Nick and Audrey that was thwarted by her journalistic ambitions. And for comic relief, we get New York's pudgy, bespectacled mayor (Michael Lerner) and his bald aide as a squabbling duo meant to remind us of a certain pair of thumb-wielding movie critics. Azaria manages the film's only genuine acting moment in Animal's multifaceted reaction to nearly being crushed beneath the creature's foot.

But, really, do you care about the plot or the characters or the acting? What you want are special effects, and Emmerich's destructothon doesn't disappoint. Between the lizard's rambunctiousness and the military's collateral damage, most every Manhattan landmark is pulverized. (Not the Empire State Building, though; Emmerich's been there, done that.) Godzilla himself is impressively realistic-looking, if one can say that about an imaginary 20-story creature. The film's technological advances are less in the realm of computer graphics than in a tracking system that allows Emmerich's camera to move with dizzying fluidity and still splice the monster in later. The results are subtle but impressive.

What's ironic is that the high-quality effects eliminate the franchise's traditional kitsch appeal. Because it's clear that the monster is not actually a guy in a rubber lizard suit, there is a decidedly low cheese quotient. Perhaps in a few years, when the current state-of-the-art looks obsolete, this creature will acquire the camp value that glows so radioactively in the beast's earlier incarnations. Otherwise, Emmerich's hype-driven Godzilla appears unstoppable. Matinee audiences will surely be screaming, "We're off to see the lizard!"

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