Published May 1, 1998
The most entertaining bit of Godzilla, which is rather short on entertaining bits, comes as the misunderstood scientist, Nick Tatopoulos (Matthew Broderick) is finally able to get through the remarkably thick skulls of the government and the military just what is at stake if they don’t make destroying the monster’s spawn their top priority, as he has been vainly urging them to do. “A new species” could be forming, he tells them, if the eggs are allowed to hatch—“one that could replace us as the dominant creature on the planet.” Then, as a way of showing the gravity of this announcement, the film cuts to some vacant eyed children, their baseball caps turned backwards, as they watch his grave warning on television. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is your dominant species. Ha! The monster, by contrast, is fiendishly clever—smart enough to dodge the missiles and torpedoes that the stupid, undisciplined and trigger-happy military men send his way.
Is the hidden message of this film, directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day), that it is really time for effete humanity to give way to savage nature, red in tooth and claw? There may be other reasons for thinking so. At the very beginning, Dr Tatopoulos’s love interest, Audrey Timmons (Maria Pitillo), is told that the reason she hasn’t yet made it as a journalist is that “you’re too nice; it’s dog eat dog out there,” as her friend Lucy (Arabella Field) tells her. “Nice guys finish last.”
Audrey turns to Lucy’s husband (Hank Azaria), a cameraman, and asks: “You don’t believe that do you, Animal?”
Animal doesn’t know what to believe, he is so much in terror of his wife. But Audrey decides that there is not quite enough of the monster in her, so she goes forth to exploit her old acquaintance with Nick in order to get a scoop. In doing so she betrays him and gets him fired from his job. She later claims to be sorry, but at the climax of the film her ill deeds pay off. She is there for the exclusive TV interview with Nick which is the only hope of saving the world. Journalistic self-importance seems once again to have reached a ne plus ultra.
The original Godzilla was supposed to have been the product of atomic bomb testing by the United States, and it terrorized Japan. This one was produced by the French, also in the South Pacific, but like so many movie monsters before it made a bee line for New York—where, I suppose, there’s more fun in knocking down the big buildings. Not that the monster’s destructiveness is anything like as great as that of its military pursuers, who flatten the Flatiron Building and blow the top off the Chrysler Building without causing the lizard any scathe. Oops! The French, however, are much cleverer than the brutish U.S. Army. Their clandestine operation in New York is headed Philippe Roaché (Jean Reno) of the French Secret Service, who is improbably racked with guilt. “My country left a terrible mess,” he says; “we’re here to clean it up.” And, with Nick’s help (“I always wanted to join the French Foreign Legion”), he does. His crack team can cope with anything except American coffee.
If it is indeed time for the lizards to take over the planet—as a sequel trap at the end suggests that it might be—we ought to have few regrets about it. American culture is represented by preening journalists, a cretinous armed forces and a loutish mayor called Ebert (Michael Lerner, who even looks a bit like his namesake) who is always abusing his sidekick, called Gene. The in-joke is even worse than the characters, and is enough by itself to make us wish for the longed-for lizards to do their worst—if only they might let a few Frenchmen survive.