directed by Roland Emmerich
(Tri-Star, 1998)

In the 1950s, hardly a week went by without some part of the industrialized world being threatened by an oversized insect or animal: giant ants in Them, giant grasshoppers in The Beginning of the End, a giant bird in Rodan.

But none of these uranium-enriched creatures cast half the shadow of their great Japanese uncle, Godzilla.

Godzilla, which was released in Japan as Gojira in 1954, didn't make it to the United States until 1956. By then it had picked up the name change and a bunch of footage featuring Raymond "Perry Mason" Burr as an American reporter on the scene.

The special effects were crude, even by 1950s standards. The 400-foot-high "King of the Monsters" was played by the film's producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka, in a rubber suit. In it he wrecked more trains and toys than a spoiled 5-year-old, thus setting the standards for movie monsters for generations to come.

Now the big guy's back, in living color, with more destruction on his mind, a production budget that rivals the national debt and a catchier slogan: "Size matters."

This time around Matthew Broderick plays the scientist, Dr. Niko Tatopoulos, called in to track down the elusive critter, who first kicks up his heels in the lizard-ridden islands of French Polynesia but bypasses Tokyo and makes straight for New York. There he takes Manhattan by storm, threatening the career of Mayor Ebert (Michael "Numan" Lerner) and the life of Nick's college sweetheart, Audrey Timmonds (Maria Pitillo), who's been trying for eight years to make it as a TV reporter.

But the differences between Godzilla and Gojira go far beyond the special effects budget, the new locale or the use of actors whose mouths move at the same time the words come out. This Godzilla is a brand new species, Dr. Tatopoulos declares.

As such, he deserves a movie of his own. Unfortunately, that movie is nearly an hour longer than the original, but doesn't really distinguish itself until the last 30 minutes.

That's when Dr. Tatopoulos discovers what the hermaphroditic beast is really up to: taking its cue from Them and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, it's come to Manhattan to nest, no doubt in an attempt to spawn sequels.

The last half hour of Godzilla is about as good a piece of dino-cide as audiences are going to get. The new beast is lithe, light on his feet and capable of outrunning a New York City cab containing the good doctor, his good girlfriend and a couple of essential allies. Talk about a feat.

But bogged down by a soggy script that can't decide if it's extolling or lampooning its genre and actors who bounce back and forth from playing it straight to camping it up, the first hour of Godzilla, is more bore than beast, a kind of Jaws on land, with some battle scenes thrown in to keep audiences awake.

Yes, size matters: Shorter is better, especially when you're short on script.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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