Of Lizards and Lethargy
An Analysis on the Failure of "Godzilla"
Plus: How "Truman" and "Bulworth" Offer Hope
for Us All
by Andy Dursin
It may only be the second week of June but already Hollywood has learned
some tough lessons about what audiences expect when they walk into a movie
theater. Fortunately, the fact that viewers turned out for THE TRUMAN SHOW,
regardless of whether or not most of them knew it wasn't typical Jim Carrey
fare, offers hope for everyone that this may be more than a disappointing
summer of inflated budgets and special effects. TRUMAN and BULWORTH are
two of the year's best films, so there's no reason to stay at home fearing
another summer season of mindless movies. (Check out my reviews for both
TRUMAN and BULWORTH below this lengthy analysis on the other, early summer
However, when it comes to the performance of DEEP IMPACT and GODZILLA,
the first two mega-budget sci-fi films of this season and examples of the
traditional escapist fare we come to associate with summer movies, things
didn't quite turn out how most envisioned.
Expectations for these two escapist entertainments were diametrically
opposed to each other: GODZILLA was the summer's "Big Event"
film, coming from those ID4 filmmakers, Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin.
DEEP IMPACT, on the other hand, appeared to be a weakling asteroid picture
without a huge marquee star (Robert Duvall and Morgan Freeman may be great
actors, but together they usually don't sell tickets just because they're
in a film). Wasn't Bruce Willis's ARMAGGEDON supposed to fit the end-of-the-world
scenario to a tee? (Well, it did at least until it was laughed off the
screens at Cannes.)
So, what happened to these two films? First, DEEP IMPACT became a big
hit, opening huge and sustaining itself fairly well since its first weekend,
making it the first real financial success for the fledgling Dreamworks
Pictures. It also was moderately entertaining, offering far more developed
characters (in at least two of its subplots) than one would have expected.
Secondly, and more surprisingly, GODZILLA became this year's version
of THE FLINTSTONES--a despised movie that will surely make a profit, rake
in $100 million domestically, but completely fail to live up to the insane
expectations studio honchos were placing on the film. (One note: why does
every major movie that opens now instantly have to break every single box-office
record in order to be viewed a "success"? Have we actually come
to the point where box-office gross is supposed to be equated with just
how good a movie actually is? Subsequently, we can only guess that STAR
WARS:EPISODE I will have to break TITANIC's record in order for it to be
a "success," and while I know this long-awaited prequel will
break every record imaginable in its first two weeks, whether or not it
ultimately will break TITANIC's new record seems to be unlikely. But we
can discuss this later).
What is it about GODZILLA that has turned it into the most despised
picture of recent memory? This was a movie that prognosticators were picking
as one of the "can't miss" movies of the year. A picture shrouded
in secrecy, with a good ad campaign and well-executed trailers that had
audiences buzzing late last year. (Alas, rarely does a trailer make a movie).
Well, first and foremost, it has to be the plot. I will defend the movie
to a certain extent and look like a buffoon to most in the process (see
last week's belatedly-posted Aisle Seat column), but the picture's script
is like all of Emmerich-Devlin's earlier movies--it ain't that great. Clearly,
these two filmmakers have staked their claim on ripping off other movies
in order to produce what they believe to be an audience-friendly, mindless
sort of entertainment. Emmerich has a great eye for visual effects, as
witnessed by the sheer conception of the ID4, STARGATE and GODZILLA productions,
but when it comes to creating characters that audiences will care about,
they come off as manipulative hacks.
To wit--STARGATE had a gorgeous, old-fashioned look to it, and starred
the usually charismatic Kurt Russell as the hero and James Spader as a
nerdy scientist (note the running theme of this part). Of course, what
kind of role did they give Russell? Not an Indiana Jones kind of wisecracking
good guy (what you would want to see in this kind of picture), but rather
a depressed dad brooding over the loss of his son. Come on, guys! What
did you bother hiring Russell for in the first place? It's sci-fi, not
KRAMER VS. KRAMER.
This sort of poor character writing held firm in ID4, where virtually
every person in the movie was a stock Hollywood stereotype, not a real,
believable human being. Judd Hirsch's completely unfunny Jewish patriarch,
Jeff Goldblum's nerdy scientist, and the would-be noble knockoff of President
Clinton (pre-scandalgates) were no more developed than Will Smith's stripper-with-a-heart-of-gold
wife. Did the movie work? Yes, to the extent of it being a popcorn-munching
good time. Did it push the boundary of genre moviemaking or contain anything
remotely original in the process? Of course not.
Which brings us to GODZILLA. Just look at the characters in this movie--Matthew
Broderick appears uncomfortable as a nerdy scientist, the third consecutive
time they have featured an "expert" brain as one of the leading
roles in their films. Yet, haven't we seen this part far too many times
already? Even audiences that usually don't care about such matters in these
movies apparently did notice that this part has been worn out one too many
times, between JURASSIC PARK, THE LOST WORLD, all of Devlin-Emmerich's
earlier films and, of course, now GODZILLA. That Broderick is appealing
in a comical kind of way (whether or not this is intentional or not is
another matter) because of his awkwardness is besides the point. There
isn't anything about this character that we haven't seen before. Likewise
for all the other roles in the movie--Jean Reno's French outsider with
all the inside information is somewhat reminiscent of Francois Truffaut's
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS part, Maria Pitillo's lame-brained TV assistant is something
she's essentially played on Fox sitcoms before, and Kevin Dunn's leftover
army general (whose side is he really on?) seems like an afterthought.
I personally found these particular characters no more offensive than
anything else in Emmerich-Devlin's previous pictures, but after two consecutive
successes, it seems as if the audience has finally caught up with them.
You walk into people who have seen this movie and they HATE it. Despise
it. As do most critics (save Kevin Thomas of the L.A. Times and Rod Dehrer
of the New York Post).
But I think a lot of this movie's hatred comes from the fact that perhaps
a large percentage of viewers didn't really like ID4, either, and were
waiting to pounce on the movie's massive success but did not since, well,
everyone else DID seem to like it. Or perhaps it just took them a while
to realize what the movie really was. Along the same lines, critics often
have a way of nailing a director's next movie after they become too successful
the first time around (witness Spielberg's 1941, which has grown to be
some kind of cult classic since its original, mediocre theatrical run).
All of this seems to have affected GODZILLA. The restrained frustration
and apparent anger of some viewers and critics has now manifest itself
in the form of pure hatred for a movie that really isn't all that bad.
After all, this is a monster movie--not an Oscar worthy category in most
years--geared towards 12 year old kids, who, as it turns out, love this
film. (It goes without saying that Sony would have been better off releasing
this movie when children were out of school). Some set-pieces in the movie
work, some don't, and the characters never transcend their cardboard origins,
yet the design of the creature is particularly impressive, and I found
the film entertaining enough to give it a recommendation to viewers out
there who typically enjoy pure monster movies. It looks good and it's fun,
no more and no less. And kids should enjoy it, of course.
Is it a classic? No. Is it as good as it could have been? Of course
not. On the other hand, neither was THE LOST WORLD and LOST IN SPACE (both
inferior movies) and half of the "blockbusters" we have seen
recently. At least it isn't pretentious, the pacing is fast (almost too
quick, since the film skimps on particularly interesting subplots), and
I enjoyed David Arnold's score for what it was. Naturally, the detour into
JURASSIC PARK territory with the Baby Godzillas was totally unnecessary
since this is a Godzilla movie--not a Spielberg homage.
But then again, it comes with the territory previously charted by these
filmmakers. If audiences were naive enough to expect anything more from
these fellows, after having sat through ID4 and STARGATE, then I suppose
they should feel ripped-off for paying to see this movie. But the joke
is, ultimately, on them for taking two movies to realize that Emmerich
and Devlin don't have a whole lot to offer other than the ability to produce
good-looking, brainless movies that steal bits and pieces from past genre
classics, throw them all together, and come up with an often appealing
but undeniably undercooked brew.
I suppose, then, that even myself and the people who hate GODZILLA (most
of you) will be happy since this picture's under-performance means that
they surely won't be hired to make Sony's upcoming James Bond picture.
One can only imagine that we would have had 007 battling a real Great White
Shark (the new "Jaws") in an atomic submarine set to destroy
the world with Denzel Washington as its captain and Sean Connery as the
Russian commander of a rival sub, fighting off the coast of an uncharted
South Pacific island where natives worship a gigantic ape who was reconstructed
with DNA from a prehistoric bug that also carries a virus that a nerdy
scientist is accidentally threatening to carry over onto the mainland....
THE TRUMAN SHOW (****): Everything you have heard and read about this
film is, for the most part, true. Peter Weir's delicious fantasy is a visual
treat, and Jim Carrey's manic persona has been toned down just enough to
make him the perfect embodiment of a naive, literally sheltered man whose
entire life has been fabricated for the purposes of producing a television
Weir's direction and Carrey's performance have been justifiably praised,
but equally worth mentioning are Andrew Niccol's screenplay and several
strong supporting performances. Niccol, who wrote last year's terrific
GATTACA (a fascinating companion piece to this film due to its complimentary
theme of a technological governing body running a society), has penned
a witty, thought-provoking script that works best as a quirky fantasy centering
on a man escaping from what he perceives as his reality, with satirical
overtones touching upon the ever-growing media and its involvement in our
own lives. At what point does the medium become the message, and where
does the audience take into account the consequences of their own voyeurism?
Themes like these, touched upon in Niccol's script, are what make THE TRUMAN
SHOW such an interesting piece, but as a straightforward drama of a man
escaping from an unreal reality (he wants out right from the start of the
movie, even before he realizes that his surrounding world is fabricated),
the movie works equally well. In many ways, the film is a straightforward
chronicle of overcoming fears, making your own choices, and the preserverance
of an individual in a society that makes it difficult to go against the
grain. In other words, it's a story that's not all that different from
what often happens in our own reality.
As Truman's wife, Laura Linney gives a tremendous performance as an
actress who slowly, but surely, cracks under the pressure of Truman's growing
concern about the unreality of his world, while Ed Harris strikes the perfect
note between a manipulative genius and insanity as Cristof, the omniscient
overseer of the televised realm.Carrey is wonderful in the lead, not straying
quite so far as to completely immerse himself in the normalcy of his character,
but the final minutes of the film illustrate how effective he can be in
a more dramatic role. Whether or not Carrey will be able to transcend his
roots like Tom Hanks (who was more of an actor appearing in comedies than
a pure comedian like Carrey) is not a conclusion one can completely base
on his performance here, but still, it would not be unfathomable to see
Carrey in the running for an Oscar come next March. It is a tour de force.
As with all of Peter Weir's films, there is much on-hand visually to
admire. Peter Biziou's cinematography captures the pseudo-'50s decor and
futuristic design of the bloated technological studio that Cristof uses
to monitor Truman, and the use of music--from classical pieces to original
works by Bulkhard Dallwitz and Philip Glass--is effectively handled, juggling
between the familiar and unreal.
Certainly THE TRUMAN SHOW had an outstanding opening weekend at the
box-office, but it will be interesting to see over the long haul how the
movie plays with audiences, most of whom will undoubtedly be expecting
another manic Jim Carrey comedy. Indeed, when I saw the movie, a group
of teenagers chuckled their way through the first half of the film, giggling
at Carrey's performance (in scenes that were more heartbreaking than hilarious),
but grew quieter as they eventually realized how somber, though far from
depressing, THE TRUMAN SHOW actually is. Hopefully the movie will catch
on both with Carrey fans and others who avoided his previous comedies.
This is a superb, inventive picture with more on its mind than most of
the movies we'll see this summer combined. (PG, 104 mins.)
BULWORTH (****): Warren Beatty's hysterical and thought-provoking political
romp is everything that WAG THE DOG and, apparently, PRIMARY COLORS should
As a disillusioned Democratic senator who jumps off the deep-end by
spouting out truths about modern-day liberalism (particularly of the Hollywood
variety), African-American lifestyles, and the state of the inner-city,
Beatty gives a focused performance that's as good as anything the filmmaker
has made in years. By basing the picture on what is presumably his obvious
disenchantment with the Democratic party, Beatty has constructed a scathing
attack on liberals more concerned with fund-raising than in any of their
would-be ideals. Strong, non-partisan messages (a first for recent politically-oriented
pictures) are combined with often hilarious lines and a handful of excellent
performances, most notably from Beatty and Halle Berry.
Predictably, the country has apparently been deluged with politics to
the point where audiences aren't interested in paying to see another political
movie along the lines of reality, but BULWORTH should be appreciated as
time goes on as a more durable statement about politics in the late '90s
than any of its recent predecessors. A triumph for Beatty, who directed,
produced, and co-scripted. (R)
As always, drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
and let me know what you think!