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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 movies).

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....

*IN THEATERS

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 program.

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 have been.

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 dursina@worldnet.att.net and let me know what you think!


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