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David Arnold's Stomping Ground

by Jason Comerford

I sat in a preview screening of Godzilla and found myself garnering a curious sense of apathy: wasn't this heavily hyped film supposed to be fun? My advice to discerning viewers is to save your money for a cheap matinee ticket. If you're expecting the tongue-in-cheek giant-monster flick promised by the cheeky trailers that began circulation last summer, look elsewhere; where Independence Day at least had the sense to make itself aware of its own shortcomings, Godzilla unfortunately takes a blase approach that robs the premise of any sense of charm, wit, or wonder. The clunky appeals of the original Japanese film versions lay in its veiled Cold-War-era nuclear-opposition themes, and in this film, thanks to the lackluster screenplay, there's not even a central idea to goose the story along. Nuclear testing has become a moot point for contemporary audiences; as a plot point in the new Godzilla it's certainly serviceable but hardly inspired. As is the case with the entire film; Godzilla features a fatally bland set of humorless characters strung together by happenstance, heading along for the film's idea of a fun time.

The film's insipidness is extended to David Arnold's musical score. My problems with the score began right away; the film's jump-cut-laden title sequence, the type of abstract-imagery-barrage that's popping up far too often in American films, is accompanied by the expected low-end chordal theme, a theme that, as far as I could tell, was hardly revisited throughout the rest of the film. What I did like about the main title cue occurred at its end, where Arnold offered up a neat little orchestrational twist: chimes playing a lullaby-like progression. I thought it an interesting idea to work with: what if the score gave the creature a bit of a semi-tragic, pseudo-innocent accompaniment? Granted, it's kind of a cheesy, self-effacing idea, but given the rest of the film it would have been a helpful addition.

Unfortunately, characterizing the monster didn't seem to be in Arnold's game plan, be it thematically (as Williams might) or orchestrationally (as Goldsmith and Goldenthal have done). The chime effect that he introduces quickly becomes reused in odd spots in the film that rob it of any of the charm it might have given to the monster. The chime effect gets overused and becomes cliched, particularly in its use as a "scientists-find-out-the-secret-to-the-monster" cue. Moreover, Arnold's score unfortunately becomes a barrage of repetitive action cues, tossing (as far as I could tell based on the mix of the score in the film) orchestration and thematics completely out of the window.

As far as I could tell, Arnold worked with three primary themes, the aforementioned low-register "menace" theme, a ridiculously sprightly love theme for the alleged romance between Broderick and his estranged girlfriend, and a more exultant subtheme that came into play later in the film during Godzilla's repeated rampages in the New York (introduced onscreen as "The city that never sleeps"). Ironically, the two moments in the film, and the score, that worked best for me were, respectively, the sequence where Matthew Broderick's scientist-nerd character (named after the film's creature designer) tempts the beast by truckloads of fish, and the film's final scene, where Broderick regards the fallen creature, entangled in the wires of the Brooklyn Bridge. The first scene featured a nice little crescendo of brass and strings as Broderick goes eye-to-eye to the beast, offering a nicely majestic sense of connection between man and beast. Unfortunately, the nice moment is almost immediately ruined by segueing into a noisy gunship pursuit. The second moment is a similar one, where the main Godzilla theme gets a predictably lush-elegiac reading. Arnold, to his credit, seems to be aware that his chances to offer the film a little bit of levity (such as it is) are few and far between, and he deserves credit for at least trying.

The rest of the score features a lot of driving, propulsive, up-tempo action/chase cues augmented by synth backbeats (no doubt holdovers from Tomorrow Never Dies). A couple of the cues preceding the attacks on Godzilla struck me as inventive, particularly the cue accompanying the sequence where TV cameraman Hank Azaria narrowly misses being flattened by a Godzilla paw. (Ironically, Azaria's freaked-out reaction shot following this is the only truly funny moment in the film.) But as the film and score lumber on, the cues become increasingly monotonous, offering the same tonal and rhythmic approaches to each of the film's set pieces.

Listening to the score on an album should bring out elements of the music that are unintelligible in the film's noisy sound mix, and I'll go on record right here and now and say that I do intend to buy the score, just because Arnold has surprised me before. I expect that he'll do it again with Godzilla, but for once, I'm not keeping my hopes that high.

For a more positive look at Godzilla, see Andy Dursin's latest Aisle Seat entry from late last week, providing it's loaded onto the site by now. Check his Aisle Seat section as always. And here's a letter we got: -L.K.

From: Eric Wemmer, Miami, FL:

    I couldn't agree with Jeff Bond more [re: Jeff's review of Godzilla last Wednesday]:

    This movie and score were a HUGE let down! I couldn't believe this was from the same people that did Stargate and ID4! I saw so many rip offs of Lost World (itself a bad movie and book) and Aliens that it was atrocious. There were shots of Godzilla, particularly coming from the front, where its mouth and everything looked almost exactly like an Alien! It's too bad they didn't take the extra couple of months or what have you to actually bother with some character development and depth. I felt like Micheal Crichton wrote this script. Banal, with absolutely no characterizations whatsoever. Sorry, but this movie was a huge Jurassic Park and Aliens wannabe.

    There is a lot to the Godzilla mythology that they could have built off of to make this movie special. I surely hope that THIS isn't the so called high point of the summer movies, because if this is the so-called best big blockbuster, forget it! Just to give everyone an idea, I went to the very first showing of the sneak previews on Tuesday night. Unlike ID4 where there were swarms of people for miles, I walked right up at ten minutes before show time, bought a ticket, walked in and more or less had my choice of seats. That was my first warning.

    David Arnold's score was as much a let-down as Tomorrow Never Dies. With Stargate and ID4, he sounded like a fresh new voice, and there was an awe, a wide-eyed innocent fairy tale approach almost, and bone-chilling beauty to his scores just as there was to the movies that these scores went with. Now, with these last two scores of his, I am beginning to wonder if his 15 minutes of fame have passed. This score clearly suffered from over temping just like the movie suffered from copying everything else. The score reflected its film perfectly. I hope this team of creative people get back to what they do best.

    I too think this movie is going to be an underachiever, and that will send a message to the right people. I am waiting for The Truman Show and Armageddon! These will undoubtedly be better than this.

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