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Things That Go Splat! in the Night (...and so forth)

In the 277 movies bound for theaters this year, expect more than a few leapin' lizards, aliens, asteroids and psychic phenomena. Looking for films on a more human scale? There's that, too, and more, in Sneaks '98.

January 18, 1998|Jack Mathews | Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday

If you think James Cameron pulled off movie magic by restoring the sunken Titanic to its maiden glory, prepare yourself for another ambitious illusion in 1998. With "Godzilla," director Roland Emmerich will try to turn cheese into gold.

Yes, Japan's infamous B-movie monster, a lumbering dino-lizard who was awakened by atomic tests in the 1954 "Gojira" and trained his radioactive morning breath on Tokyo, has been adopted by Hollywood and turned into the star of a $100-million-plus summer movie extravaganza. Let the hype begin.

With an early blast of prime-time TV commercials, Sony Pictures has positioned "Godzilla" as the "event movie" of the summer of 1998, and given the success of Emmerich's last sci-fi trifle, "Independence Day," who's to argue? If it doesn't have the social weight, the romantic tug, the historical resonance or the earnest humanism of "Titanic," well, it figures to be just as big.

We're at a full gallop in the latest sci-fi cycle. "Godzilla" is one of two dozen movies that will be toying with our imaginations, and most of them feature creatures from beyond. In "Deep Rising," this year's cruise ship disaster, passengers will be terrorized by an alien rather than an iceberg. In "Species II," model Natasha Henstridge returns as the sex-starved space slut Sil. In Martin Brest's "Meet Joe Black," Brad Pitt is an alien in human form who succumbs to human passion. And in "Phantoms," a whole force of slumbering, subterranean monsters is awakened, though apparently none of them has seen Godzilla.

Elsewhere . . . Earth will be threatened by not one but two humongous extraterrestrial objects, an asteroid in "Deep Impact" and a meteor in the more ominously titled "Armageddon"; Dustin Hoffman and Sharon Stone are among the crew of a science submarine that discovers a sunken alien spaceship with a lingering pulse in Barry Levinson's "Sphere"; and in "Blade," Wesley Snipes is a new kind of Jekyll and Hyde, a man who's half-human and half-vampire (but is more in touch with his human side).

The apparent public hunger for sci-fi, supernatural and horror fantasy has inspired screen incarnations of TV's "Lost in Space" and "The X-Files," remakes of film classics "The Mummy" and "Mighty Joe Young" and, besides "Species II," another "Star Trek" filmand--some 22 years after Brian De Palma's classic--"Carrie II." The annual crop of sequels also includes new episodes of "Major League," "Blues Brothers," "Babe" and "The Fugitive," featuring Tommy Lee Jones' character, Deputy U.S. Marshal Samuel Gerard.

The overriding impression left by the tentative 1998 release schedule is how few sure-fire hits, or at least high-concept movies and star vehicles, there are. Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson each have a couple of action movies, Sean Connery plays what sounds a lot like Cary Grant's John Robie in "Entrapment," and Kevin Costner will hope that the love story "Message in a Bottle" rescues him from the embarrassment of "The Postman."

Jim Carrey is also back in a pair of unconventional comedies--"The Truman Show," in which he is the only person among his family and friends who doesn't know he's the star of an ongoing television series, and "Fool on the Hill," about an amateur deejay who broadcasts from a mental institution.

But most of the big-name stars in action this year aren't in conventional action films. They're required to do more . . . acting. In "6 Days, 7 Nights," for instance, Harrison Ford is an airplane pilot stranded on a tropical island with Anne Heche. How's that for luck?

Other leading men from the seniors circuit are Robert Redford, who directed as well as stars in "The Horse Whisperer"; Paul Newman, reunited with "Nobody's Fool" director Robert Benton; and Warren Beatty, writer, director and star of the political comedy "Bulworth."

Tom Hanks, who's on a roll few stars have ever enjoyed, shows off his career management skills in two movies: the Steven Spielberg drama "Saving Private Ryan," which co-stars "Good Will Hunting's" Matt Damon, and the Nora Ephron comedy "You Have Mail," with Meg Ryan completing the "Sleepless in Seattle" reunion.

Julia Roberts, her career revived by the success of "My Best Friend's Wedding," returns in Chris Columbus' still-untitled dramatic comedy, co-starring Susan Sarandon and Ed Harris. Sandra Bullock, humbled by the sinking of "Speed 2," stars in a smaller, more intimate drama pertinently titled "Hope Floats." And besides "Sphere," Sharon Stone will be seen as a rebellious moll in Sidney Lumet's remake of John Cassavetes' "Gloria."

Budgets will continue to dominate the business news in film '98, but the box-office performance of "Titanic" will blunt some of the voices of doom. In retrospect, the real foolhardiness behind last year's headlines was the ridiculous amounts of money committed to "Speed 2" (talk about an expensive boat trip!) and "The Postman" (talk about an expensive ego trip!).

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