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New York City, Meet Your Unmaker

The lizard lives large in 'Godzilla,' a '90s take on a '50s B-movie icon from the guys who brought you 'Independence Day.'

January 18, 1998|Sean Mitchell | Sean Mitchell is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Stage 27 at Sony Pictures is a building big enough to keep most of a 747 dry, although not on this August night because rain is falling inside, drenching a yawning, dimly lit canyon of jagged granite ripped open by a giant lizard. The full-scale set is a picture of subterranean destruction left by a reptile 200 feet high that has tried to crawl through the subway tunnels of New York.

The canyon, seven stories deep, is made of painted Styrofoam, but the red-paneled subway cars dangling from the severed rails above are real. (They've got to be kidding. Imagine what this cost.) At the very top of the set at one end is the familiar sight of a white-tiled Manhattan subway station wall and the words "23rd St." The platform is deserted. No one's around because you-know-who has just been here.

Visible only on a black-and-white television monitor behind the set, two dark figures in Army fatigues and combat boots creep cautiously through the tunnel, flashing searchlights and exchanging words that are difficult to hear.

Finally, one of them emerges from the ghostly make-believe into the dank, semi-dark surroundings where a crew of film technicians crowd around the monitor and director Roland Emmerich wearing knee-high rain boots. It is Matthew Broderick, the Ferris in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and Tony Award-winning star of the Broadway revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."

What, some might ask, is he doing in a remake of "Godzilla"?

"Basically, I just said, 'He went thataway,' " Broderick tells a visitor to the set. "There are a lot of scenes like that."

Here on a soundstage where Esther Williams once made her swimming pool musicals in the 1940s, a sci-fi-addicted German director is making a $100-something-million movie based on a character leased from Japan. How times have changed for the Axis powers.

The seriously regarded Broderick makes no apology for being in this monster spectacle for TriStar that was to have been directed by the "Speed" man, Jan De Bont, but instead is being made by the people who brought you the boffo alien invasion "Independence Day"--Emmerich and screenwriter-producer Dean Devlin.

"I can't say that them having just done 'Independence Day' and it being such a huge hit had no influence," says Broderick, who plays a scientist knowledgeable about lizards. "But if I had read it and thought it was a boring or trashy version of 'Godzilla' I wouldn't be here. But it seems to me they want to make a good movie.

"I'm surprised at how embedded Godzilla is on everybody's psyche. The odd person asks me if the monkey dies in the end, but it seems to me people really know about Godzilla. The guy who cuts my hair in New York--he's Japanese--was incredibly excited. He said, 'I like Godzilla because he's a good man, and he's a bad man.'

" I kind of know what he means. King Kong, you feel bad for, he's sort of a saintly figure. But Godzilla is both: You feel bad when he gets hurt, but he's a vicious monster too."

In the original Japanese film, adapted for American audiences in 1956 as "Godzilla, King of the Monsters," Godzilla was a giant mutation--caused by radioactive fallout--who rose from the ocean depths and stomped Tokyo until being subdued. Memories of Hiroshima and all that.

In this '90s remake, he (or is it a she?) visits various parts of the globe before terrorizing New York. The main battle is set in Manhattan and includes (attention Knicks fans) the lizard-induced collapse of Madison Square Garden, but other battles are waged in New England, Polynesia, Panama and Jamaica.

In 1956, Godzilla was played by a man in a rubber lizard suit. Today the creature will have the benefit of the sort of computer and special-effects technology that brought dinosaurs so vividly to life in "Jurassic Park" and "The Lost World."

But as a result, the title character has remained mostly a phantom presence during the three months of shooting in New York and Los Angeles--even to the actors. They must look at a set like this one, the magnificently imploded 23rd Street station, and let their imaginations take over.

"It's weird," Broderick says. "We see a big foot every now and then. They'll bring a foot around on the back of a truck. I think there's a head that will get used at some point. I've not seen him at all except sketches. They put an X on a board and say, 'This is where he is.'

"You have to play along, relax and give in to it. Yeah, I can't have actual chemistry with Godzilla, but I can think about the story and what my relationship to Godzilla is."

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