"Godzilla," the $110 million monster movie that unfurls across the nation's multiplex screens beginning tonight, was mostly filmed after dark. Many scenes are in the rain. The mood is heavy, black, dripping with menace.

But the mood is ominous off-screen as well. "Godzilla" is debuting on a record number of screens -- no less than 7,363 -- just as Hollywood's big-budget, effects-driven engine may be running out of steam. While "Godzilla" is certain to do big business its first weekend out, Hollywood insiders say the lizard may make a relatively quick exit.

It's easy to see why. We've already watched the White House get blown to pieces. We've seen rafts of aliens, flocks of dinosaurs and let's not forget the sinking of a very, very big ship. It's getting harder and harder to amaze audiences at the movies, and Hollywood can't help but notice.

The "event movie" has become a staple of the Hollywood diet, and writer-director Roland Emmerich and writer-producer Dean Devlin are considered masters of that particular domain. Their "Independence Day" grossed some $800 million at the box office. But a lot has changed since the boyish pair triumphed with their aliens-attack-the-planet movie in the summer of 1996.

Despite the astonishing success of the mega-budget "Titanic," the major studios have lost some of their ardor for the star-driven action films they have long embraced. The trend toward prudence is the result of too many $20 million movie stars failing to deliver at the box office (Harrison Ford in "The Devil's Own," John Travolta in "Primary Colors," Bruce Willis in "Mercury Rising"), and a glut of $100 million movies that have disappointed ("Batman and Robin," "Speed 2," "Starship Troopers" and "The Postman"). Warner Bros. Chairman Robert Daly announced earlier this month that he planned to cut back on huge event movies, while other studios, such as Universal, Paramount and 20th Century Fox, already reflect this thinking in the widely varied fare they're offering.

This summer, Disney has "Armageddon," sure, but it also has pushed up the release date of its remake of "The Parent Trap." Paramount is banking on a clever drama starring Jim Carrey (who cut his normal fee), "The Truman Show," and Warner Bros. is stressing the comedy in its big-budget blowout, "Lethal Weapon 4."

The difference between last year and this year can be gauged in Emmerich's prediction during filming last July -- a summer studded with $100 million movies -- that "when this film comes out, we won't be in the top seven most expensive movies of the year." He's wrong so far; right now "Godzilla" is the most expensive film to come out in 1998. The only other mega-productions this summer are "Deep Impact" (which cost well below $100 million, according to Paramount, which made the film) and July's "Armageddon," both effects-laden films about rocks from outer space hurtling toward Earth.

But Emmerich may be right about the problem underlying a lot of the big action pictures that fail. "The mistake studios make is that they think people go to see movies for the special effects," he said. "But they don't. They never will. You have to always separate between plot and story. The story of Rocky' was great, and the sequels sucked, because they forgot that the heart of it was a love story."

But what about the plot of "Godzilla"? Could Emmerich have forgotten his own advice? The notoriously secretive director and his partner have done everything possible to keep the story and the look of "Godzilla" a secret. When pressed, they rejoin: "Plot: Big Lizard Eats Big Apple. We try to stop him."

Says Devlin: "We think the best movies have simple stories but are told with great complexity."

Despite the secrecy, there's not much about the story of "Godzilla" that will surprise viewers. The thumbnail description of Emmerich and Devlin is fairly accurate.

One key element of the story has leaked: The monster, a mutant that results from humanity's abuse of the environment, is a hermaphrodite -- an "asexual," as they call it in the movie -- that lays its eggs in Madison Square Garden.

It is, of course, impressive to see a monster lizard bay at the sky while ripping through Wall Street's skyscrapers. But a common complaint among those who have seen the movie early (which is to say last week) has been that the plot, if anything, is too simple. "The question is, does it have legs -- and most of us think it doesn't," says John Krier of Exhibitor Relations, which tracks the box office for theater owners. "Kids will love it, they'll see it two or three times. But {adults} may get tired of seeing the monster destroy buildings."

Variety, the industry tip sheet, moaned: "The basic problem with the movie is that the reptile lacks both empathy and panache. Godzilla tends to run when shot at and inexplicably breathes fire only twice."

While giving the special effects high marks, Variety lamented: "The humans, including Matthew Broderick, stumble through their here they come, let's run for it' lines."

The Hollywood Reporter called the script "knuckleheaded," but predicted the film would make "gazillions."

The movie's ad campaign has consisted almost solely of huge, neon-green signs suggesting the size of the monster -- as in, "His jaw is twice as long as this sign," "He's twice as tall as this building." The largest signs are strategically placed in cities like New York (in Times Square) and Los Angeles (on Sunset Strip). Some industry experts say the advertising has not given audiences any reason to see the film. "There's no story in the ads. It's all about the monster and how big it is. Tell me what the characters are, what it's about," one researcher says.

Meanwhile, a week ahead of its opening, market research that tracks public taste has found that "Godzilla" has weak "want to see" levels among everybody but young males; the film must have broad appeal to be a success and must, like "Titanic," continue to draw large audiences for many weeks after the all-important opening weekend. "Godzilla" was never tested on audiences because the film was not finished in time to hold test screenings.

Emmerich refused to give the public a glimpse of the monster's face ahead of opening night because for him, that's the film's biggest draw. "That's what we worked the hardest at, it's what we're proudest of, getting him to look like the real thing," he says. "That's why we don't want his image staring at us everywhere four, five weeks before we open."

Columbia, the Sony-owned studio that made the film, has made every effort to ensure "Godzilla's" success. The studio went so far as to fly an exclusive group of about 80 theater owners to Los Angeles in early May and wine and dine them in order to obtain ever more theaters for its film. The effort succeeded: "Godzilla" will open on almost 20 percent more screens than the previous record holder, "The Lost World: Jurassic Park." And every other movie has gotten out of its way. "Bulworth," a political satire starring Warren Beatty, which is getting strong reviews, was moved at the last minute to debut a week after "Godzilla." The studio also played hardball with exhibitors, demanding in some cases as much as 80 percent of the revenues from the opening weekend box office. (Sixty percent is customary.) These moves could be seen as reflecting concern that "Godzilla" will not last long at the multiplex. Studio officials deny it. "There's no positioning for us because we have Godzilla,' " says a confident Amy Pascal, president of Columbia Pictures. "I think Godzilla' is going to be the number one movie this summer."

Still, here is the problem with movies that exist solely for the thrills and spills they provide: You have to provide bigger thrills and spills with every new such movie. Necessarily, much of the effort in big-budget action films goes into the technical wizardry that tries to push the jaw-dropping images ever further.

Special effects ate up about a third of "Godzilla's" budget, and became, more or less, its reason for being. The filmmakers at first turned down offers to update the 1954 horror classic. Says Devlin: "We always thought it was very kitschy, nostalgic. . . . But when we saw a version of a script we realized we could do it straight. Then we realized it was a challenge to do it and not have it be farcical -- something new, fresh." Even then they were not wholly convinced until they saw drawings of Godzilla made by Patrick Tatopoulos, the designer who created the aliens in "Independence Day."

Devlin: "It was believable. Cool."

Emmerich: "Then we came up with the idea of this really cool French insurance investigator."

The cool quotient was clearly a major driving force. The filmmakers spent 11 weeks shooting on location in New York and sound stages in Los Angeles, a complicated affair since the monster was absent during shooting (it was inserted later via computer graphics) and Emmerich demanded a variety of perspectives for every scene. A three-man crew carrying a pole with a reflector played the monster on the set. The swooping monster-eye-view from amid the skyscrapers was shot from cranes, while dozens of cars were hydraulically rigged so they would "jump" with each heart-stopping step of the lizard.

Devising a believable monster was a 16-month process that started in December 1996 and lasted through April. Initial plans to rely heavily on miniatures and a new technique to capture the monster's motion by hooking up electronic feelers to an actor who would mimic monster movements didn't work.

Lots of stuff didn't work. A sequence showing Godzilla running across a miniature Brooklyn Bridge had to be redone. The model bridge "didn't swing like it had a real heavy object running on it, so we had to abandon it," Emmerich explains. But the main problem was trying to get a 200-foot monster into the movie frame. Finally the filmmakers gave up, which turned out to be more interesting anyway. "Roland finally said, This is stupid. Do it like you would see it in real life,' " recalls Volker Engel, the visual effects supervisor on the film, who won an Oscar for his work on "Independence Day." "You can't always put the creature completely in the frame, and it's completely cool just to have only his foot."

In the end, more than 90 percent of Godzilla's screen time was created in the computer, except for a couple of shots using an animatronic Godzilla head and tail. Miniatures were used for many of the buildings, cars and various items smashed by the monster, and a 50,000-pound weight was dropped on several real cars to mimic the crushing action of Godzilla's foot.

Rain helped create the illusion that Godzilla was real. "It helps to have a lot of rain, because when you're looking down the street when it's foggy and rainy, you can only see two blocks," Engel says. "So when Godzilla comes running down the street you don't need as much detail."

But will audiences who already saw herds of dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" and its sequel, "Jurassic Park: The Lost World," feel as though sci-fi "Godzilla" is providing a new kind of thrill? Many in Hollywood are doubting it. Industry wags say audiences don't care how complicated it is to portray a monster in a crowded city like Manhattan; they only care if they like the movie.

Emmerich says, "I'm not overly concerned. I think people will see it, and tell other people what it is. I always believe in the movie. Either it works or it doesn't. Whatever worry you have, forget it."

It's eerily quiet on Sony's Sound Stage 27 in Culver City, where a New York subway car lies tipped on its side, a life-size Leggo tossed aside by a 200-foot radioactive lizard. A yellow bulldozer, with a crane attached for above-the-fray camera work, is beside the car, and behind them both rises a wall of gray rock 40 feet high. Styrofoam. The smell of sawdust is heavy in the air, along with something chemical -- maybe glue, probably toxic -- as evening falls over the set of this summer's blockbuster movie.

You advance into the sound stage to find Godzilla's underground lair, a cavernous warehouse filled with heavy boulders strewn along a corridor perhaps 100 feet long. The path is mangled with massive broken pipes, ripped cables and collapsed girders.

Next door on Sound Stage 28, Emmerich can be seen -- sneakered feet up against a monitor, cigar jammed between two fingers, baseball cap on tight, eyes locked on the action, rolling until well past midnight. One hundred million dollars to spend, and here is where it goes, into vast, complex sets, into night shoots on the streets of Manhattan with 500 extras, into complicated computer wizardry that creates the monster and his mayhem.

Succeed or fail, "Godzilla" will not mean the end of the event movie. Hollywood will not stop making its big-budget productions anytime soon. But the fate of "Godzilla" will surely have its impact on the number of effects-laden movies that audiences will be seeing a summer from now.

"It's different every year," says Emmerich, in an interview just after wrapping the final cut of the movie earlier this month. Then he sighs. "I hope it will work." And he adds, "I'm, like, a nervous wreck." CAPTION: "Godzilla" is set to open at more screens than any other film, but can it crush the competition? CAPTION: Stars Jean Reno and Matthew Broderick share a light moment during the making of "Godzilla," which opens on 7,363 screens.