Sumo-sized and oh-so-serious, this latest incarnation of "Godzilla" lumbers across a frequently dark screen to warn us of the nuclear-age perils of fooling nature. And show us cool techno-tools.
The movie begins promisingly enough near a Japanese nuclear power facility in 1999. Bryan Cranston wears a horrible hairpiece as scientist Joe Brody, and after a tragic plant meltdown, his relentless investigation pursuing a government cover-up labels him a crackpot and estranges his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson).
Fifteen years later, recent events indicate the accident may not have been a natural disaster. Cue Alexander Desplat's thundering score.
Two ghastly insect-like creatures emerge from chrysalis-like pods in prehistoric skeletons, shades of Rodan and Mothra, and in their oozing Alien-looking forms, destroy anything in their paths. The MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) feed on radioactive energy and spur hysteria from the Pacific Ocean to the Las Vegas desert, and San Francisco must be saved!
In the pivotal but supporting role, the hulking reptilian monster Godzilla doesn't show up right away -- nearly an hour goes by of teases before the Big Reveal. When he does emerge roaring from the sea in all his terrifying scaly glory, he's a modern marvel of movie magic.
But by then, Max Borenstein's hackneyed screenplay has become too sprawling and too long-winded to cross over into anticipated epic "Jurassic Park" territory. (Did you see the tantalizing trailers?)
And that's too bad, because the suspense is heightened with strong attention to the visuals, yet getting us to care about the humans is trickier.
Hope remained for awhile, though, because at times there were glimpses of good old-fashioned cheesy '50s B-movie creature features. I grew up on those anxious allegories about the atomic age -- freakish delights about marauding ants (Them!), giant rabbits ("The Night of the Lepus") and the King of the Monsters, Gojira (that's "Godzilla" to us Americans).
Oh, ye olde bait-and-switch! Advertise Oscar and Emmy winners, and then use them for extended cameos. What are Juliette Binoche (Mrs. Brody) and Sally Hawkins (sidekick scientist) doing in such fleeting, flat roles?
The talented Elisabeth Olsen adds dimension to her unimaginative role as Elle, who's married to Ford and mother of a cute bright boy, but Aaron Taylor-Johnson, so promising in "Kick-Ass," fails to emote -- he's practically catatonic as the Navy bombs-expert enlisted to save us from obliteration.
Ken Watanabe ("The Last Samurai") is saddled with the stock Japanese scientist role as Ichiro Serizawa, setting everyone straight and looking horrified at all the destruction.
Ever mysterious and magnificently amphibious, Godzilla's impressive in his rampages. The rocket's red glare showing his ginormous girth is a memorable set piece, as is the first use of his booming atomic breath.
Director Gareth Edwards stages massive stampedes that are exciting. The MUTOs phosphorescent lighting is dandy, too.
What Doesn't Work
While better than the awful 1998 remake by Roland Emmerich, this "Godzilla" still lacks interesting characters. An injection of personality and clearer exposition instead of military mumbo-jumbo would have been more satisfying.
Of course you must suspend belief to enjoy these movies, but why must everyone be so solemn? Cracking a few more smiles and adding a couple laughs would go far in getting us to care instead of merely observing such scary menaces to society.
2 1/2 stars out of 4
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elisabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Juliette Binoche
Rated: PG- 13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence.