It's the big lizard, stupid.
I say that because someone's clearly lost sight of the obvious when the no-name monsters get more screen time in "Godzilla" than the main attraction. Forgotten is the primary reason we show up in such massive numbers — we actually want to see the big guy go stomping and tromping through cities, crunching skyscrapers like soda cans, breathing fire and sending the fearful fleeing.
As it happens, "Godzilla's" terrifying towering reptile — the latest in a very long line — is one very cool dude. He's a 21st century Godzilla, eco-conscious and with 3-D side effects that are monstrous in all the right ways. Ironically this big, lumbering movie could have used more, not less. More Godzilla without question, and more emotional content for its very good cast too.
Keeping the main monster under wraps, using that tension as a tease, is not a bad idea. But director Gareth Edwards lets it go on too long, allowing too many people problems and those other monsters to get in the way. By the time Godzilla emerges in all his gory glory, you may feel more taunted than teased.
Now to the reasons the beast awakens. Max Borenstein's screenplay brings "Godzilla" into the present day, lots of eco-issues hovering. Basically we have not been taking care of Mother Earth and we're about to pay for it — a good sentiment that sometimes gets lost in a plot as unruly as its monsters.
The film opens with a grainy old shot of an atomic bomb mushrooming over some remote waters, one of several nods to Godzilla mythology and director Ishiro Honda's 1954 original. Now that was a filmmaker who knew how to handle his metaphors. Edwards, whose attention-getting 2010 feature film debut, "Monsters" — low budget, lots of effects — got him the "Godzilla" gig, is not quite so facile with those.
The bad things begin in earnest in Japan circa 1999. Tremors rumble through a Tokyo nuclear power plant and unsettle one of its scientists, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). Joe and wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche), a fellow scientist, hurry son Ford off to school so they can head right into work and the emerging crisis. CJ Adams plays young Ford. Aaron Taylor-Johnson soon steps in as the grown-up version, the versatile actor proving he's action-hero material. Hunky yet smart, sensitive and self-sacrificing.
We're also introduced to two other key players in "Godzilla's" global meltdown — Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe, the "Ishiro" a tribute to Honda) and his associate, Vivienne (Sally Hawkins). Excellent actors who spend most of their time walking around in white lab coats and looking very concerned.
Like all things "Godzilla," the Tokyo crisis is massive and mysterious. The first wave of lives are lost, the first round of cover-ups commence and the bond between father and son is damaged.
Flash forward 15 years to the Philippines. Serizawa and Vivienne, still wearing those frowns, are examining fossilized bones. Very big bones. Also uncovered? A deep trench from the site to the sea. Godzilla? Something else? Patience.
Then it's to San Francisco, where Ford, now a naval officer and a bomb-defusing specialist, is returning home from a tour. Wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) is a nurse, son Sam (Carson Bolde) spends a lot of time watching TV, where "Godzilla" will show up as news footage at strategic moments. The very attractive couple barely get in a hug before …
The specter of Tokyo rises. Joe is arrested. He's tracking new tremors. After 15 years of obsessing over what happened in 1999, he's more than a little unstable too, with Cranston proving yet again he can find endless ways to play crazy. The film uses the new tremors to reunite father and son and sift through the fallout of nuclear accidents, but not too deeply.
With the set-up out of the way, we're about to get a serious glimpse of a monster. Not the monster, mind you, but at least this bad boy — dubbed a MUTO, or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism by the military, though it looks more like a super-sized Florida cockroach to me — will get Godzilla riled up enough to make an appearance.
Love is in the air and the MUTOs are stirring. As if sensing the trouble in paradise, Godzilla starts some agitated ocean swimming — the better to show off that spiky dorsal fin. The rest of the effects kick in big time as the military, primarily Adm. William Stenz (David Strathairn), try to decide which monster to move on.
One of Godzilla's appeals has always been the duality of his soul. Though he does destroy a lot of what is in his way, his intent is not evil, rather frustration that the world is so out of whack. Given his size, it's terrifying, and great fun, to watch him working out his anger issues. And as he does, "Godzilla" begins to click. San Francisco takes the biggest hit, and the destruction is a thing of beauty. A shout out to special effects supervisor Jim Rygiel. A three-time Oscar winner for his work on the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, he does Godzilla proud.
When the big guy gets fully ramped up, he goes totally radioactive. And those other monsters feed on the energy grid like Texas in the summer. Sparks fly. People panic. Monsters rage. Weapons of mass destruction are deployed. The big action sequences are where Edwards' way with effects pays off, helped by the film's crack team, which includes cinematographer Seamus McGarvey, Oscar nominated for "Atonement" and "Anna Karenina," and veteran production designer Owen Paterson, whose credits include "The Matrix,"
If you're wondering if Ford and Elle will find their way back to each other, or whether Godzilla will save the day or destroy it, don't bother. Expend that energy on better things, like hoping the sequel, and you know it is coming, will actually let Godzilla run wild.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence
Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes