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In Movies & TV Reviews

A big monster stars in "Godzilla," now playing.

"Godzilla" is more atomic breath-belching bark than bite

It takes a lot of effort to turn a legendary, destructive, roaring reptilian monolith into background noise, but that's exactly the trick director Gareth Edwards pulls off with his big, brooding "Godzilla" reboot.

If that sounds weird, it feels even more so. It's still a fun movie, one with scenes of impressively crafted awe, scale, excitement and even beauty. And when the film decides it's time to deliver, it most certainly does with structure-slamming, tail-slapping glory.

The problem is that the film disappointingly doesn't decide to do that very often, instead focusing on characters that pale on every level – size, charisma, arguably dialogue – to its stomping star. It withholds like a mom forcing you to eat all your vegetables before dessert, and it has no interest in spicing those veggies up or making them particularly palatable.

The king of the squash is Aaron Taylor-Johnson ("Kick-Ass"), playing the phenomenally named – as well as phenomenally boring – Ford Brody, a military bomb disposal technician returning home after over a year in action. His happy return to his nurse wife (Elizabeth Olsen) is short lived, however, as he's soon called off to Japan to deal with his conspiracy theorist dad (Bryan Cranston).

He's convinced the near-cataclysmic event at the nuclear power plant that killed his wife (Juliette Binoche) a decade and a half before was no accident. Constantly being arrested for snooping around quarantine zones and wallpapering his apartment with newspaper clippings, however, doesn't exactly help his point.

But – surprise! – Ford's dad is totally right. The quarantined plant winds up playing home to a flock of scientists (led by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins) and a recently hatched monstrosity – think half roach, half "Cloverfield" monster – codenamed MUTO. Of course, the EMP-blasting MUTO breaks out, heading to San Francisco where it's planning to meet up and start a family with a second MUTO from Las Vegas that it's been chatting up. Ford, unwittingly swept into the action, and the rest of the human race would prefer if they didn't.

As it turns out, Godzilla agrees, swimming off to the Bay Area to nip this creature love tryst in the gigantic, spindly-legged bud.

"Monsters," Edwards' first film, used a similar, deliberate formula of blank characters in the foreground, awe-inspiring monstrosities in the background. Back then, the issue was budget, understandable since the modestly successful indie project cost less than a million to make.

That's certainly not the case with the $160 million "Godzilla." Here, it's a Spielbergian sense of old-fashioned pacing, keeping the monsters in the dark while building characters and relationships, escalating the tension and waiting for the perfect moment to pull the curtain on the reveal.

At many moments, the technique works great. Take Godzilla's first reveal. The first half is very carefully paced, but Edwards and Max Borenstein's screenplay slowly hints at the star while crafting nice tension and suspense, mixing in enough MUTO action so the audience stays on board.

The teasing only continues by the time the movie follows a MUTO to Hawaii. The tide goes incredibly low. A scaly spine cuts through the water here, an immense shot of monster flesh moves by there. Eventually, in a marvelous shot, we follow a crawling, MUTO-induced airport explosion right into a sudden Godzilla stomp, who proceeds to roar at the camera.

It's awesome in the true meaning of the word. A fight is about to break out, anticipation is high, all seems right with the world and … we cut away? That's right; the big fight is seen after the fact, roughly edited in a news broadcast on a small TV. A later MUTO attack is teased as well, only to be seen in grainy military footage.

It's fair to wonder at that point if Edwards and "Godzilla" are messing with the audience, or if they simply don't know how to turn the switch off and get around to paying off on their elaborately coy build-up – despite the fact that the big scaly cat's been out of the bag since the hour-mark.

Even when the climactic Godzilla versus MUTO tag team rages on, it's pushed into the background, its awesomeness occasionally glimpsed. As it starts up, the movie cuts away yet again, blocking the audience off with closing doors. Afterward, the audience is mostly stuck tagging along with Sgt. Bored Snore-y – sorry, Sgt. Ford Brody – and a bunch of other generic military guys on a mission to snag a nuke, or locked in a subway with Ford's quivering wife. The movie keeps saying you can't play with its toys while it plays with them right in front of you.

It's not even that the film lacks monsters (there's easily more here than in "Jaws," "Alien" and the 2006 brilliant Korean monster movie "The Host" likely combined). In fact, it'd be fine, if only what we were cutting away to wasn't so deathly uninteresting.

Those previously mentioned movies complemented the monster action with rich characters and drama that were just as fascinating, if not more so, than the genre material. Edwards and Borenstein try to pull off the same balance, but pairs the monster stuff instead with a giant void that only seems bigger the more time devoted to it.

Olsen is barely given enough screen time to be anything more than the devoted, nervous wife. Watanabe gets a couple of choice lines (the monster's name, "Let them fight"), but for the most part, he's just stuck making the same face of baffled wonderment. Oscar nominee Hawkins is barely a bit part, made for exposition dumping.

Then there's Taylor-Johnson, an absolute charisma vacuum playing a bland everyman. Cutting away from monster action to follow his escapades feels like making a BLT, but cutting back on the bacon in the hopes of emphasizing the flavor of the Wonder bread.

Only Cranston, seemingly trying to do all of the emoting for the rest of the film in his limited screen time, and his mourning, desperately motivated father-gone-rogue really make an impact.

The personality-deprived dialogue and jumpy story don't help any of these actors. If only there was a massive, awe-inspiring monster vs. monster vs. monster fight that could provide appropriate distraction from these walking Ambiens. If only …

It's disappointing because "Godzilla" does many things up to the same level of the movies it's tonally aping. Alexandre Desplat's score is terrific, capturing the bouncy playful menace of classic monster movie music, and the movie is impeccably directed. Edwards gives the film a massive scale and visually spectacular moments, whether it be two monsters meeting in the middle of a city or merely Watanabe gazing up at light billowing into a massive cavern.

One of the finest scenes involves a company of soldiers diving into the fray, their red flares cutting through the burnt, smoggy San Francisco air while Gyorgy Ligeti's "Requiem" eerily haunts their flight. It's a gorgeous sequence, and as a bonus, it ends with a breathtakingly intense first-person glimpse of the monstrous battle below. That's just one of many sequences that blend horror and beauty into mesmerizing, truly grand spectacle.

When "Godzilla" finally gives its titular lizard gladiator the spotlight as well, he owns it. Edwards knows how to make Godzilla look good, namely one scene in Chinatown where he stands in a shadowy fog, his tail slicing delicately through the ash-filled air. Each carefully paced out roar ripples right to the viewer's core, and the rattling monster-on-monster action – when we get to see it – is thrilling to behold. I can recall at least two moments in "Godzilla" that caused me to happily giggle like 7-year-old Michael Bay discovering his first explosion.

Those great moments of jaw-plunging, childhood-quaking wonder are surprisingly few and far between, though. By the end, it's hard not to walk out a little frustrated that Edwards seems so uninterested in making the king of the monsters the king of his own movie – especially when there's little else that compares.

Theaters and showtimes for Godzilla Rating:


LegallyBlonde | May 27, 2014 at 5:17 p.m. (report)

Thought it was well done. A new unique twist on the old movie.

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Photodavie | May 20, 2014 at 8:48 a.m. (report)

This movie was SO BAD. Horrible plot, bad acting, bad dialog, boring story line. Only the last 20 minutes were worth watching (when they edited out most of the actors and let the monsters fight). I do not know how this movie got made.

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