Let 'Em Fight: "Godzilla" restores awe and wonder in summer blockbuster

Godzilla (2014) 
123 min., rated PG-13.

When Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures were in talks of rebooting Japan's iconic city-smashing kaiju stylistically closer to the original 1954 film, they entrusted in a filmmaker with only one feature under his belt. Director Gareth Edwards must have rightfully shot up to the top of the studios' list after impressing with 2010's lo-fi "Monsters," and as it goes, "Godzilla" is the filmmaker's chance to work on a much grander scope and scale with a very healthy $160 million budget. These days, it's rare to be impressed, as one often longs for the days when a Great White Shark and T-Rex were inexpensive and animatronic, but Edwards was just the man to bring back the King of All Monsters in all his roaring glory. Doing a passable job of giving us human characters to grab onto, "Godzilla" does more right with its reptilian namesake and overall spectacle in ways that allow the film to nearly stack up against Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking monsters-run-amok movies. It's enough to leave any movie fan electrified. 

Over the opening credits, the film begins with 1950s footage of atomic bombs and a titanic animal with a back of jagged spikes rising from the water as the bomb detonates. Switch to 1999 in the Philippines: scientists Ishiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) find a skeleton and two eggs, one that has hatched and another apparently escaping to sea. Meanwhile, at a nuclear power plant in Janjira, Japan, American husband-and-wife scientists Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche) try investigating seismic activity and unexplainable tremors, until there's a breach and a radiation disaster. Fifteen years later, Joe has his own crackpot theories, convinced the government has covered something up, and wants answers. Back from training in the Navy, Joe's son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), leaves nurse wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and their 4-year-old son in San Francisco to assist his father. By trespassing back to their quarantined Janjira home, Joe and Ford ruin the cover-up of secret agency Monarch. What comes next will probably send the world back to the Stone Age, as the parasitic MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) hatch, become airborne, and could be communicating with something big and spiky.

Truly a considerable upgrade in quality from Roland Emmerich's half-fun, fully dumb 1998 disaster of the same name, which wasn't going to be hard to do, "Godzilla" stands as a robust pop entertainment, renewing that magical sense of awe and wonder and stirring danger one wishes could be felt consistently in our big summer tentpoles. As with "Jaws," "Alien," "Jurassic Park," and then more recently the pretty great "Cloverfield" and "Super 8," the monster is kept under wraps for a full hour. That calls for director Edwards to tease us in clever ways and it helps that he knows exactly where to put the camera. When the time does come to show him off, the reveal of The Big Bad Lizard will elicit giddy excitement and impressive fear. Humanely treated as a savior and a destructive force, Godzilla, himself, is an awesome creation. Effects have come a long way and movie budgets have inflated since men in rubber suits were made to stand in as Godzilla and wreak havoc on miniature city models. Here, the effects work is staggering, actually making the creature creations (including the MUTOs) seem tactile as if they are occupying the same space as the actors. Other technical specs are of the highest order, from Seamus McGarvey's overwhelmingly rich cinematography to Alexandre Desplat's rousing, propulsive score, that without them the film might not be as jaw-dropping on occasion. 

Most, if not all, of the characters are stock Irwin Allen-ized types being played by actors who are more than qualified to create meatier characters if the material is there. The formidable Bryan Cranston commits to the role of Joe who instantly gets us emotionally invested. He's a commanding anchor in a way no one else in the human cast has a chance to be. As Ford Brody (is that last name a "Jaws" nod?), Aaron Taylor-Johnson is placed before everyone else and he's merely functional as our stolid, strapping hero. Elizabeth Olsen, naturally emotive per usual, can only do so much with a paper-thin role that calls for her to act concerned and stare on at the skyscraper-high creature with her mouth agape, and that's about it for wife/mother/nurse Elle. Also, someone with the Oscar-nominated stature of Sally Hawkins deserves more to do than blather exposition as scientist Dr. Graham, while Ken Watanabe feels more organically used and lends some weight as Dr. Serizawa but strangely disappears without a trace for a while. Lastly, as Joe's scientist wife Sandra, Juliette Binoche makes the most of her very limited screen time, conveying how fragile the cost of life can be in her touching last scene. Inevitably, the film doesn't know what to do with every cast member, relegating a good chunk of them to day player status, but this isn't a nuanced character piece anyway. 

For director Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein (whose script comes from a story credited to Dave Callaham), it must have been a priority to stay true to the Toho Studio movies' spirit. This "Godzilla" takes itself seriously, but it isn't campy nor is it humorless (i.e. oblivious Vegas gamblers get a little surprise). In a good way, there are plenty of Spielbergian moments (i.e. a young girl noticing an oncoming tsunami before an entire crowd, a domesticated animal in peril, etc.) that feel more affectionate than plagiaristic, but Edwards finds even more opportunities to let his film stand on its own. Percolating with chill-inducing dread and hauntingly scored to György Ligeti's "Requiem" (the same piece from "2001: A Space Odyssey"), a military skydive through the stormy clouds with red flares down to the destroyed Bay Area, not before passing the reptilian behemoth, is just one memorable, hold-your-breath moment. Even before then, a nuclear breach in the underground Japanese bunker is harrowing, and set-pieces involving a San Francisco bridge, a Honolulu tidal wave, and a Nevada railroad trestle are suspenseful and spectacularly staged. Rooting interest is mostly by default and the undynamically drawn homosapien drama gets the job done at best, but when your movie is titled "Godzilla," the humans better not upstage the monster. In the final half-hour, it's Godzilla whom we came for anyway, and boy, does the film ever deliver the crowd-pleasing monster-vs.-monster fun. It's still only May, but "Godzilla" is in the running for most thrilling monster movie of 2014.

Grade: B +