“Godzilla” director Gareth Edwards’s 2010 theatrical debut, “Monsters,” hardly lived up to its name. Though technically a sci-fi flick, the British filmmaker’s first foray into creature features was basically an opposites-attract love story, set against the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic world beset by (barely glimpsed) aliens. If only it were more of an old-fashioned horror movie, I wrote, something featuring more monsters — and cooler ones — “it might be a bit better than it is.”
Be careful what you wish for.
With Edwards’s reboot of the 1954 Japanese classic (last rebooted in a mediocre 1998 update starring Matthew Broderick), the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction. “Godzilla” not only has more monsters — three, to be precise — but they’re way more interesting than any of the human characters.
First mistake: killing off Juliette Binoche before the butter has even congealed on my popcorn. Second mistake: casting Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn, and then giving them nothing to do.
And what’s with Bryan Cranston? As everyone knows by now from the trailer, he plays doomed nuclear engineer Joe Brody, a conspiracy nut obsessed with the Japanese government’s cover-up of a 1999 nuclear-plant disaster, ever since his wife (Binoche) was killed by a ball of radioactive steam. In his performance here, the Emmy Award-winner chews through more scenery than the titular lizard. After a few demented early scenes with him, “Godzilla” winds up in the far less capable hands of . . . Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
Yes, yes, he was fine as the teenage nerd in the “Kick-Ass” movies. But as Joe’s son Ford, an Navy ordnance expert who gets swept up in his father’s battle to save humanity, the British actor — all grown up and hunky — registers as just another piece of Hollywood beefcake.
Fortunately, the monsters are actually kind of a kick. And isn’t that why you go to see a movie like this anyway?
In addition to Godzilla, who the grainy opening credits reveal has been around since the 1950s, there are two new creatures. Dubbed MUTOs, for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, they’re giant, buglike things that make a guttural clicking sound and feed on nuclear weapons. (Sometimes they use their mandibles. In one dimly lit scene, one of them appears to shove a warhead between its legs. Ew.)
One of them — the male — flies. His mate is carrying an egg sac filled with dozens, perhaps hundreds, of considerably less massive, but even more terrifying, babies. The film centers on Mr. and Mrs. MUTO’s attempt to settle down and raise a family. At the same time, we humans are trying to figure out a way to kill them that doesn’t also kill us.
And the movie is called “Godzilla”? Trust me, there’s a reason he gets top billing, but it would spoil the fun to explain why.
In any case, the MUTOs alone are worth the price of admission. They’re nasty, hard to kill and extremely destructive. The film boasts handsome CGI animation, not just in the creature department, but also in the plentiful scenes of mayhem, which involve train derailments, collapsing cranes and cooling towers, as well as picturesque havoc on the Golden Gate Bridge.
This Godzilla is ready for his close-up, and he looks pretty great in Imax 3-D.
The plot, such as it involves humans, centers mainly on Ford, a hero whose attention keeps getting diverted from his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), to his father to his kid (Carson Bolde) to the MUTOs to Godzilla and back to Elle again. Though credited solely to writer Max Borenstein (“Swordswallowers and Thin Men”), the “Godzilla” screenplay derives from a story tweaked and retweaked by four other writers, including Frank Darabont (“The Shawshank Redemption”).
If anything, it suffers from a form of ADHD.
To be sure, “Godzilla” is cheesy, cliched and shallow. Though it exploits our fears of environmental calamity, it gives short shrift to any deeper message. As Watanabe’s scientist character opines, sagaciously, before resuming his expression of concerned dismay, “The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control, and not the other way around.”
That’s a thought about as deep as Godzilla swims, when he’s cruising, sharklike, through the ocean, his dorsal spikes rising ominously out of the water. Like the movie, they’re primitive but effective weapons.
★ ★ ½
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains frightening mayhem and destruction. 123 minutes.