Godzilla belches back to life in a new Warner Bros. film that harks back to the kid-friendlier versions of these Japanese "kaiju," or big monster, movies. In a world menaced by radiation-eating beasties, the return of the "King of the Monsters" might be the least of our troubles.
The opening credits cleverly revisit the 1940s and '50s atomic testing that once awakened Godzilla. Director Gareth Edwards' film then jumps to the late '90s, when mysterious goings-on at mining operations in the Philippines and near Japanese nuclear plants hint something bad is about to go down.
Bryan Cranston is an American engineer working with his wife (Juliette Binoche) when a tragic accident means their son, Ford, will grow up without a mom.
Years later, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of Kick-Ass) is a Navy bomb-disposal expert, and Dad's still hanging around the ruins of that Japanese reactor, a wild-eyed loon determined to get to the bottom of a cover-up. Something is awakening.
Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) has been following developments all these years. He knows what's up. He's seen the old Toho Studios movies. He's heard the Blue Öyster Cult song.
Edwards, a visual effects master-turned-director, impressed Hollywood with his 2010 low-budget version of this sort of story, Monsters. Given a huge budget and hours to tell the tale, he delivers a lumbering movie that's as bloated as this new roly-poly version of Godzilla, whom we see in all his glory only in the later acts.
Cranston blubbers with emotion — "Something killed my wife, and I have a right to know!" Taylor-Johnson doesn't break a sweat as beasts try to keep him from making it home to his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and child in San Francisco. Watanabe runs through a panoply of "stricken" looks as he sees the menace, understands it and fails to convince the admiral (David Strathairn) in charge that the natural world needs "order" and perhaps the giant lizard "will restore it." Sally Hawkins was wastefully cast to stand behind Watanabe.
The effects are decent: warships tossed about like bathtub toys, trains trashed and torched, nuclear missiles munched. The movie is never less than competent. But the fatigue of over-familiarity curses this franchise like few others. We've seen Japanese men in monster suits. We've seen digital kaiju, and gigantic robot-armored soldiers fighting them (Pacific Rim).
So in a tale this timeworn and a film this devoid of humor, with only a few moments of humanity, with tension frittered away by the tedious repetition of the fights, anybody who has ever seen Godzilla in any incarnation can be forgiven for asking the obvious: "What else have you got?"