Movie review

'Godzilla' roars out of Japan for Bay Bridge smackdown

His name isn't just above the title, it is the title: "Godzilla."

But the king of monsters, alas, has to share screen time with some other beasties in the latest movie about the creature introduced in a 1954 Japanese cautionary tale about atomic and H-bombs.

When Godzilla goes old school, ripping the rails off the Golden Gate Bridge where fleeing children are trapped on a school bus, the movie is at its best. Let's face it, that's what we pay our money to see, people in peril from a 355-foot-tall, spiky-backed menace that can emit radioactive fire and a roar that can be heard from three miles away.


Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen.

Rating: PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence..

"Godzilla," directed by Gareth Edwards, whose claim to fame had been a $500,000 arty sci-fi thriller called "Monsters," opens in 1999 Philippines at the scene of a mysterious mine collapse and evidence that something has cut a wide path to the sea. It then immediately shifts to Japan near a nuclear power plant.

That is the workplace of Joe and Sandra Brody (Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche), married scientists who are the parents of an elementary school-age boy. Joe's suspicions about seismic activity that isn't like any associated with an earthquake are right, but his hunch cannot save the plant from collapsing and entombing some of the workers.

The action then vaults 15 years to present day when little Ford Brody is all grown up (now played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a U.S. Naval officer with a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and an almost 5-year-old son. He is summoned from their home in San Francisco back to Japan and the Tokyo quarantine zone where his house and the plant were located.

"You know, you're only going to be gone a few days, and you are gonna come back to me," Ford's wife, a nurse, suggests. "It's not the end of the world."

But it just might be the end of the world, when "alpha predator" Godzilla has more than just man -- and his military might -- to tangle with, in a sci-fi smackdown pitting one mutant species against another. Godzilla, which traditionally has battled other monsters such as Mothra or King Kong, here confronts M.U.T.O.s or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms.

"Godzilla" triples the monster power in a movie that throws a little bit of everything at the audience, from a winged wild thing to widespread destruction in major cities -- televised live, of course -- and observations from a wise Japanese scientist (Ken Watanabe) who speaks for the ages.

His character, an homage and link to the 1954 original, counsels, "The arrogance of man is thinking nature is in our control, and not the other way around."

That line and other elements of "Godzilla" also call to mind "Jurassic Park," with a helicopter flying over a jungle thicket, a delayed reveal of the title creature and a boy with toys on a nearby table who looks at the TV and innocently says, "Mommy, look, dinosaurs."

Some scenes have that foreground-background divide in which a character is supposed to be looking at something in the distance and there's a lot of monochromatic colors, but "Godzilla" is light-years ahead of its previous incarnations, especially the 1998 version.

Assuming you don't frequent a theater where the 3-D tends to be murky or wonky, the extra couple of bucks are worth it, as when school children see nuclear cooling towers crumble in a cloud of dust in a chilling reminder of real-life events in Japan.

Man's use of nuclear weapons and technology has come back to haunt him, and Godzilla is like a Spider-Man villain who might be both friend and foe or -- in this case -- foe and friend.

"Godzilla" has turned Mr. Taylor-Johnson ("Anna Karenina," "Savages," "Kick-Ass") into a sturdy action star, but he is almost too stoic. The camera, however, loves his soulful eyes.

Godzilla doesn't get enough screen time and some of the most compelling characters disappear too early. Ms. Hawkins, a supporting actress Oscar nominee for "Blue Jasmine," is given very little to do, and where's Morgan Freeman and his gravitas when you need him? In another movie earning a substantial paycheck, no doubt.

There's some fat-shaming going on with Godzilla as the Japanese charge the behemoth has been supersized. Lean or large, though, he is still the king of the monsters and long may he reign and roar.

Opens in select theaters tonight in 2-D, 3-D and IMAX. Opens wide Friday.

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