No longer played by a stuntman in a cheesy lizard suit, “Godzilla” has transformed into a supersized, existential, 3-D/CGI reptilian anti-hero in hotshot British director Gareth Edwards’ surprisingly good and weighty retooling of the classic “King of the Monsters” franchise.
Taking its thematic cues and some stylistic clues from Ishiro Honda’s dark, 1954 origin film — still a classic, moody high-water mark for all subsequent “kaiju” movies — the new “Godzilla” takes full advantage of Edwards’ maverick genius for special effects (demonstrated in his low-budget sci-fi hit “Monsters”), his obvious regard for the franchise’s post-Hiroshima atomic angst, and his clear affection for the fire-breathing, building-crunching creature of the title.
Edwards’ serious intent is signaled by an eerie opening sequence referencing post-war Pacific nuclear tests before the story plunges into a thrilling opening act concerning a Fukushima-like meltdown at a Japanese nuclear power plant. Expat American engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston, excellent) suspects that something dark, ancient and sinister is stirring beneath the surface of the meltdown, which killed his beloved engineer wife (Juliette Binoche).
Leap ahead several years, and a disheveled Joe is still trying to penetrate a government cover-up when his estranged soldier son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, very bland), shows up and tries to reign in his trouble-making dad.
But with the terrible appearance of a winged, radioactive pterodactyl creature dubbed a MUTO — or “Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism” (aka Mothra) — it’s soon clear that Joe’s worst fears are realized. With the MUTO on a destructive rampage through Tokyo and Honolulu (both brilliantly reduced to rubble through CGI witchery) en route to a rendezvous with his female mate in vulnerable San Francisco, Ford assumes the human hero’s mantle (with Cranston departing far too soon) and sets off with sympathetic Japanese scientist, Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe), to save the world from marauding atomic monsters.
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PG-132:03 3 stars
Starring: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston
(Intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence)