I was one of those kids who wasted their youth watching “Creature Double Feature” smackdowns between Godzilla and his arsenal of enemy combatants such as Mothra and Ghidorah. There was something about seeing these behemoths stomp Tokyo to dust that made me absolutely giddy: the primal doomsday terror of a beast created by A-bomb radiation, the model-shop ingenuity, the laughable man-in-a-rubber-suit campiness. It’s been 16 years since Hollywood nearly soured that love affair, thanks to Roland Emmerich’s 1998 atrocity. And I was hopeful that the splashy new 3-D reboot might rekindle the old flame.
Unfortunately, Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” feels like two movies Scotch-taped together. In one, Bryan Cranston plays a nuclear engineer with a tragic past who’s racing to expose the truth about a series of seismic anomalies, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is his estranged soldier son, and Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins are a pair of exposition-spouting scientists trying to keep straight faces while talking about electromagnetic pulses and mankind’s hubris. In the other, mammoth CG beasts knock the snot out of one another. Only one of these movies is any good. Thankfully, it’s the monster one.
Edwards, whose only previous film was 2010’s low-budget “Monsters,” has been given a quick call-up to the majors with the reported $160 million “Godzilla.” He doesn’t seem too interested in his actors — they’re more plodding than their reptilian costars and you don’t care about a single one of them — but Edwards does know how to fashion some serious monster mayhem. Taking a cue from “Jaws,” he wisely delays Godzilla’s appearance, building suspense. In movies like these, it’s all about the slow tease and the big reveal. As an appetizer, though, he gives us a pair of ”MUTOs” (massive unidentified terrestrial organisms) — a male and female duo of giant, Giger-esque creatures with sleek pincer jaws that resemble humongous staple removers. The MUTOs, who arrive on the scene after leveling a Japanese nuclear reactor, care about two things: feeding on the radiation that created them and mating with each other in…San Francisco of all places. Tony Bennett would be proud.
When Godzilla first lumbers on screen to hunt the MUTOs and ”restore balance,” he feels both nostalgically familiar and excitingly new. As big as a Sheraton and with a shriek that rumbles your insides, he appears beefier and meaner than you remember. But looks can be deceiving. Godzilla is humanity’s only hope for destroying the MUTOs. Or as Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa says, ”Let them fight!” And fight they do, in an epic clash that turns the Bay Area to rubble. Unlike last year’s disappointing Pacific Rim, Godzilla actually shows us its monsters without a scrim of rain and a cloak of darkness. And the thrill of the film is getting the chance to fetishize their sheer size and physicality as they rip through power lines and demolish buildings with their lashing tails. In its handful of moments like these, “Godzilla” almost makes you feel like a kid again.