MOVIE REVIEW: New 'Godzilla' not high-concept art but filmmakers give it good try



3 out of 4 stars

With a resume containing over three dozen big and small screen credits spanning six decades, the Godzilla (or Gojira in Japanese) character is one of the most recognizable (and profitable) action/horror icons in movie history. One thing you can count on from any “Godzilla” flick: It’s never going to pass off as high-concept art, although the filmmakers here certainly give it a good try.

Barely exceeding two hours, this “Godzilla” not only bucks the current summer mindset of epic length but does so while delivering as much action and stuff blowing up as is needed for any popcorn movie, regardless of the season or genre.

The first hint that this isn’t going to be the usual “Godzilla” is revealed in the opening credit sequence with graphics that look like those seen in “Se7en” while being redacted by a U.S. black-op spy agency. It’s clever, to the point and offers a neat story twist on an old theme. This Godzilla’s origins are tied into events taking place in post-World War II South Pacific.

Following the lead established by Steven Spielberg with “Jaws,” director Gareth Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein wait until halfway through their production to actual show the audience their “shark,” and it’s one instance where less really is more. Once Godzilla makes his/its first full-fledged appearance, the movie kicks into high gear and almost makes up for the hours’ worth of mostly needless time spent with the exposition of the human characters.

It’s easy to understand why Edwards would want to do this. His only previous feature film (“Monsters” from 2010) was a low-budget think-piece that put the emphasis on character development and story, not action and effects. Some thought giving the relatively inexperienced Edwards $160 million to make a summer tent-pole movie foolish, but he has mostly proved them wrong. His direction here is assured, economic and mature.

For the most part, the Godzilla faithful aren’t looking for heartwarming human interest sub-plots, although that’s exactly what they get here. Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche play husband and wife scientists living in Japan in 1999, and after a nuclear meltdown, one of them must raise their son alone. He grows up to be Ford (Aaron Johnson-Taylor), who is now a USN munitions specialist with a wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and a child and is happy to keep the past in the past.

Given the inevitable task of playing the lead in a movie that could easily get by without him, Johnson-Taylor is nothing more here than a stoic action figure with something resembling significant dialogue. Three other former Oscar nominees (Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins and David Strathairn) give perfunctory performances of forgettable characters which further proves the point that the giant mutant lizard needs no human co-stars.

Savvy enough to realize an action audience won’t be content waiting an hour for the title character to show up, the filmmakers fill a good chunk of the first hour with male and female MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism) monsters that bear more a than passing resemblance to those seen in the “Alien” franchise had they mated with a praying mantis.

In what seems like no time at all, the MUTOs leave Japan, cross the entire Pacific Ocean and quickly set up house in San Francisco where they plan on starting a family of their own. Again, many of the visuals borrow a little too much from “Aliens” but on the upside gives the MUTOs a motive beyond wanton demolition.

Considering how much care and detail Edwards and his production team put into the CGI and monster design, it’s disappointing that they shot the movie in 2-D and converted it to 3-D in during post-production. Like every other similar movie employing this penny-pinching method, it makes the visuals look flat and murky, something that’s made even worse due to a dark color palate, lots of water and a mostly nighttime setting.

Given the reaction of the audience at the preview screening (most of them hard-core Godzilla fans) audiences the world over are going to love “Godzilla” even with the character’s limited screen time. If this had been a “drier and brighter” movie that was shot in 3-D, it would have certainly flirted with classic status. As it is now, it’s just pretty good. (Warner Bros.)