Director Gareth Edwards got the challenging assignment to update Godzilla on the strength of his 2010 debut, “Monsters,” a less-is-more indie that showed that marauding behemoths could actually still be scary. As Edwards also demonstrated, this was particularly true when the human drama was strong enough to make us care. “Godzilla” skillfully applies the same dynamic — for a stretch. This latest bid to Hollywoodize a uniquely Japanese icon is an uneven spectacle that can’t sustain its solid first-half character moments. But the movie can also flash a surprising, often clever sense of legacy, and is intermittently capable of thrilling us.
The film opens by establishing, emphatically, that the character’s still relevant origins as a nuclear-anxiety metaphor haven’t been forgotten. It’s 1999. Exacting, Japan-based engineer Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is sweating reactor issues — apparently with good cause, as some seismic anomaly (guess what?) triggers a meltdown. It ends badly for Joe’s engineer wife (Juliette Binoche), in a scene that’s the high point of some absorbing early drama — Edwards again flexing his tonal muscles, and delivering the movie that audiences seemingly craved when 1998’s size-does-matter “Godzilla” tanked.
Fifteen years later, the couple’s grown son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of “Kick-Ass,” all hunky concern and practiced city-tough accent), is an Army bomb-squad specialist living in San Francisco. Determined to lead a normal life with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and his own young son, Ford has stashed his family tragedy in the hurt locker (sorry). But he’s exasperatedly pulled back in by Joe, who’s still in Japan and playing conspiracy nut, in a nice variation on Walter White’s dark metamorphic spiral. Joe’s suspicions are proven right, of course, as a mysterious cocoon cracks open at the reactor site-turned-research facility, and the creature-feature mayhem finally gets underway.
Spoiler alert: The monster that busts loose isn’t Godzilla, but some species of fanged, EMP-spouting locust — or maybe a neo-Rodan, to fanboys — that the movie showcases as fondly as its star. Still, the scramble for containment soon alerts scientists (Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins) and the military (David Strathairn, sporting a brush cut) to Godzilla’s presence as well. So begins an odyssey of tracking the creatures, first to Honolulu, then inexorably on to San Francisco, with Taylor-Johnson’s hero leading the way. Bomb tech, crack shot, paratrooper — he’s a super-er super solider than Captain America. Meanwhile, a second, frisky quasi-locust begins making its way there, from Nevada nuclear-disposal territory, via Las Vegas. Efficient planning when you want to trash Paris, New York-New York, and a pyramid, in addition to the Golden Gate.
Crafted with motion-capture technology and an aesthetic eye toward tradition, Godzilla is convincingly rendered here, making for some genuinely electrifying moments. There’s the monster’s battleship-buffeting partial reveal. That initial footfall, and the way it instantly communicates the Godzilla’s impossible scale. That initial blast of his radioactive dragon’s-breath, and a stunning encore. You take in these moments, and you imagine this must be what it felt like to catch the original at a Saturday matinee in the 1950s.
Still, the third-act brawl between Godzilla and the other two kaiju titans is overkill, a case of Edwards’s budget-necessitated “Monsters” restraint getting chucked right out. It’s interesting that Edwards honors Godzilla’s history to the point that he’s even willing to mine the character’s post-’50s reinvention as fearsome protector. But the more the movie indulges this aspect, the more it really needs performances that ground it — and they’re just not coming from Taylor-Johnson, Watanabe, and the rest of the thespian soldiers and flabbergasted biologists who dominate the second hour. Godzilla, Watanabe breathlessly hypothesizes, “is here to restore balance.” The film could do with a little of that itself, thrills notwithstanding.