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“Godzilla” demands to be seen on the big screen

Long ago, in a preferably forgotten time, an American Godzilla movie was unleashed upon the public.

It was so devastating and so horrible that the monster was banished from our shores for over a decade. Now he has returned in a new movie that’s actually pretty good. We can’t be mad this time.

The film opens with a very cool title sequence, detailing the early nuclear testing that went on at the Bikini Atoll. Cut to 1999 and we’re introduced to two scientists played by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins, who discover a giant skeleton in a recently collapsed mine.

Whatever caused the collapse soon heads over to Japan and wreaks similar havoc on a nuclear power plant. 15 years later, Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), who worked at the power plant, is working to unravel the conspiracy. His son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), is brought back into the fold after Joe is arrested for trespassing in the now quarantined area. Joe convinces Ford to help him search for answers and they manage to find them, though not in the manner they were expecting.

What follows is a military chase of multiple monsters, including the titular Godzilla.

Being the military in a blockbuster film, they try to solve most of their problems by blowing things up. This helps maintain both horror and spectacle during the first two thirds of the film, though the intelligence behind these moves is consistently suspect. This is most glaring during their last resort, which hinges on a plan so dumb that it’s doomed to weird, roundabout success.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson is a likeable lead, though he rarely escapes the emotional flatness of his military character. Bryan Cranston, Julian Binoche, and Elizabeth Olsen are fantastic, but have minimal screen time. Olsen, in particular, is notable for bringing life to a paper-thin character and for bringing some genuine emotion to the most generic scenes in the disaster film genre. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins are all but brushed to the side, which is disappointing not only because they are incredibly talented actors (Hawkins was just nominated for an Oscar two months ago), but also because their characters clearly knows the most about what is going on.

But what about the monsters, you ask.

Therein lies the most exciting and disappointing news about this film. When Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) make their appearance, they almost dominate the film. The designs are fantastic and the battles are intense. Even with most of it happening at night, you won’t find yourself straining to tell what is going on. The film as a whole, shot by Seamus McGarvey, who last worked on “The Avengers,” is gorgeous.

The “bad news” is that we only get glimpses of the creatures for a large part of the film.

A majority of the film’s problems stem from its character-focused approach, but that’s also its greatest strength. There’s something to be said for a near $200 million film that prioritizes characters over spectacle and there’s a weight and consequence to what goes on, even when Godzilla and the M.U.T.O.s take over the last act.

Director Gareth Edwards does a masterful job of building tension and atmosphere, teasing out the eventual appearance of the monsters and the idea of living in a world where these creatures exist. There’s a good mix of the original Ishiro Honda film and the later, more popcorn-y entries in the series.

Like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” “Godzilla” dodges the cynical studio trappings that sink most summer blockbusters. It’s an entertaining, well-crafted film that occasionally misplaces its focus, though not so radically as to be irritating or dull. It’s another success in the so-far-strong 2014 summer season. “Godzilla” demands to be seen, if nowhere else, on the big screen.

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