Finally, the Americans have done right by Gojira — or, as the Japanese movie monster is known here, Godzilla.
Director Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” grafts together the two essential elements that the Japanese have understood for 60 years: human characters facing catastrophe, and a monster who is a force of nature — and, like any other natural disaster, is neither good nor bad.
Dr. Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) understands Gojira’s place in the natural order. Serizawa and his colleague, Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), find evidence of a mysterious monster in the Philippines in 1999. It’s massive, absorbs radioactivity as food — and is heading to Japan.
In Japan, we meet the Brody family: Joe (Bryan Cranston), an engineer at a nuclear reactor; his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), a scientist working at the same reactor; and their young son, Ford (CJ Adams). Soon, a disaster strikes the reactor — one that could be explained by seismic readings Joe knows are too regular to be just an earthquake.
Writer Max Borenstein’s script jumps ahead 15 years, with an adult Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a Navy bomb-disposal expert ending his tour in Afghanistan, reuniting with his wife, Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), and their son, Sam (Carson Bolde), in San Francisco. But Ford no sooner gets home than he must fly to Japan to bail out his father. Joe aims to prove, once and for all, what really destroyed the reactor — and together, Joe and Ford find a world-changing secret, one Serizawa and Graham already know.
What no one knows, yet, is that someone else is also interested in that secret: Gojira.
Edwards smartly keeps his cards hidden for a long time. He doesn’t give viewers their first glimpse of Gojira for the first hour, until Ford and the action move to Honolulu. But that’s just a warm-up for the real battle, a tense, building-toppling donnybrook in downtown San Francisco — with Ford, Elle and Sam among those caught up in the mayhem.
Edwards exercises a sure hand marshalling the special effects needed to make Gojira’s brawls realistic. He also pivots smoothly from the skyscraper-size action to the human drama at the monsters’ feet. (Edwards’ previous movie, the low-budget 2010 thriller “Monsters,” plays like a dry run for this film.)
Most important, and in a welcome departure from Roland Emmerich’s overly jokey 1998 version, this “Godzilla” takes its monsters seriously. Gojira is big and deadly, but he’s not necessarily out to destroy humanity — even if humanity seems determined, through its arrogance, to destroy itself.
Japan’s 60-year-old monster is back in a dynamic Hollywood production that takes the big reptile seriously.
Where • Theaters everywhere.
When • Opens today.
Rating • PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence.
Running time • 123 minutes.