"Godzilla" gets its monster right. The people? Not so much.
Then again, the movie is called "Godzilla," not "Scared Humans," so it might not matter.
Gareth Edwards, who got the directing gig here because of his work on the low-budget creature feature "Monsters," clearly loves the Japanese monster that made its debut 50 years ago. The movie has all the computer-generated special effects audiences expect in 2014, but there's a reverence for the source material. The biggest cheers during the promo screening came when Godzilla let out its fire breath on an enemy. And being a night-time scene with Godzilla breathing a white-blue flame, it almost looked like that scene was shot in black-and-white, just like the original.
He even makes sure it's a Japanese-born actor, Ken Watanabe, who first speaks its name - "ga-ZILLA" (Americans always put the emphasis on the first syllable, like he's a monster deity).
The movie also stays true to the thematic roots of the work. The original film was made less than a decade after atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. Here the monsters are attracted to and feed upon radiation, which makes nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons (and the countries that possess them) the targets of their wrath.
Of course, Godzilla went through many incarnations over the years, portrayed as both hero and villain, so it's tough to go into too much detail about the title character without revealing his persona this time around.
Suffice to say, cities quake in Godzilla's wake, and those it attacks feel the full force of its power.
But there isn't a flesh-and-blood character anywhere that generates anywhere close to the same level of interest. Even Bryan Cranston seems ill-used in the early scenes set in 1999 (a terrible wig doesn't help). His Joe Brody is working at a nuclear power plant in Japan when a "disruption" destroys the plant, kills his wife (Juliette Binoche) and leaves the region quarantined because of radiation fears.
He's much better when the movie jumps to the present. Brody is convinced the government is hiding something about what really happened that day, and he believes signs indicate it's about to happen again.
He's right. A MUTO - Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Object - that looks kind of like the offspring of a lizard and a praying mantis wreaks havoc on Japan and makes its way across the Pacific Ocean to the U.S., where its mate might be. In pursuit is the military and Godzilla, but the government doesn't know whether he's an adversary or an ally of the MUTOs.
There's no shortage of good actors here - Cranston, Binoche, Watanabe and Sally Hawkins as scientists / researchers, David Strathairn as an admiral - but no one has much to do except to look worried or scared while staring up at what was probably a green screen on the set.
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, as Brody's estranged son Ford, and Elizabeth Olsen as Ford's wife are the closest things the movie has to lead characters. But there isn't anything distinctive about their relationship in the early scenes to give the audience much to care about when they're in jeopardy.
But it's hard to make an impression when your costar is 355 feet tall.