Monster bash

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  /Warner Bros. Pictures
The title character of “Godzilla” has a grudge against picturesque downtown skylines everywhere.

Effects-heavy ‘Godzilla’ squashes human story

Godzilla, that tail-swinging menace from the deep, is back with a pair of friends, in a movie that comes in two distinct waves. The first wave is all people; the second wave, longer, is all monsters — and also people looking up at monsters and running down the block screaming.

They’re screaming in Japan, then in Honolulu and then in Las Vegas. And just as you’re thinking about the Golden Gate Bridge, the monsters are tearing through San Francisco, too, swinging tails and crushing buildings. After all, why go to the beach to stomp around, when every metropolis has a downtown just waiting to get destroyed?

We’ll leave it to the psychiatrists to figure out why our most popular entertainments in recent years depict the toppling and smashing of our landmarks. Is this a healthy outlet for fear or some mass neurosis that’s so widespread that no one calls it what it is? In either case, what’s particularly weird about Godzilla is that for long stretches, all it shows is destruction. We get the obligatory context, followed by monster fights — just stuff getting smashed and knocked down.

Yet for the first 45 minutes, Godzilla promises to be something better than that. Brian Cranston plays a scientist in Japan, working in a nuclear plant. Like all fun characters at the beginning of a monster movie, he notices something on his computer. Something very wrong.

In those first 45 minutes, Godzilla has everything a monster movie needs. There’s the one man who knows the truth. There’s a monster of legendary proportions. And there are painful and dramatic encounters between human beings. It’s pretty clear that nobody broke the news to Cranston that Godzilla was slated to be a throwaway summer movie. He’s red-faced, terrified, anguished, enraged — he plays every scene like it’s the last season of Breaking Bad.

But this is a summer movie, despite whatever the calendar might tell you, and so the focus must switch to younger characters. So we get Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Cranston’s son, a lieutenant specializing in disarming bombs, and Elizabeth Olsen as his wife.

Unfortunately, nobody bothered to write either of them a personality, probably on the assumption that it doesn’t take much charm to run full-out while stealing the occasional backward glance. In fact, that’s when individuality is needed most. It’s too vague to ask an audience to care about the fate of humanity, but every Godzilla movie must have at least two people you absolutely, positively do not want to see get stepped on.

This has no one. Taylor-Johnson’s idea of playing a military guy is to have a stone face, and all Olsen gets to do is fret. Perhaps director Gareth Edwards concentrated too much on the action to worry about the performances. In any case, for at least 75 minutes of the movie, there’s not a single moment of human peril that’s made vivid or consequential. It’s all just spectacle, whether it’s people or buildings getting destroyed.

MOVIE RATING

Godzilla

** 1/2

Rated PG-13, 123 minutes.

Opens wide on Friday


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