HEISENBERG HE AIN'T: Bryan Cranston plays a scientist who was the only one to foresee the arrival of Godzilla.

Civilization is menaced by MUTOs—ancient hell-creatures that crunch nuclear waste tanks in their mandibles as if they were heirloom carrots. They resemble mile-high, leather-upholstered versions of the Art Deco gargoyles on the Chrysler building, gene-spliced with colossal daddy long-legs. Who can possibly stop them? Am I in the wrong theater?

Only scientist Joe Brody foresaw the danger—he's played by Bryan Cranston as a lone crank in a small Tokyo apartment covered with newspaper clippings. A small time of bonding between Brody and his soldier son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) gives way fast: Godzilla is a short-attention-spanned movie, with a lot of distance to cover. Before too long, Ford is escorting a clockwork nuke from Lone Pine to San Francisco via what looks like the British Columbian coast.

The script has a thesis-like earnestness. Chief explainer is Ken Watanabe, playing Dr. Ichiro Serizawa, apparently a relative of the Byronic eye-patched scientist in the original. He could have been an Ahab, but instead he's a worshipping mourner at the First Church of Godzilla. He sets the film's tone: director Gareth Edwards is solemn, too cautionary to get much pleasure from inundating or bulldozing tourist wonderlands. If you don't get enough of the wrath of Godzilla, at least you'll basically understand what's going on. Godzilla is trying to track down his ancestral prey while Ford tries to reunite with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen, too good for this).The King of Monsters is an excellent example of the old screenwriter's maxim that a character explains himself through action: a battler, indomitable, heedless of being attacked two against one, who never stops for humanity's thanks.

Edwards is an eclipser—closing the door on the first battle between monsters, showing a mushroom cloud out of the corner of a viewer's eye. But the creature work is satisfying: the giant reptile has convincing density and rage. I thrilled to hear him roar. Godzilla is often a warning against mankind's foolish presumption that CG is better than the best miniature work. This isn't the case in the finale, with Godzilla renovating the San Francisco skyline; soldiers in the street watch from Chinatown, an ultimate dragon parade against red lanterns and pagoda roofs. A lot of monstrous office towers get what they deserve, as the audience gets a lot of what they sought.


PG-13; 123 MIN.

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