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Movie review: ‘Godzilla’ is better than past remakes

Godzilla is shown in a scene from "Godzilla." (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures / MCT)

Over the years, Godzilla’s gotten a bad rap.

This is due in large part to the Americanization of the classic Japanese original from 1954, with the producer Joseph E. Levine shamelessly cutting more than a half-hour of footage (including all political commentary) and adding scenes of the always-fun Raymond Burr as “Steve Martin, the famous American reporter,” who often appears to be looking in the wrong direction while “interacting” with badly dubbed Japanese actors.

Then there was the 1998 debacle directed by Roland Emmerich, which represented a considerable technological upgrade from the films of the 1950s, but was unbearably stupid, noisy and pointless.

This being 2014, a year when everything and everyone from “About Last Night” to “Endless Love” to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Hercules are getting reboots, of course there’s a new version of “Godzilla” hitting theaters. And while it has its moments of baffling plot developments and the human characters aren’t exactly Shakespearean in depth, there’s some pretty impressive CGI monster destruction here, and the talented English director Gareth Edwards clearly respects the thought-provoking sci-fi roots of the original.

Spoiler alert!

Probably the strangest thing about “Godzilla” is how long it takes for the big guy to show up and, even then, how little screen time he gets.

In the opening sequence, Edwards pays homage to the 1950s “Godzilla” series with documentary-style clips showing atom bomb test footage and tantalizing glimpses of a giant mutant creature.

Fast forward to 1999. Joe Brody (Bryan Cran-ston, with a full head of hair and doing a credible job of almost making us forget about his “Breaking Bad” days) and his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), are happily married scientists working at the Janjira nuclear power plant in Japan. On the morning of Joe’s birthday — almost nothing good ever happens on birthdays in disaster and crime movies — a powerful series of tremors literally brings down the plant, killing many employees in the process.

With the focus squarely on Joe and his family, Edwards establishes upfront that “Godzilla” is going to be as much about the people as the monsters. In addition to the Brody family, we meet the Japanese scientist Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and his colleague Dr. Graham (Sally Hawkins), who are rooting around a mining pit in the Philippines, where a monstrously huge skeleton of some sort has been discovered. It’s Serizawa who will serve as a narrator/explainer for much of the film, providing scientific explanations for seemingly stupid human behavior, and also giving us a little more “balance of nature” sermonizing than we really want or need.

After the extended 1999 sequence, we leap forward again, this time to present day. Joe is still in Japan, obsessed with seemingly crackpot theories about what REALLY happened at the plant. He’s convinced the government is covering up the existence of a MUTO. That would be a Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism.

Here’s the thing, and once again: SPOILER ALERT! Once the MUTO is unleashed and begins eating anything and everything nuclear (that’s where it gets its power), we realize the MUTO isn’t Godzilla; it’s some sort of enormous, multi-legged, hideous, vaguely spider-esque creature, and it is on its way to mate with another MUTO, and if that happens, we’re doomed. The special effects are first-rate, with the MUTO eating its way through the Vegas Strip while fending off the American military’s attempts to bring it down.

“Godzilla” gets bogged down a bit with some running subplots, including Joe’s now grown son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), who’s a bomb disarmament specialist, frantically trying to figure out a way to kill the MUTO while his frantic wife (Elizabeth Olsen, wasted in the obligatory “Please come home!” role) tends to the wounded in a hospital and worries herself sick about Ford’s fate.

And then, FINALLY, Godzilla makes a dramatic entrance, and he’s almost worth the wait. Let’s just say San Francisco sustains a lot of damage as Godzilla and the two MUTOs intersect at the crossing of mayhem and destruction.

The script, credited to Max Borenstein, provides some interesting updates on the Godzilla legend, but also resorts to a number of cliched characters, with David Strathairn’s wooden Navy admiral character saddled with much of the most cringe-worthy dialogue. Cranston is terrific, whether he’s playing Joe as the contented married man, whistling his way to work at the ol’ power plant, or the later Joe, a paranoid conspiracy theorist whose paranoia happens to be wholly justified.

Of course, the special effects are the best we’ve ever seen in a “Godzilla” movie. Edwards and his team produce consistently stunning visuals, with more than a touch of Spielbergian influence at work. I still would have liked to see more of, you know, Godzilla in “Godzilla,” and the ending is cornier than an Iowa farm field in July, but this effort is still leaps and bounds ahead of the 1998 bomb and that terrible, dumbed-down American edition of the original.

‘Godzilla’ 3 stars

Warner Bros. presents a film directed by Gareth Edwards. Written by Max Borenstein.

Running time: 123 minutes.

Rated: PG-13 (for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence)