Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack. Far and away the wordiest, clumsiest English-language title of any Godzilla movie - any Toho daikaiju eiga at all, for that matter. But simply a direct translation of the Japanese, and if you look at some of the original names for the classic movies in the franchise, they're no less bogged down in syllables that look more and more fake the longer you study them. Custom holds that the shorthand is to simply call the film GMK; let us not break with custom.

Custom also holds that GMK is one of the all-time great masterpieces of Godzilladom; if there's a consensus pick for the best film of the Millennium Series, this is plainly it. And here I will break with custom so vigorously that the crack can be heard echoing in the dells and valleys for miles around. For much of the film, I was baffled why the film was broadly liked at all, let alone regarded as one of the great high water-marks of the decade-spanning franchise; but that's easy enough to resolve. This is a spectacular action movie, with some of the most dramatic and powerfully-expressed sequences of destruction and brutality in any Godzilla film. In fact, it's almost a better action movie than it is specifically a giant monster action movie, in which regard it suffers from some choreography that cuts back on the brawling in favor of tense stand-offs and military thrills. But we do not need the same damn monster fights movie in and movie out, year after year, generation after generation. GMK wants to switch things up a bit; it ends up with action sequences that still work well, even if they feel different.

"Wants to switch things up a bit" is, if anything, a uselessly genteel euphemism for the game GMK is playing. To understand this, we must first understand where it comes from: with this film, Toho handed the keys to the franchise to Kaneko Shusuke, a decision that fulfilled the #1 wish of pretty much every daikaiju eiga fan in the world, circa 2001. In the '90s, Kaneko had directed a reboot of Daiei's flying turtle-beast Gamera starting with a 1995 film that was widely regarded as having handed Toho's ass to it, in terms of creating a giant monster movie with emotional depth, real dramatic stakes, and world-class visual effects. It took a creature that had never been anything but a campy joke and made it the center of one of the era's most successful, beloved genre series. Finding out what mad alchemy Kaneko could work with a monster who started off with such an astronomical series of advantages over Gamera was obviously exciting, though it turns out to have been mostly the same mad alchemy: turn the character into the most serious, grave version of itself possible. Kaneko openly discussed how much he missed the true villain version of Toho's lizard king, as seen way back in the very first 1954 Godzilla, and had been missing since 1964's Mothra vs. Godzilla as the character shifted back and forth between hero and anti-hero.

That's a hard instinct to quibble with (my own feeling is that no Godzilla film has ever matched the level of those two), but Kaneko's execution was perhaps a little too eager. This isn't just a grim, serious monster movie: it's downright bleak and nasty at points, anchored around a new Godzilla that is totally and purposefully devoid of any appealing, sympathetic characteristics. I will confess that my problems with GMK are to some extent inextricable from its Godzilla suit, towards which I feel unrelenting hostility: it's a skinny, lithe beast that doesn't hide even slightly the human build of the man inside of it (Yoshida Mizuho, his only performance in the series), designed perhaps for fleeter movements that give the monster speed and grace at the expense of weight, intensity and impact. But the face is much the worst of it: with blanked-out white eyes and extra-prominent leonine teeth, this looks basically like what you'd get if Godzilla had been attacked by a vampire, and while I enjoy the horror-tinged absurdity of that kind of interpretation, and the Millennium Series of films was all about new and unique one-off interpretations of Godzilla, there's still a point where "make it dark! make it edgy! make it cruel! make it serious!" glosses into "make it fucking stupid", and too many filmmakers of the 21st Century have paid no heed to the place where that line exists. To look across the Pacific for a comparison that would have been impossible to make in 2001, GMK wanted to do The Dark Knight with Godzilla, but it ended up at All-Star Batman & Robin instead.

The script by Kaneko, Hasegawa Keiichi, and Yokotani Masahiro is, in general, predicated on fascinating and wholly unique ideas, some of which are explored better than others. 50 years after the great Godzilla crisis of '54, there are strange indications afoot; missing submarines, a recent attack by a giant monster in New York (the film's best joke finds two Defense Force cadets discussing the rumors that the New York monster was Godzilla, something that Japanese experts have tended to doubt - as good a response to the 1998 American Godzilla as ever needed to be made). The stage is setting itself for a terrible event, clearly, one that Admiral Tachibana Taizo (Uzaki Ryudo) is doing his best to prepare for.

Someplace far away, his daughter Yuri (Niiyama Chiharu), the host of a humiliatingly cheap and crass show on paranormal phenomena, is trying to gin up some dippy docudrama about a lake creature in the wilds, when a freak earthquake hits; the carefully attentive might notice the shriek of something giant, far away, during the quake, but neither Yuri nor her crew seems to pick up on it. She does, however, spot an old man (Amamoto Hideyo) watching her and her crew, who promptly vanishes.

Signs and portents keep piling up: teenagers found dead, covered in silk, a trucker who was the sole survivor of a cave-in swearing that a giant monster caused it, and at this point Yuri's science writer friend Takeda Teruaki (Kobayashi Masahiro) hands her a book about the guardian monsters of East Asia, spirits that aim to protect nature and the land from all dangers, three creatures called Baragon, Mothra, and Ghidorah. The book was written by a certain Isayama Hirotoshi, a sort of Godzilla doomsday prophet; he's also the disappearing man Yuri saw after the earthquake, and he spouts off with the most fascinatingly bent theory: that Godzilla, an ancient dinosaur given strength from nuclear radiation, is also the embodiment of all the souls of Japanese soldiers who died during the Second World War, and it's hear that the gulf between the movie GMK could have been and the movie GMK is becomes most pronounced. Because that is a massively complicated, potentially wretched idea, one that could tell all sorts of truths about Japanese nationalism half a century and more after the end of hostilities, and could just as easily become some kind of nightmarishly exploitative attempt to steal gravitas. That it manages to be neither is due ultimately to how much the film ends up not caring about exploring any of the possible ramifications of that concept; given how much GMK is about spirituality and the paranormal instead of science fiction - a shift that works well, given the increasingly samey sci-fi trappings of the '90s films in the series - it has a dispiritingly limited interest in grappling with spirituality on any real level, not when there's achingly bland boilerplate about Yuri and her dad both coming to grips with responsibility and family to be ground through.

So anyway, the film's four monsters end up arriving - Kaneko wanted Baragon (coming back 46 years after Frankenstein Conquers the World) to be joined by Anguirus and Varan, with Toho insisting on more marquee creatures - and the all-out attack does begin in earnest, to the film's immense benefit: a more tendentious than usual human story (Yuri's connection to anything feels like the flop-sweatiest strain on the screenwriters' art) and the utterly insipid comic relief of the low-rent station where Yuri works makes the human angle of GMK rather harder to sit through than when it's just anonymous meat puppets shouting out technobabble. It also lets the film focus more on the military operation, which is probably the film's most effective attempt to break with tradition, adding a sort of realism, inasmuch as realism is a thing you get to have in a movie with four giant monsters battling throughout Japan. The film depicts the military response to the four creatures as one of tightly contained panic: fast decisions that are frequently wrong, confusion, shouting, frayed nerves. Uzaki gives the best performance, by a long margin, and this helps too; he has a beleaguered authority and stability that helps to anchor the action.

As for the monster scenes, they are generally terrific, boasting the first good CGI in any Toho daikaiju eiga to that point, and while its not flawless (there is one shot apiece of both Mothra and Ghidorah in flight that looks perfectly dreadful), the added sense of scale and violence thus permitted helps the film out greatly. The best fight is certainly the one between Godzilla and Baragon, in which we first get our sense of how the new version of the starring monster will fight, what his skills are, and so on; the fight between Godzilla and Mothra is laughably short and one-sided, while the fight between Godzilla and Ghidorah tends to showcase the shortcomings of the latter monster's design, which aggrieves me almost as much as the new Godzilla suit: instead of three heads on serpentine necks animated with rod puppetry, the new Ghidorah's left and right heads are just arms with hand puppets on the end, and when he grapples with Godzilla, the degree to which it looks like two men in rubber costumes dicking around is incredibly hard to overlook. Besides the which, the dragon's three faces are goofily over-expressive, attempting to make the character look more heroic than menacing and giving him an expression of intoxicated curiosity.

I will confess again to a certain personal limitation, in that King Ghidorah, as a nearly indestructible villain, is one of my favorite members of Toho's bestiary, and making him smaller, weaker, stupid-looking, and non-threatening strikes me as vigorously useless bullshit. Any film in which a friendly King Ghidorah reanimated through the power of magic and a glassy fantasy music cue saves two people falling into the sea by breathing bubbles into the water for them to land on would have no real chance to redeem its use of that character in my eyes.

Still, the glossy blacks of Kishimoto Masahiro's cinematography, the smoothness of effects director Kamiya Makoto's team's work, and Kaneko's pronounced desire to keep any whisper of silliness out of the picture all combine to about 35 minutes of some of the most intense and unrelenting action the series has to offer, which is a good enough percentage. Even if I kind of can't stand looking at two of the four combatants (Baragon is terrific, Mothra looks the best she ever has, with the most complex and detailed points of articulation). Ohtani Ko's thunderingly generic music, spiked with a few synth-heavy passages of utter nonsense, is no substitute for the militant grandeur of a good Ifukube Akira score, but it keeps the action pounding along, and the lengthy absence of Niiyama and her shrill gyrations makes it easier to tolerate the human action.

It is, on balance, a fine Godzilla movie; one that comes in on a pile of hype that fine doesn't begin to accommodate, but that's not the movie's fault. It's an accomplished piece of filmmaking at a level of scope and grandeur only intermittently seen in the series, but without the sense of moral weight that the '54 film had, which might have counterbalanced to some extent the filmmakers' weirdly passionate intention that it be be joyless: going so far in the direction of eradicating camp that it eradicates any real sense of fun. There's more to Godzilla than just fun, of course, but the dark grimness of GMK simply isn't enough in itself to keep the movie propped up.