Of all possible outcomes for the new American-made Godzilla, one that I wasn't prepared for at all was that, at the macro level, it would have exactly the same structural problems that the last Godzilla film, 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars did. To wit: in a movie just a smidigen north of two hours, the best stuff tends to bunch up in the back half, and the whole thing would be immeasurably improved if the second quarter was either severely reduced or cut out altogether. And not, as many of the film's more impatient naysayers have been bitching, because Godzilla '14 has too little of its titular daikaiju, or that director Gareth Edwards keeps teasing action sequences that he then pulls back from with a little wink. I actually think the film has just about exactly the right amount of Godzilla to accomplish what it's trying to do, in fact. But we'll get back to that.

And it's not because Godzilla is more interesting than people, either. On paper, the idea of spending a lot of time with the human characters affected by Godzilla's massive, destructive presence is a worthy one. Some of the 28 Japanese films to feature the creature have done exactly that, to good effect, and some have not; some of the films that mostly shortchange the humans as anything but observers have been good, and some have not. It's all in the execution, and there's the problem, and the other way that this Godzilla resembles Final Wars: the issue isn't that the human subplot exists, but that it exists for such a long time while also being so trite and unimaginative and propped up on genre clichΓ©s in ways that the filmmakers seem unaware of.

There are a couple of significant problems with this Godzilla, but the most obvious one is simply that, out of a reasonably full cast of characters, played by a remarkably overqualified roster of actors, the film is mostly interested in the least compelling one, played to worst effect by the most consistently underwhelming member of the ensemble. I refer to Aaron Taylor-Johnson's soporific Ford Brody,* recently released from the U.S. Navy, where he served as a bomb disposal specialist; as depicted in the screenplay by Max Borenstein (from a story by Dave Callaham), Ford falls into the exact worst spot between being too generic in his personality to be at all pleasant to watch for any length of time, while being far too specific in his professional skill set to be a reasonable analogue for the audience staring with amazement and horror at the giant creatures that threaten humanity in this go-round. Taylor-Johnson's physical carriage and aimless line readings only serve to call maximum attention to how deficient Ford is as a character, and the result is a profoundly useless central human, even by Godzilla movie standards.We spend so much time learning about him and his family to give us a "hook" for when the monster action starts; instead, he's an active detriment, the tedious, boring, and functionless thing we have to wait for while in between the good parts. It would be tremendously easy to remove his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen, given only little to do, which is still more than any other female cast member has) and young son Sam (Carson Bolde) from the movie entirely, and redistribute Ford's role to two or three various soldiers throughout, and take out all the most draggy and meandering parts of the film, just like that.

The issue, I think, is that the film wants to serve two masters: the structure of a Japenese genre film (which tend to focus more on process and problem-solving than a single protagonist's "hero's journey" arc) is very dissimilar from the structure of a Hollywood tentpole (which focus on heroes' journeys to the point of distraction), and Godzilla tries to resolve them in a way that probably cannot happen. A more talented, or at least seasoned director might have been able to disguise the seams, but Edwards hasn't the facility of touch to do that. For the most part, he shows all the same strengths and limitations he displayed in his debut and only previous feature, 2010's Monsters: entrenching too deep in character moments that aren't clicking, shifting awkwardly between that material and some absolutely sublime construction of mood, setting, and tension throughout.

And I don't use the word sublimity by accident: as much as the human A-plot lets it down, the parts of Godzilla that work put it on par with any blockbuster of recent years. In all his wild cribbing from as many different Godzilla films as possible (to the point that it feels a bit like fan service in some respects: the reveal of Godzilla's atomic breath in particular is staged with an unmistakable tone of "oh, you all know what's coming next, right? and could you possibly be any more excited?"), Edwards picked up the most important lesson of all from the original, 1954 Godzilla: the horrible, devastating fact of the monster is more important than the immediate presence of the monster. Or SPOILER ALERT I PUT IT OFF AS LONG AS I COULD, BUT THE REST OF THE REVIEW IS DANGEROUS NOW rather monsters, plural. Godzilla '14 is at its very best when it is at its most grandiose, casting its giant creatures in roles that owe a debt to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos as much as to anything in the Japanase daikaiju eiga: Godzilla and the pair of vaguely insectoid MUTOs exist on some plane of awareness where humanity simple doesn't exist at all, fighting their ancient battle as profound forces of nature that can only be reacted to, not predicted and not stopped. If every generation of Godzilla film places its own fears into the movie, 2014's edition suggests neither the spectacle of nuclear warfare, nor the more modern concerns of 9/11 and the Fukushima meltdown, both of which are alluded to (the latter far more directly than the former), are the dominant terror of the modern world. It is instead about the fear of outright apocalypse, with destructive forces beyond understanding or control swallowing everything without even the decency to notice the human beings dying along the way.

And oh, how human beings do die. This is, in some ways, the PG-13 CGI blockbuster I've always longed for: one in which death isn't sanitised but presented as an awful, active thing. A scene with a derailed airport monorail shows several people sliding, screaming, to their deaths; dead bodies are scattered around the site of a trainwreck. Even at the height of the climactic monster battle, the collapse of skyscrapers is presented with an eye towards horror rather than the amoral spectacle of a Man of Steel. What Edwards has done, not just better than most disaster-porn summer movies, but even better than any previous Godzilla director, is invest the movie with the right sense of scale: the monsters, when we seem them, feel genuinely huge (even at their most masterful levels, the Japanese films never feel like they're showing anything but a man in a six-foot suit among four-foot buildings), and even when we do not see them, but merely the results of their devastation, that devastation has real scope and impact, a soul-sapping feeling that holy shit, how could something like this happen? Edwards and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey - responsible for some impressively moody wide shots that are among the highlights of his career as I know it - crank out scenes of carnage, death, emptiness, and despair by the fistful, mixing up the exact methods used to build those feelings enough that the film never falls into a pattern of unrelenting intensity that begins to feel repetitive and dull. Though having done such a good job exploring the essential non-humanity and world-ending power of the monsters, the film spoils everything with a garishly ill-advised final five minutes that make the jump from "Godzilla the antihero force of nature" to "Godzilla the superhero with triumphant fanfare", contrary to everything that has been built up for the preceding couple of hours.

In between the peak of the apocalyptic grandeur and the valley of the Brody family nonsense (Brody, incidentally, is one of several more-or-less explicit lifts from the Spielberg filmography throughout - the family name in Jaws, of course - with my favorite being a "foggy car window owing to the occupant's panicked breathing" gag taken from Jurassic Park), the great bulk of Godzilla is largely an ordinary though unusually slow-paced summer movie. It has a murderer's row of worthy actors - Bryan Cranston, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche, David Strathairn - given far too little to do: the men come out better than the women (Hawkins and Binoche combined don't even hit 15 minutes of screentime, I'd wager), and Cranston is the only one who actually gets to do anything that I'd comfortably tag with the word "acting", though after a fashion, I like the degree to which all these famous faces slide by without making an impact; it reflects the film's own awareness that the actions of titanic monsters are beyond the ability of normal people and celebrities alike to do anything but gawk and run, or gawk and die. Alexandre Desplat's score has a couple of memorable cues (which, unfortunately, are also the most overtly "gongs and chimes" orientalist), and sadly, no lifts at all from the great Ifukube Akira, whose music still rings in my ears any time I hear the word "Godzilla"; but there's enough personality to even the most generic cues to give the film a bit more sonic depth than is typical. There's also a completely off putting re-use of a composition that appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and cannot help but feel like it belongs there and nowhere else.

The monsters, meanwhile, though they get only a little screentime, are pretty great - the CGI, anyway, is close to flawless, even if I have my moments of doubt in the design. The MUTOs, though sleek and terrifying, don't feel like something that could have evolved. Godzilla itself is magnificent the lower we go on its body (one of the best scenes, and one that does the best work of driving the idea that these are unfathomably large organisms, shows its massive feet clomping down like mountains), with something close to my ideal amount of stocky, powerful musculature and strength without being puffy and fat, under a layer of ragged, spiky skin that feels like the design of the Millennium Series suits (1999-2004) without any of their sometime curious mistakes (no magenta spines here!). The face, I am not crazy for. No, not even the face. The snout. It is like a bear's snout, not a lizard's.

Still, the sheer weight and size that the filmmakers suggest about these creatures and their enormous destructive capability matters more than anything about their particular shape. The fight between Godzilla and the MUTOs is a damned impressive thing, brutal and animalistic without being impersonal in any way (the partially performance-captured Godzilla has far more inner life than the last all-CG version of the character, from the dreadful 1998 Emmerich/Devlin Godzilla), among the most creative fights in the series - Godzilla's finishing move, in particular, is a work of art as far as rah-rah fanboy moments go.

Anyway, all that leaves a film that is generally all-around good and just not quite special. It is methodical and willing to be about enjoying the mood more than cumshots, unlike virtually everything else in modern popcorn filmmaking; but it's got too much that holds it back in in the two-thirds of the movie where the mood doesn't really manifest itself over undernourished character scenes. The spectacle and terrible gravity are great; I bet they'd have been even greater in a movie that could have trimmed maybe 20 minutes of human deadweight off. Anyway, the notions are great even if the execution is a bit stiff, and I think it proudly occupies its space as one of the better-not-best films in the Godzilla franchise. No American-made Godzilla movie could ever say that, before.





*One of those are-you-serious screenwriterly names that irresistibly reminds me of the Douglas Adams line from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: "He had skimped a bit on his preparatory research. The information he had gathered had led him to choose the name 'Ford Prefect' as being nicely inconspicuous."