- - Thursday, May 15, 2014

Monster movies have come a long way since the days when they featured men in rubber suits tromping through scale-model cardboard cities.

These days, the monsters are created in fantastic, almost fetishistic detail via the magic of computer animation, with layers of dirty, discolored scales and slime skinned over biologically sound wire-frame monster skeletons.

The cities they destroy are equally detailed digital replicas, complete with eerily lifelike rubble effects and software-controlled building-collapse physics. You can see reflections in skyscraper windows before they shatter, then watch steel girders bend and break before they finally collapse.

The effect is often less like watching a movie than a simulated urban demolition project. Here is a city. There was a city.

In the latest remake of “Godzilla,” one of the best-known movie monsters, along with a couple of giant-sized creature pals, lay waste to a handful of American cities. By the movie’s end, Honolulu, Las Vegas, and Oakland, Calif., have all been ritually smashed into digital bits, sacrificed to needs of monster-movie mayhem.

Director Gareth Edwards amps up the realism, if such a thing can possibly exist in a movie about a skyscraper-sized lizard, by setting the film against the world’s nuclear history, and by emphasizing on-the-ground perspectives when shooting the chaos. The movie’s monsters are frequently sighted through vehicle windows or from a distance by spectators and ordinary citizens going about their lives.

Downtown brawls are marred by clouds of black dust whipped up by the collapse of huge buildings. Even those close to the action may only catch glimpses of massive body parts; the scale, Mr. Edwards seems to suggest, is simply too big to comprehend.

The images of unthinkable destruction that Mr. Edwards presents are often both gorgeous and horrific, like scenic paintings from the end of the world. Which makes it even more frustrating and disconcerting when the movie ends up treating its decimated cities like little more than children’s playrooms, as if tearing down a building or three were the equivalent of knocking over a pile of blocks.

Mr. Edwards has brought a sense of realism and even majesty to a script and story that unfortunately does not deserve it. Max Borenstein’s screenplay is so thin that it barely deserves to be called a story at all. It is more a series of destructive encounters, interspersed with minimalist commentary from a human cast.

Of the human performers, Bryan Cranston fares best, but his role is cut unexpectedly short half way through the film. Ken Watanabe, supposedly a lifelong monster researcher, has little to do except offer vague and entirely unsubstantiated theories about Godzilla’s role in the universe. Aaron Taylor-Johnson is serviceably hunky as the movie’s young action hero, but is sidelined next to his giant lizard costar.

And poor Elizabeth Olsen is removed from the main action for practically the entire film; she has nothing to do except look mildly concerned while the apocalypse commences.

“Godzilla” is a pretty good monster movie, but it’s not much a people movie. It’s louder, bigger, and more exquisitely crafted than its cheap-thrills predecessors, but at least in the old days, you knew that, underneath the rubber costume, there was a real human being inside.

1/2

TITLE: “Godzilla”

CREDITS: Directed by Gareth Edwards, screenplay by Max Borenstein

RATING: PG-13 for monster-movie destruction

RUNNING TIME: 123 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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