You probably won't see a more satisfying 40 minutes this summer than the climax to the new version of Godzilla. It's everything fans of the city-stomping creature could hope for, bolstered by grade-A effects and the marvelously monstrous sensibilities of director Gareth Edwards. And let's face it: its most direct competition is still the awful 1998 Roland Emmerich film, which can't help make this one look like Michel-fucking-angelo in comparison. Make no mistake: this is Godzilla as we know and love him, along with a couple of jumbo-sized punching bags to throw down against him as God intended. They chow down on Honolulu and Las Vegas for appetizers, then hit San Francisco for the main course. If you can't get pumped when Big G rises out of the Bay and emits his famous roar, then you are a sad soul indeed.
In light of that, it's a bit frustrating that we have to wait so long to get there. Godzilla revels in the slow burn, complete with a gaggle of only fitfully interesting humans to hold the screen until the main attraction shows up. Edwards does his best to punch up the first act, and Bryan Cranston works wonders as a nuclear engineer who catches on to the looming Monster Mash a few decades before everyone else, but they're largely marching uphill.
The script helps a bit more, mostly by providing a few new wrinkles in the beasties' origins. They're older, bigger and following naturalistic instincts like mating and hunting for food. That strengthens the notion that they still belong to our ecosystem in some twisted way, as well as painting the traditional "is Godzilla friend or foe" question in a fascinating new light.
The film also benefits from Edwards' you-are-there sensibilities, putting us in the shoes of the hapless humans underneath these behemoths, and the way the sheer size on display can both exhilarate and terrify us. "Awe" -- in the Old Testament sense of the word -- becomes the watchword, and Edwards shows a knack for more subtle implications (such as the giant path torn out of jungle trees) that often feel as incredible as the straight-up money shots. He crafts individual sequences with imagination and flair, turning seemingly ordinary conversations into something much more interesting as a result. He made the earlier film Monsters for less than $1 million, and even though Warners basically fire-hosed money at him for this one, his discipline remains unchanged. Nothing goes to waste in Godzilla; every single sequence shows a strong hand on the tiller. This guy is definitely going places, and watching him work with material he so clearly relishes becomes a joy in and of itself.
Sadly, "well-directed" doesn't always mean "well-constructed," and while the end of Godzilla makes for brilliant spectacle, it runs into a lot of roadblocks on the way. The technique keeps it all from growing too boring, aided by Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins who dutifully discharge their "we've never seen anything like this before!" duties the way one expects. But all the focus on the human beings is largely unjustified. They're bland and pleasant, but pretty much stock, and it's clear that the filmmakers know who the real start of the show is. The slow progression certainly makes us crave the pay-off all the more, but one wonders why it takes so long to get there or wanders so far a-field in the interim. You put up with the first half to get to the last half, when the sprawling mess of endangered family members and government cover-ups finally snaps into focus.
That, coupled with the ambiguous approach towards Godzilla himself and an ecological message that never overplays its hand, makes the stately pace much more forgivable. Long-time Zillaphiles should be more than pleased, provided they have the wherewithal to stick with an almost deliberately messy structure. Just be ready to wait a little longer for the good stuff you need, and trust in the fact that these guys will finally deliver on what earlier versions could only vaguely promise. Like its monstrous hero, it moves pretty slow, but when it finally gets where it's going… look out.