"NEVER WORK WITH CHILDREN or animals," goes the actors' saying, and it's excellent advice: No matter how good of an actor you are, you'll always be upstaged by something cute. Or something monstrous, it turns out. That's the humbling lesson learned by every single actor in Godzilla, a movie crammed with immensely talented performers (Bryan Cranston! Elizabeth Olsen! Sally Hawkins! Kin Watanabe!) who never even have a chance of making an impact. No matter how driven and heartbreaking Cranston manages to be, and no matter how carefully Olsen walks the thin line between hope and dread, none of their moments really matter in Godzilla. In fact, there's probably a reason most of Godzilla is told from the perspective of Army explosives expert Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a guy who not only who has the lousy luck of always being wherever Godzilla attacks but also has the good sense to be relentlessly boring. It's almost as if he's wise enough to know that he's in a Godzilla movie—and wise enough to know that in any Godzilla movie, Godzilla is the motherfucking star.
Director Gareth Edwards knows it too, even if he's managed to trick some of the best actors in the world (David Strathairn! Juliette Binoche!) into playing bit parts in Godzilla's return to the big screen. Edwards' Godzilla is a slow burn—almost its entire first half is devoted not to monsters but to people—but by the time the King of the Monsters finally shows up, Edwards shoots him with jaw-dropping majesty and menace, giving scale and soul to a massive, CGI behemoth. Everybody else just cowers around, being reverent and/or terrified: Early on, Watanabe proclaims Godzilla to be an "ancient alpha predator," only to be one-upped in his awe by Hawkins, who calls him "a god, for all intents and purposes."
Given that it lacks both the haunting allegory of Ishirō Honda's 1954 Godzilla and the wit and personality of last year's Pacific Rim, it's a good thing this Godzilla nails the spectacle. And holy shit, does it ever nail the goddamn spectacle: San Francisco gets wrung through the wringer in Godzilla's second half, and while Edwards nods to other, better stories about man overstepping his bounds (both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jurassic Park get shout-outs), he's more intent on setting monsters loose than saying anything deep. Godzilla punches and tackles and roars and vomits up bright blue fire; Godzilla's screeching enemies swoop and dive and make a mockery of pitiful humanity; planes crash and burn while buildings crumble into dust, just as they've done in seemingly every blockbuster since 9/11. (Notably missing from Godzilla's extended climax are the screaming, fleeing people, tiny as ants, who made the old-school Godzilla feel like a threat to something other than architecture.)
But it's best not to think too much, or even to miss what isn't here: This Godzilla's best moments are its goofiest ones, when Godzilla's fighting and stomping, loudly reminding everybody how awesome he is. He does that quite a bit, thankfully. "Where's Godzilla?" shouts Strathairn at one point. Playing a Navy admiral, Strathairn has his reasons for wanting to find Godzilla. Everybody else is just glad to have him back, upstaging everyone and everything around him.