123 minutes/Opens tomorrow/**1/2
The story: Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston) is a nuclear power plant engineer working in Japan when seismic disturbances kill his wife Sandra (Juliette Binoche). He becomes obsessed with finding out the truth behind the tremors, alienating his son, Navy ordnance expert Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), even as Ford's wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) counsels reconciliation. Meanwhile, scientists Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) make disturbing discoveries about enormous creatures living deep in the earth.
The trickiest part of any monster movie is giving the monster a plausible reason to keep making smashy-smashy on human cities even as the military do all they can to pull away the welcome mat.
In the 1998 American take on this venerable Japanese export, Godzilla needed a nest and for some reason chose Madison Square Garden, and in so doing, took down half of Manhattan.
Here, the motives are similar - animal instincts are the explanation for the money shots of 100m-tall beasties giving San Francisco, Honolulu and Las Vegas an old-fashioned whomping - but the character of Dr Serizawa (Watanabe) thumps the audience over the head with Yoda-like profundities about how they represent "nature seeking balance".
Those wise Orientalisms from a character (and an entire first act planted in Japan) serve as both fanboy nods to the Toho studio roots of the beast as well as a thinly veiled reference to the recent nuclear disaster at Fukushima.
For example, an overlong gas leak sequence packs in more cliches per minute than any sequence in recent memory - the visible moving poison cloud that cannot be outrun, the hatches that seal in doomed workers which have windows for tearful farewells.
This is where this work makes a clear departure from creature features such as last year's Pacific Rim, which are mostly celebrations of sci-fi style.
The attempt at depth would not have been so noticeable or felt so ham-fisted if the two lead characters had been more interesting. Taylor-Johnson's and Olsen's characters are unrelentingly, grimly, unexplainably devoid of humanity, an unfortunate thing when they represent the best of the species trying to avoid extinction at the hands or, rather, paws of Godzilla and the generously limbed creatures, the Mutos.
Once the tedium of the first act is over and the creatures make their entrance, things pick up. The attack scenes are glorious. Both Godzilla and the Mutos look and feel massive. Director Gareth Edwards paces the fight scenes skilfully and none overstays its welcome. The battles end leaving the audience wanting more, as they should.
Too bad the same cannot be said for the scenes of human-to-human interaction.