ImageSixteen years after Roland Emmerich’s disappointing Godzilla adaptation, the king of the monsters is back on US screens in the aptly titled Godzilla. Directed by Gareth Edwards, it’s a rousing success that is sure to please casual moviegoers and monster movie aficionados alike. Edwards deftly blends the campy elements of classic Godzilla films with an urgent and realistic approach that feels appropriate for a 2014 release. Even if the script may be lacking in some areas, there’s enough thrills on display here to make for a first-rate monster movie. I began to lose count of the number of times that my jaw hit the floor.

Beginning in 1999, we are introduced to Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), two scientists who are called to the Philippines after a massive skeleton is found under a quarry. Along with the skeleton are two pods, one of which has hatched some sort of creature that has fled to the ocean. The creature heads to a nuclear plant in Tokyo, Japan that is supervised by Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston). The plant begins to suffer a leak and Brody’s wife (Juliette Binoche) is killed in the process.

Jump forward fifteen years to the present day and Brody’s son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is a member of the US Navy. He lives happily in San Fransisco with his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen) and son Sam (Carson Bolde). One day, Ford receives a call informing him that his father has been arrested for trespassing in the quarantined zone of the former nuclear plant. Ford travels to Japan and is eventually convinced by his father to venture into the quarantine zone with him. But they eventually discover that the quarantine zone is an elaborate cover-up for a monster known as the MUTO (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). When this monster escapes from the quarantine zone, it awakens another monster that is determined to hunt it down. Yeah, that monster is Godzilla.

This is Gareth Edwards’ first big blockbuster film, but his inexperience never shows. Perhaps this is due to his work on his previous film, the small, character driven Monsters. Like in his previous film, Edwards never shows too much of the monsters on display. This may cause some of the more impatient audience members to grow antsy as they wait for Godzilla to appear, but the payoff is well worth it. It’s definitely possible to have too much of a good thing and by showing just enough of the monsters, Edwards is able to keep his cards close to his chest. Audience members will be on edge until the monsters converge in the film’s climactic battle.

Godzilla is definitely a campy character (it may be impossible to take a creature with radioactive breath completely seriously), but Edwards gives the film a fairly realistic tone, preventing the story from morphing into a cheese-fest. A less confident director may have dumbed down the human element, but Edwards makes sure that you feel the weight of all the destruction that is on display. A scene involving a giant wave is breathtaking in the way that it effortlessly places you in the chaos as thousands of lives are lost in the blink of an eye.

The script by Max Borenstein doesn’t break any new ground, but it successfully places the characters in plenty of action sequences that feel truly awe-inspiring thanks to Edwards’ direction and the (mostly) spectacular visual effects work. From an exciting scene on an unlucky subway train to a breath-taking sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge, every moment of action feels unique and exhilarating. For a film that is filled with so much action, it’s truly impressive that not a single sequence feels inferior or expendable.

Most of the cast does a fine job with the material, although the lack of characterization doesn’t give them very much to work with. Aaron Taylor-Johnson does a fine job and Bryan Cranston makes great use of his short screen time, but it’s Elizabeth Olsen who gives the strongest performance of the bunch. Olsen takes a terribly underwritten character and turns her into someone we truly care about, even though she doesn’t really do anything interesting or important throughout the entire film. Ken Watanabe is commendable as the brilliant scientist, but his character seems to disappear from the script for such an extended period of time that viewers will unfortunately forget about him until he pops up in the film’s final moments.

While the film’s script may rely too heavily on exposition and conveniences (would a single family really be this integral to the events surrounding the monsters?), these few problems only arise when reflecting back on the film. During the experience, viewers will hardly have any time to catch their breath as Edwards delivers jaw dropping sequence after jaw dropping sequence. Godzilla is a monster movie done right; it’s serious enough for viewers to feel the impact of the damage wrought, but it’s also tons of fun and gladly embraces what made us fall in love with Godzilla in the first place. It’s no wonder they call him the king of the monsters.

Godzilla receives 3.5/4