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The thrilla that's 'Godzilla'

'King of the Monsters' ups the creature-feature ante

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The new American film "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" honors a tradition that has won over millions of Japanese "kaiju" (giant monster movie) fans for the past 60 years. Directed and co-written by Michael Dougherty, this sequel to 2014's "Godzilla" dusts off other iconic creatures from the Godzilla family: giant-moth-thing Mothra, pteranodon-esque Rodan, and three-headed monster King Ghidorah. The promise of monster versus monster -- in various combinations -- is all that the true believers need to get their butts in seats.

For everyone else, "Godzilla: King of the Monsters" has a higher bar to pass in an era that has produced blockbusters including "Godzilla," "Kong: Skull Island," the "Cloverfield" movies, the "Pacific Rim" movies, "Rampage" and more.

While Dougherty's take emphasizes its plethora of monsters, it also gathers a cast of character actors in an attempt to create a human-interest story on which to hang the action.

The biggest human star here, oddly enough, is teenager Millie Bobby Brown, making her big-screen debut on the strength of her Netflix sensation "Stranger Things" (another sci-fi monster tale). Brown plays Madison Russell, whose estranged parents are kaiju experts. Paleobiologist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and anthrozoologist Dr. Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) couldn't keep their marriage together after the loss of their son in a monster attack. When kaiju start making havoc again, and Emma and Madison get lost in the shuffle, monster-managing organization Monarch brings a reluctant Mark back into the fold.

From there, it's a lot of character actors gathered around consoles in dark laboratories, under big radar maps that track the monsters' movements. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins reprise their roles from the 2014 film, and we're introduced to new scientists played by Bradley Whitford, Thomas Middleditch, and Zhang Ziyi. Dougherty makes every night dark and stormy and every interior shadowy, making for a night at the movies that sometimes feels more like a patience-testing blackout at home (3D only enhances that impression).

We spend too little quality time with Godzilla for him to register as a character (it's a tough trick to give a creature personality, but hardly impossible), and the human characters prove one-note, mostly because there's no time to discuss anything but monsters. While every plot twist is explained, that doesn't mean every plot twist is believable, and the Russells are so grumpy and/or kooky that there's no rooting interest in bringing them back together.

The CGI creatures impress -- a star is reborn in Mothra -- and their battles, though dark and often too tightly framed, basically deliver the fire-breathing goods. It's just unfortunate that the picture as a whole lumbers a lot like its 40-story-tall star.

— Peter Canavese

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