Last September, as Breaking Bad neared its end, New Yorker writer Tad Friend profiled that series' star, Bryan Cranston, who was then shooting the mega-budget remake of Godzilla that opens this week. "The actor has become the studios' ancho chili, the ingredient that adds distinction to any dish," Friend observed. And distinction was called for — no living human remembers director Roland Emmerich's 1998 Godzilla reboot with anything more charitable than amused contempt. Tentpole CGI spectacles benefit when they're toplined by gifted performers, and Emmerich's was where we learned the limits of Matthew Broderick's gifts (even if the mess wasn't his fault).
Of course, you know, vice versa, and Cranston is indeed a major chili who has more than earned a Big Summer Movie Payday. In director Gareth Edwards' Godzilla, though, Cranston is a major ham. But he's still the best human element at play, amusing to watch as he dials every bark and sob up to the tippy-top of a range closer to his old Malcolm in the Middle register than to deadly Walter White.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Friend's New Yorker piece paints Cranston at times as a major ancho, too. Edwards says: "The problem with Bryan is that he comes with a lot of ideas, and you have to say, 'Damn it,' and rethink everything because he's always right." If that's code for "I wish Bryan would shut up — it's just a monster movie," there's still reason to wish that Edwards' other actors, almost none of whom actually share the screen with Cranston, had heard some of those endless ideas. David Strathairn, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins play their cardboard-thin roles — compassionate military commander, all-knowing scientist and thankless science-y assistant lady, respectively — with just a little more vigor than they might have summoned for a Lifetime movie.
Edwards' 3-D movie is at least smart about its visual storytelling, with up-facing action shots that are sometimes so ground-based, you keep thinking the people in the row ahead of you are getting up to buy popcorn. It's too bad that the best sequence — a paratrooper drop from heaven into hell — got its own teaser trailer months ago, but there are still enough strong moments to make this Godzilla worth a matinee ticket.
The de rigueur skyline smashing occurs in Honolulu and San Francisco, where Aaron Taylor-Johnson plays the estranged son of Cranston's character (and the parent, with Elizabeth Olsen, of a Spielbergian moppet). He's also a Navy officer who knows how to work an H-bomb, a valuable skill when radiation-eating dinosaurs — this Godzilla doesn't skimp on head count — threaten the planet.
And here we come to an odd reversal in the Godzilla mythos. This version of the story doesn't make you shudder at nuclear weapons and their aftereffects but instead forces a rooting interest in their tactical deployment. When Watanabe's character mentions Hiroshima, it's a vague caution that vanishes fast, making way for the last battle's minor pleasures. Because without nuclear energy, this Godzilla wouldn't have the strength to face off against his more dangerous adversaries. And the power-plant accident that opens the movie turns out to be without radioactive consequence, so, uh, sorry, Fukushima. The movies' scaly old no-nukes metaphor has evolved into just another Hollywood ATM.