Gareth Edwards' Godzilla sets itself a task that, in an age of CGI and summers clogged with big-budget tentpoles, is basically impossible. It wants to dazzle and awe its audience with sheer spectacle, even though they should at this point be completely inured to computer-rendered visions of city destruction, giant creatures and ear-crushing roars and groans. Incredibly, it succeeds. Like so many films of this scale, it's easy to level some complaints about the characterizations of the puny humans. But Edwards is smart enough to make that part of his mission statement. More than anything, Godzilla is about how puny we are. When we get our first (of relatively few) full-on looks at the creature, Edwards wants us to tremble, and tremble we should.
It's already been much-discussed, but Edwards' ploy is to keep the monster off-screen for pretty much the entire first hour, then dole him out in delicious little chunks for the rest of the movie. This is not quite a Jaws situation, where the more we see of the monster in the last act, the less he's actually terrifying. Edwards and his visual effects team have created a genuinely fearsome beast; they just want you to lean forward in your seat every time you get a look at him.
Whether conscious or not, it feels like a response to the straightforward, knock-down drag-out monster slugfest that was Pacific Rim, where director Guillermo Del Toro spent an entire movie trying to find ways to keep his robot vs. monster fights interesting and diverse. Del Toro did not entirely fail there, but the film was an inarguably wearying experience, and left me convinced that there was simply no way to make such city-destroying antics awe-inspiring anymore. The ridiculous and unnecessary building-leveling spectacles of Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness last year did not help in that regard.