Let’s get this out of the way: Did we need another Godzilla? With more than 30 movies to choose from—the last American adaptation came in 1998—it wouldn’t seem so. But this new, 3-D version, directed with verve by Gareth Edwards, more than justifies its existence. Mr. Edwards has Ken Watanabe playing Serizawa—a nod to the mad scientist in Ishiro Honda’s original 1954 version. His Godzilla is loud and grandiose at times, but it’s also an elegant, understated and welcome approach to the kaiju genre.
Mr. Edwards knows how to build suspense. He waits some time before giving us a full-body shot of the giant lizard, emerging from the Pacific to tower over the island of Oahu. By this time, a pair of giant, parasitic, bug-like creatures—referred to as MUTOs, or massive unidentified terrestrial organisms—have run amok in search of radiation to hatch their eggs, sending electromagnetic pulses through the ground.
Honolulu and Las Vegas are razed as the bug-like creatures make their way to San Francisco for an epic Mothra-like showdown with the King of the Monsters, as Godzilla is also known. (In the cartoonish 1998 version, which pales in comparison to this rendition, you wince when the Chrysler Building comes tumbling down, though maybe not so much when Madison Square Garden is incinerated.)
Mr. Edwards’ previous film, Monsters, was a low-budget effort about tentacled alien invaders—dangerous but harmless, if left alone. Godzilla may be a city-stomping jump from his indie roots (and indie budget), but he stays with his theme, painting a sympathetic portrait of the lizard. And he does it without sinking into mawkishness, though a love story between Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen feels overwrought. Mr. Edwards doesn’t shy away from humor either. It’s tough not to laugh when Godzilla’s imposing anthropomorphic figure is first shown, and that feels intentional: You get the sense the director is in on the joke.
Is he—she?—really all that bad or just too big? This is the question behind most Godzilla films. If your tail is large enough to knock over the Eiffel Tower, it might mean you’re a clumsy lizard, not a mass murderer. If a helicopter whizzes by your ear and you swat at it as you would at a gnat, it could just be that you were taken off guard.
In Godzilla, Mr. Edwards sides with the monster.