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**1/2

As the Warner Bros. logo loomed large on the screen - and in 3-D, to boot - to herald the start of Godzilla, my watch read, "19:35" (yes, I'm a stickler for military time). When the preview audience finally got a full look at the title behemoth for the first time, it was exactly 20:35. A full hour of running time, and no Godzilla to show for it aside from a few extreme close-ups of various body parts?

Fine by me. As a big fan of exposition in my moviegoing diet, I appreciated the fact that director Gareth Edwards and writers Max Borenstein and Dave Callaham were patiently laying the groundwork for the triumphant return of Godzilla, who first hit theaters 60 years ago and has become a global phenomenon in the ensuing decades. Godzilla (birth name: Gojira) was such a popular commodity that even the Yanks elected to take a crack at the big guy: The result was 1998's risible Godzilla vs. Ferris Bueller, with the oversized monster no match for Matthew Broderick's shtick. Clearly, Edwards and his team had their work cut out for them if they wanted to make a Hollywood version that would erase the smell of its ill-advised predecessor.

For the first hour, they mostly succeed. Principal characters are introduced, among them Joe Brody (Bryan Cranston), a nuclear power plant engineer who turns into an activist once he becomes convinced that there was a coverup involving an accident at the facility; his son Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a military grunt certain that his dad's a raving lunatic; and scientists Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins), who know more than most yet are still in the dark when it comes to figuring out what threat humanity faces.

That answer comes with the inadvertent release of the buglike Muto, which helpfully stands for Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism. This gargantuan creature destroys everything and everyone in its path, and it's clear that Earth needs a superhero more powerful - and definitely taller - than Spider-Man or Captain America to vanquish it.

That's where The Big G comes in, and after an hour in which he's been noticeably MIA, we're more than ready for the remaining 65 minutes to offer wall-to-wall Godzilla.

Only it doesn't work out that way. With continued emphasis on the humans (particularly Taylor-Johnson's Ford, the least interesting of the homo sapien protagonists) and much of the discussion (and action) centering around the Muto and its even larger mate, Godzilla ends up becoming a supporting player in what's ostensibly his own movie. It's shocking to note how little screen time he receives, and when he finally enters into a battle royale with the Mutos, it almost feels like the picture has been handed over to an extra.

At least the CGI is flawless. The effects employed to bring Godzilla and his nemeses to life are superb, although I must confess a bit of disappointment in the design of Godzilla in his latest incarnation. Stockier than normal, one gets the feeling he's spent the past few years guzzling Kirin Ichiban or Sapporo Draft while lounging on the ocean floor - how else to explain that sizable beer belly?

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