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(USATODAY.com) - "It's not the end of the world," says Elizabeth Olsen, who plays a nurse in Godzilla. She's talking about her husband (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) taking off forJapan to see his jailed scientist father (Bryan Cranston).

But she could just as easily be referring to the monstrous mayhem that comes soon after, threatening global annihilation. Either way, she'll come to eat those words.

Godzilla ( * * * out of four; rated PG-13, opening Thursday night in select cities and Friday nationwide) has an impressive cast, though few are given the chance to shine. In a movie about a legendary beast, humans — no matter how talented — are secondary to the main event.

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Creature features are all about gargantuan snarling monsters and great balls of fire, not awards-worthy performances. And the titular leviathan is a majestic beast indeed.

British director Gareth Edwards wisely builds dramatic tension by letting the story unfold at a stately pace, also following the hallowed Spielberg playbook. ThinkJurassic Park meets Jaws. The film gathers momentum early, drawing viewers in from the artful opening credits. Audiences are compelled to wait for the big reveal. About an hour in, the fierce-looking Godzilla shows himself in all his terrifying glory. It's a riveting spectacle.

Edwards pays respect to Ishiro Honda's original tale. The story honors the legacy of the 1954 classic and its symbolic connection to the atomic devastation of World War II.

The retooled story also resonates in contemporary times, with shades of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster hanging over the film.

At 355 feet, Godzilla towers over previous screen incarnations. A reptilian Goliath with a jagged spine, he may look like a dinosaur and lumber like a gorilla, but he roars with a dragon's fiery breath.

An extended family is at the core of the story. In 1999, tremors shake up a nuclear power plant near Tokyo where Joe Brody (Cranston in a bad wig) and his wife, Sandra (Juliette Binoche), are scientists. They live near the plant with their young son, Ford (CJ Adams). Joe detects unusual sounds in the seismic activity, which his colleagues dismiss as earthquakes. A meltdown ensues and Sandra is killed.

Earlier scenes focused on a caved-in mine in the Philippines, where scientists Ichiro Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins) discover fossilized radioactive remains.

Cut to 15 years later: Ford (Taylor-Johnson) is now a Navy lieutenant married to Elle (Olsen). They have a 4-year-old son, Sam (Carson Bolde).

Joe remains obsessed with figuring out the source of the power plant disaster. He learns of a government cover-up: Something is feeding on nuclear reactors. Serizawa labels it a MUTO, or massive unidentified terrestrial organism.

Serizawa clashes with bomb-happy Admiral William Stenz (David Strathairn), citing the arrogance of humans who try to control nature.

Fortunately for humanity, this new iteration of Godzilla is about restoring order — though the explanation for it is murky.

A behemoth meant as nature's imposing defense weapon, Godzilla glides in the Pacific with a gator's stealthy grace, then stomps out to set things straight. When he battles malevolent winged monsters, it's an epic clash filled with chilling growls, bellows and metallic-tinged wails.

The climactic fight grows a bit wearying, and plot holes loom. Cleverly, though, destruction is not always shown head-on; sometimes it's glimpsed through a hazy airport window or car windshield.

Godzilla 2014 is a more somber and frightening reboot than the cartoonish 1998 movie. Disaster sequences are not slap-happy destruct-a-thons, but emotionally devastating and horrifying, as originally envisioned.

Aiming for a titanic tale that is also seriously ominous, Godzilla opens with a bang and concludes with an exhilarating roar.

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