When talking about Godzilla movies, especially with diehard monster movie devotees, it’s easy to forget (and rarely talked about in the open) that most of them are boring. Like really, really boring. Even the installments that feature multiple monsters, alien visitors, and tiny, nymph-like fairies are sluggishly paced, full of limp characterization and questionable plotting, so much so that putting together a top ten list of movies featuring the fearsome King of the Monsters was somewhat difficult, even though there are nearly 30 movies in the series’ official canon. Still, we were up to the challenge. So kick back, relax, and think about all the tiny model cities that were destroyed in Godzilla’s wake.
These are what we consider the best, most memorable entries in the franchise, with particular emphasis given to what makes these installments different from the other films (since, at a certain point, they all do blur together). Your feelings on the matter will obviously vary due to varying levels of nostalgic love for the character and other factors, like how high you were while you initially watched the movies, or whether or not you’re a weird fetishist who dresses up in Godzilla costumes for sexual purposes (a weird plot point from Warren Ellis‘ novel "Crooked Little Vein").
It should also be noted that we tried to sample from the varying "eras" of the monster—the Shōwa series (1954 – 1975), the Heisei series (1984 – 1995) and the Millennium series (1999 – 2004). Each of these periods offer a different mood and take on the character, and all are essential in the larger understand of how Godzilla works. Now, without further ado…
10.) Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)
It’s weird to think of a 50-year-old Godzilla movie as being "hotly contested," but amongst loyalists, that’s exactly what "Invasion of Astro-Monster," released in America as "Monster Zero," is. There are some, like myself, who marvel at its nonsensical plot, and the fact that just six movies in, the franchise was already traveling into some delightfully loopy directions (the plot involves space exploration, a cure for cancer, and classic Godzilla foes like King Ghidorah, for no particular reason), while others find it all a bit much. At the very least "Invasion of Astro-Monster" is notable for being the first entry that was co-produced by an American studio (UPA, perhaps most notable for being responsible for the "Mr. Magoo" cartoons) and for the sequence where Godzilla appears to be doing the Riverdance. A happy moment, indeed.
9.) Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
The best Godzilla movies utilize the character for maximum metaphoric value, which is why "Godzilla vs. Hedorah" stands out from the crowd. The titular monster ("ninja monster Hedorah," according to the original Japanese trailer) is a microscopic critter from space that, after entering the earth’s atmosphere near a power plant, begins to morph into a slippery creature made of pure pollution. (It’s nebulous form means that it can travel in air, on land, and in the sea.) Godzilla appears not as a menace to mankind but as the planet’s savior (an idea frequently revisited, including in the new movie), here to ward off the evil smog monster (to borrow from the movie’s Americanized title). This entry is memorable for the monster’s unique design, which combines Muppet-like googly eyes with a Lovecraft-ian body shape (the Beastie Boys borrowed heavily from this creature for their "Intergalactic" video), and the refreshingly psychedelic visuals that often borders on the downright hallucinogenic (that title sequence!). With its fiercely environmentalist message (inspired, in part, by director Yoshimitsu Banno‘s visit to a polluted Japanese beach) and hyper-stylized look, it’s one of the more oddly overlooked entries, especially given its uniquely meta-textual tone (kids play with tiny toy versions of monsters from earlier films) that never becomes too knowingly self-aware.
8.) Godzilla vs. Destroyah (1995)
The last film in the second series did the unthinkable—it killed him off. From the beginning, Godzilla seems to be on the way out: he’s covered in glowing pockets of radiation and a scientist deems that he’s about to overheat and explode. Once again, man’s arrogance is the biggest villain of all, with humans designing a new version of the Oxygen Destroyer (the thing that killed Godzilla in the original 1954 film) that grows out of control and becomes a giant deadly monster. The ungainly design of the monster’s foe is equal parts "Alien" and Stephen King‘s "It," and although the movie has some super goofy flourishes (like Godzilla reteaming with his son, this time dubbed Godzilla Junior), it’s a pretty bleak movie, filled with melancholy and a number of shout-outs to the original film (including a brief appearance by Momoko Kochi, reprising her role). We still kind of wish they had gone with the concept they had developed originally, with Godzilla battling the ghost of the original 1954 Godzilla. Maybe one day…
7.) Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
How bad is Ghidorah, the titular three-headed monster that has huge, bat-like wings but, oddly enough, no arms? He’s so bad that it takes Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra, monsters that are usually at each other’s throats (or whatever the monster equivalent of throats is), banding together to defeat him. (Those weird little fairies that look after Mothra claim that it’s the planet’s "one hope.") This was the first movie to emphasize Godzilla as a potential savior of mankind instead of just a horrible lizard hell-bent on destroying it, even suggesting that the character had (gulp) an emotional complexity beyond breathing fire and knocking things over. Ghidorah would become one of Godzilla’s ultimate foes, and it’s easy to see why. Some die hard fans of the series cite this film as the very best of the early Godzilla movies. It isn’t, but it is damn good.
6.) Return of Godzilla (1984)
Think of this as "Godzilla Begins." After a series of increasingly outrageous adventures, the character took nearly ten years off, and when it was revived, it went back to basics for a story of Godzilla versus humanity. It was envisioned as a direct sequel to the 1954 original. The tone is noticeably darker than the last few movies and the pace less frantic, with a greater emphasis on the creature’s politics (there’s a strong anti-nuclear message again) and the human response to the devastation (the cinematography too is lush and modern). While the much ballyhooed rejuvenation of the suit didn’t amount to much, although it was slightly more sophisticated from a technological standpoint (including a 20-foot animatronic head used for close-ups), the Americanized version of the movie is noteworthy for featuring a return appearance from Raymond Burr, who actually reprised his role from the poorly dubbed version of the first movie.
5.) Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
Sure, "Godzilla: Final Wars" exists primarily as pastiche, but it’s also a beautiful, rousing pop art juggernaut; the "greatest hits" album of the entire franchise. When Toho made a very loud, very public decision to retire the Godzilla character for at least a decade, they wanted the monster to go out on top, and in the showiest way possible. Enter insane Japanese genre filmmaker Ryuhei Kitamura ("Versus"), who envisioned a futuristic earth invaded by an alien race that unleashes a cavalcade of marauding monsters. It’s up to Godzilla, freed from his icy prison, to put a stop to these creatures in the best and quickest way possible (usually accompanied by some dreadful rap-rock song from the film’s soundtrack). The movie makes very little sense, but Godzilla movies have never been known for their clarity, and the movie reaches a kind of meta-textual nirvana when Godzilla is faced with having to fight the Godzilla from Roland Emmerich‘s dreadful 1998 remake. It’s telling that the fight takes all of 60 seconds, with Godzilla throwing the iguana-like, computer-generated creature (dubbed GINO by the fans, as in Godzilla In Name Only) into the Sydney Opera House and then roasting it alive with its fiery breath. If only all Godzilla movies were this breathlessly fun.
4.) Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
"Terminator 2: Judgment Day" wasn’t the only science fiction epic to come out in 1991 and feature time travel and a villain recast as a hero (not to mention a robotically-enhanced foe); "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" was the eighteenth film in the series and, oddly enough, the first to feature time travel. When a spaceship lands on top of Mount Fuji, future earthlings explain that they come from a time when Japan has been completely wiped out thanks to Godzilla, and offer to travel back to 1944 and kill Godzilla before he can unleash all of this destruction. Of course, the time travelers aren’t what they appear, and soon enough are letting King Ghidorah loose on present-day Japan, leaving Godzilla as the country’s natural (and only) defender. Does any of this make sense? No. But it does have a wacky kind of charm, as all the best Godzilla movies do, and at one point Ghidorah becomes technologically supercharged, returning to the fight as Mecha-King Ghidorah, for an all-out melee featuring some of the best miniature work in the entire franchise (we love the shot from inside the building as Godzilla’s spikes come crashing through). There are lots of little flourishes (those snap zooms are insane) and references to previous installments that, even with its epic 119-minute runtime, there’s plenty to enjoy with "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah," a film that cemented the three-headed dragon as the very best of Godzilla’s opponents.
3.) Godzilla (2014)
There are a number of things that make this week’s remake so special: there is a sense of narrative clarity, a clear emotional through line, and a small cluster of characters you can get behind, and stay behind, for the movie’s running time. Also, there isn’t a lot of dialogue, leaving Gareth Edwards‘ painterly compositions and long takes, both rare for a Hollywood movie of this scale, do the talking. But perhaps the greatest thing about this new "Godzilla" is how they treat the character. Instead of featuring a glut of poorly computer generated shots of the character rampaging around the city, the monster’s screen time is kept to an absolute minimum (an appearance at a Hawaii airport is cut frustratingly short, leaving you hungry for more of the big guy), until the movie’s third act, in which the filmmakers finally let you luxuriate in the presence of the iconic creature. It adds a level of scariness and unpredictability to a movie that could have been just another creature feature, and instills the entire thing with Spielberg-ian levels of awe and wonder. It helps, too, that the A-list cast, including Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen, are so convincing while looking really, really scared, and the two new monsters offer knowing throwbacks to older creatures while leaving the door open for the possibility of classic foes joining this new franchise. It’s good to be able to love Godzilla again. (For a different opinion, read Rodrigo Perez’s review.)
2.) Mothra vs. Godzilla (1962)
Fiercely political (an unscrupulous developer unearths Godzilla and spends the rest of the movie trying to recoup his investment) and full of dreamy, eerie imagery (like early images of Mothra’s egg floating in the ocean and the creature as a larva-like slug), the fourth Godzilla film almost tops the original, and is, at the very least, the best Godzilla movie to feature another monster. (Interesting side note: like many of the creatures Godzilla battled, Mothra as a character was introduced in her own stand-alone film. "Mothra," released in 1961, was hugely popular and the character would have her own trilogy of films in the 1990’s.) Mothra, of course, is something of a good guy (a role Godzilla would fill down the line), and has a pair of twin fairies that sing the creature’s annoyingly catchy theme song and dispense with cumbersome exposition (who wants to visit Mothra Island?) Gently surreal and featuring one of the great monster vs. monster throw-downs in the history of the franchise, "Mothra vs. Godzilla" is an actual classic Godzilla movie, instead of a "classic" Godzilla movie.
1.) Godzilla (1954)
A couple of months ago, at South by Southwest, they screened the original 1954 "Godzilla." It was the only 35mm print at the entire festival and many in the audience were only there because they thought that the new film was being sneakily screened. (It wasn’t.) Instead, the original rolled, and the audience greeted it with a mixture of sleepiness and appreciation. The movie is more sluggishly paced than you probably remembered it being, but it’s also somewhat transcendent, a glum, confrontational look at post-war Japan with visual effects that might not hold up today but still inspire appreciation and reverence. As a character and a film, Godzilla was born out of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan at the end of World War II, and you can feel that kind of achy sadness in every black-and-white frame. It’s hard not to get a little bit choked up with sequences where everyday Japanese citizens are clustered in bomb shelters, waiting for yet another tragedy to befall them, even if it is some guy in a cumbersome rubber suit (and, for close-ups, an even-less-convincing puppet). "Godzilla" is still charming, but never quaint, and even if you watch the crappy Americanized version with Raymond Burr, it hums with a singular energy and sense of purpose that too few of the sequels were missing.
Honorable Mention: There are a few honorable mentions that, um, are worth mentioning: "Godzilla 2000" (1999) brought the character back for the third set of movies in classic form (can we join the Godzilla Protection Network please?), which is even more impressive considering it came just a year after the disastrous American version. "Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla" (1974) introduced the fan-favorite robot version of Godzilla, who returned for "Terror of Mechagozilla" (1975), the two films forming the kind of "Kill Bill" of the franchise; "King Kong vs. Godzilla" (1961) is worth watching just for the goofiness of it all, and to take stock of how much crummier King Kong looks as a guy in a suit (rather than an artful stop motion character); and there’s also some candy-colored fun to be had in "Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack" (2001), which is just as much of a cluster-fuck as the title implies.