The 10 best Godzilla movies of all time
This May, Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla: King of the Monsters will stomp and roar its way into theaters. It’s a direct sequel to 2014’s Godzilla, this time co-written and directed by Michael Dougherty (Trick ‘r Treat, Krampus). In the new film, the big green beast is joined by his three most famous kaiju brethren, Rodan, Mothra, and King Ghidorah. When these four powerful forces of nature collide, do human beings even stand a chance?
Since he first appeared in 1954, Godzilla has represented many different things. He has been the embodiment of destruction, fear, loss, anger, and sometimes hope. He has been both enemy and savior. More than anything, he is a constant reminder and warning to mankind. If we continue on our path of war and pollution, nature will find a way to eradicate us all in a horrible death of our own design.
Now that you’re all depressed, let’s move on to the fun parts. Godzilla films are loaded with entertainment. There are giant beasts slugging it out in the middle of a ruined city, lasers, aliens, time travel, psychics, mutants, and more explosions than Micheal Bay could write.
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There have been over 30 Godzilla movies in the past 60 years, and just like Godzilla himself, there doesn’t seem to be any sign of them stopping anytime soon. Godzilla movies are generally categorized according to era in time: the Showa era (1954 – 1975), the Heisei era (1984 – 1995), the Millennium era (1999 – 2004), and the MonsterVerse era (2014 onward). The 1998 Tri-Star Pictures’ Godzilla falls between Heisei and Millennium, and the recent Shin Godzilla and the animated Planet of the Monsters films fall into simply what’s known as Post-Millennium, for now.
Let’s take a look at the King of the Monsters’ best outings over the course of his long reign.
10. Destroy All Monsters (Kaijū Sōshingeki) – 1968 – Showa Era
At the end of the 20th Century, all of Earth’s giant beasts are gathered on an island, “Monsterland,” where scientists study them and prevent them from leaving. Vicious aliens, called Kilaaks, come down to Earth with the intention of conquering us all. They have the ability to control people’s minds and all the monsters on the planet; so they send the monsters to attack all the major cities of the world. A group of astronauts have precious little time to stop the fiendish plot. For the Showa era, this title has the most bang for your buck in terms of action. You get to see all your favorite monsters tearing stuff up. With its quick run time, the pacing is good compared to some of the other earlier films, even in some of the slower dialogue scenes. Though, none of the human characters really stand out. Besides, the main reason for watching this is the epic grand finale containing the greatest kaiju battle of the Showa Era, and one of the best of any Godzilla film.
9. Godzilla (Gojira) – 1954 – Showa Era
This Ishiro Honda masterpiece started it all. Nuclear testing awakens the slumbering beast Godzilla from hibernation and turns it into a giant monster. This beast, filled with rage, attacks the human race. Nothing seems to be able to stop it, until Dr. Daisuke Serizawa reveals his plan to destroy the creature. This is one of the best monster movies of all time. If you haven’t seen it, you need to. Echoing Hiroshima, Nagasaki, the bombing of Tokyo, and the tragedy surrounding the crew of The Lucky Dragon #5, this movie represents the horror of nuclear war. Keep that in your mind as you watch and you’ll find the “cheesy” factor dissipates. The creature itself looks scarred and burned, bearing a striking resemblance to real people who have suffered from radiation poisoning. One thing that should be noted about the now famous attack on Tokyo is the director’s use of silence. This is very different from later Godzilla films, which utilize familiar scores throughout big action sequences. Here, you hear people running and screaming. You hear sirens. You hear the deafening sound of explosions and the angry roar of fire, just like in real life. Everything burns and crumbles. Everyone is dying. There’s nowhere to run, so you hold onto your loved ones and face the inevitable.
8. Godzilla 2000: Millennium (Gojira Nisen: Mireniamu) – 1999 – Millennium Era
After the end of the Heisei era in 1995, Toho wanted to give Godzilla a decade-long break while Tri-Star Pictures would make a trilogy of Godzilla films in the U.S. Then, Roland Emmerich made the now infamous 1998 Godzilla, which was so negatively received that Toho Co. realized they could and should start making theirs again. The story is simple and the human characters are great. This was a wonderful return to form for those who grew up watching the Showa films, and this was the best-looking Godzilla up to that point. For many, however, there was a bit of confusion as to whether it was a sequel to the ’98 film. This movie kicked off the Millennium era, which started to heavily implement computerized graphics to supplement the practical ones to wonderful effect. Rarely in this era are there completely CG characters on screen, as the same “suitmation” technique from prior years was implemented. In 2000, this was the last Japanese Godzilla film to have a theatrical run in America until 2016’s Shin Godzilla. (Although Final Wars did have a Los Angeles premiere without an actual theatrical run.)
7. Godzilla: Final Wars (Gojira: Fainaru Wōzu) – 2004 – Millennium Era
A group of aliens from Planet X arrive on Earth to conquer the human race by making all giant beasts attack every major city. Yes, this is essentially the Millennium era’s version of Destroy All Monsters. There’s also a sub-plot about mutants living among humans and being related to the X-ians. (So…X-Men?) Though this film is completely self-aware and damn near parodying all the other Godzilla films, that doesn’t make it any less fun. Directed by Ryûhei Kitamura, (Versus, Azumi) this movie is more like an anime, or a video-game complete with levels and bosses. This movie has hyper-kinetic action throughout, from kaiju battles to warring aliens, mutants and humans. Compared to all the other films, this one has some of the most action from the human side of the story. If you really don’t like the ’98 Godzilla, there’s a special treat in here for you. The entire film is a celebration of Godzilla, and a love letter to the fans. This movie is a blast on its own, but is more appreciated after you’ve already seen the other Godzilla films, in order to get all the little references throughout.
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6. Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (Gojira, Mosura, Kingu Gidora: Daikaijū Sōkōgeki ) – 2001 – Millennium Era
Usually shorthanded as simply GMK, this stand-alone story takes some liberties with the characters. Three guardian monsters are resurrected from legend to put a stop to Godzilla and save Japan. This movie changes the origins of many of the kaiju and is a direct sequel to the original 1954 Godzilla, ignoring all other sequels (a practice which has become common, especially in the Millennium era.) This movie is one of the rare occasions when Godzilla is actually worse than King Ghidorah. While this movie is a bit slow to get going, it boasts some amazing effects and dark humor. The action scenes are brutal, and the kaiju battles are huge. This is a good title for anyone just starting out on their Godzilla viewing adventure. You can get a sense of the action without being turned off by the weird story.
5. Godzilla Raids Again (Gojira no Gyakushū) – 1955 – Showa Era
Two working-class pilots and their friends are caught in the middle of a war between two titans: Godzilla and Anguirus. This was not well received when it first premiered. It’s nowhere near as good as the original and does feel very rushed. The mood is nowhere near as dark or frightening. But as far as sequels go, it’s very good. It still brings about that same wartime fear, now in the form of an enforced city-wide blackout. Everything goes silent. You sit in the dark and hope that whatever is out there just moves past. Of course, things don’t always go according to plan. The use of silence in these scenes is wonderful. This film is notable as the first time Godzilla faces another monster — and their battle is awesome, one of the best in the Showa series. To get at each other, they destroy most of Osaka. The human characters are great, too. Especially sweet Kobayashi.
4. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (Gojira tai Desutoroia) – 1995 – Heisei Era
This final entry in the Heisei Era is not only one of the best of the era, but of the entire series of films. It’s difficult to explain the plot without spoiling much of the original 1954 film, but Godzilla faces his greatest enemy to date and faces an internal struggle which could destroy the planet. This one drops you right into the middle of the action and keeps it going right up until the end. Destoroyah is one of the coolest enemies of any of the films and this is one of the most fearsome and respectful depictions of Godzilla in the series. There are many well-written callbacks to the original film. This film even brought back Momoko Kochi to reprise her role of Emiko Yamane. There’s plenty of action between the giant beasts and for the humans on the ground. If you’re a true fan of Godzilla, the ending of this film should pull at your heartstrings.
3. Godzilla vs. Hedorah (Gojira Tai Hedora) – 1971 – Showa Era
This classic is both a crazy delight and a grim reminder of pollution destroying the planet. Also known as Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster, this movie pits the G-Man against the manifestation of all the garbage, oil, runoff, and muck in the ocean. From the opening titles with the theme song “Return! The Sun,” all the way to the final battle, there’s a lot of weird stuff going on here. It feels like it’s made for kids, but at times is downright horrific and bizarre. The monsters have a pre-fight trash-talk segment that screams for a pro-wrestling re-dub. If someone can explain the nightclub scene to you, run (do not walk) away from them. You can’t watch this without thinking about the current pollution problem in our own ocean, but ultimately, that’s the point.
2. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (Gojira tai Kingu Gidora) – 1991 – Heisei Era
Another one for the “camp” enthusiasts. This one deals with time travel, and for the first time, offers a bit more on Godzilla’s origins. People from the year 2204 travel back in time to early 1990s Japan to offer a way to stop Godzilla from ever existing. It’s also a different take on the origin of King Ghidorah (and definitely not one of the more popular ones). Like many films in this series, there’s more underneath the surface, including a strong message about war leading to nothing but death and the suffering of innocents. There are many scenes which could be seen as pro-imperialist and anti-American. Do not try to think about time paradoxes or plot holes or your head will explode. In fact, the story is so loose and silly, it’s laughable, but this film also offers a lot of bad-ass fun. This is another film in the series where something truly inspired occurs in the final battle. It also sets up the foundation for a later sequel in a brilliant way.
1. The Return of Godzilla (Gojira) – 1984 – Heisei Era
This is the awesome start of the Heisei era. Toho found that Godzilla was still insanely popular in 1983 and decided to make a direct sequel to the original film. This movie brought back the character of Godzilla in earnest, making him the original beast he started out as. He is no longer a savior but a manifestation of nature’s wrath and a product of nuclear energy. It’s a dangerous part of what makes him who he is. This movie marks the slim beginnings of what would later become known as G-Force, an anti-Godzilla defense team. The original Super-X flying tank makes its appearance in this one, showing off some of the coolest weapons and technology in this era. G-Force plays a huge part in future films and is usually one of the coolest parts of them. This film also doesn’t shy away from political commentary when it addresses Japan caught in the middle during the Cold War and the country’s continued stance against nuclear weapons.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters premieres May 31, 2019. Follow all the action and track the current movements of Godzilla at MonarchSciences.com.