The roaring success of ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’ has not only proven that audiences are coming out of the quarantine with an unquenched appetite for blockbusters, but it’s also renewed interest in the iconic kaiju and his prolific oeuvre. We’ve already covered the history of the ‘Godzilla’ franchise, but this list is for those who’d rather see what the series has to offer for themselves–with 29 live-action films produced so far, it’s hard to know where to start.
This list is curated to hit all of Godzilla’s most iconic recurring adversaries and to see the best of what each stylistically distinct era of films had to offer, avoiding the labor of sitting through each and every one. More than ever, it seems that Western audiences are willing to watch and enjoy ‘Godzilla’ films for the campy, bombastic fun that they’re generally meant to be, with a few serious exceptions–this list aspires to represent the best of both sides.
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History of Godzilla
Here are the Top 5 Godzilla movies:
Usually regarded as the best film of the entire franchise, the only reason that the original 1954 ‘Godzilla’ places fifth here is so you see it first. It was the first true kaiju film ever made, influenced by monster movies like ‘King Kong’ and ‘The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms’, but famously set itself apart with its somber contemplation of war and nuclear destruction as experienced firsthand by the Japanese only nine years prior.
Within the franchise, the original is the lynchpin of Godzilla’s character and mythos–as far as the movies might stray into sci-fi, fantasy, or children’s tales, they inevitably return to his core identity as a force of nature, a testament to mankind’s scientific and ecological hubris. In fact, with every reboot of the series (excluding ‘Shin Godzilla’ in 2016 and the Hollywood productions), every film up to that point is ignored except the original, which is always treated as the creature’s canonical first incursion.
Disregarding the film’s significance in relation to the franchise, it’s an engaging, mournful movie with some surprisingly modern sensibilities–its influence can be traced to later films like Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’ and ‘Jurassic Park’. There’s a real darkness to the scenes of Tokyo burning that viscerally recollect the horrors seen in World War II, and it’s well worth a watch for more than its place in history.
Still, Godzilla as a franchise has evolved into something much greater than its original concept of nuclear movie monster–many of the franchise’s staples, including kaiju vs. kaiju action and campy humor, aren’t present here. That’s exactly what gives it merit as a serious film, but it has a very different appeal than most of its sequels, truly standing alone. Nevertheless, it’s required viewing–if you plan on watching ‘Godzilla’ movies, you should start with the original.
Also available is the English 1956 version titled ‘Godzilla, King of the Monsters!’ (CLICK HERE to watch). Dubbed and re-edited, it incorporates footage that frames the story around a new protagonist named Steve Martin (Raymond Burr), an American reporter who comments on the events of the film. It’s not a bad localization if you hate subtitles, but I would recommend the Japanese original.
#4 ‘Mothra vs. Godzilla’ (1964)
Often regarded as one of the best films of the Showa era, ‘Mothra vs. Godzilla’ introduced Mothra, who had previously debuted in 1961 with her eponymously titled standalone film–she stands out as generally being depicted as definitively “good,” alternating between being Godzilla’s ally and foe.
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It begins with a mysterious, bluish object found in the wreckage of a typhoon–two tiny twin fairies (à la Tinkerbell or ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’) called Shobijin, priestess servants of Mothra, reveal it to be her egg. The plot revolves around two greedy businessmen who buy the egg for themselves and refuse to return it to Mothra, scheming instead to exploit it for cash–that is, until Godzilla arrives.
It’s a strong early entry to the franchise that helped set the template for movies to come, including the addition of more fantastical elements like the Shobijin. The practical effects and miniatures are inevitably dated at times, but often charming and clever. The Shobijin, for instance, are made small in one scene with the use of giant furniture–a timeless, simple, and infallible practical effect.
#3 ‘Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II’ (1993)
Despite its title, ‘Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II’ is a direct sequel to ‘Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah’ (1991), rather than the original ‘Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla’ (1974). Here, scientists construct Mechagodzilla out of the remains of Mecha-King Ghidorah, which had been brought to the present from the future in the previous film–that one is pretty cool, too. Additionally, this concept of Mechagodzilla being a human invention would become the norm in films to follow, including ‘Godzilla vs. Kong’.
Also present is Rodan, another recurring rogue who isn’t as iconic as Mothra, King Ghidorah, or Mechagodzilla, but is big enough in Japan to be one of Toho’s “Big Five” kaiju–it debuted in the 1956 standalone film ‘Rodan’, noteworthy for being the first Toho film made in color. The film also introduces Baby Godzilla, meant to appeal to the female audience that had bolstered the box office performance of ‘Godzilla vs. Mothra’ in 1992 (an entirely different movie than ‘Mothra vs. Godzilla’).
Mechagodzilla is a fun villain because he’s the only one who regularly gives Godzilla a hard time, being able to draw blood. The action combines classic suitmation with CGI effects, and Godzilla manages to deliver some really enjoyable expressions throughout the film. At the heart of the film, however, is the story of Godzilla trying to find Baby Godzilla to go home together–it’s oddly nice to see.
‘Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II’ is available to buy or rent on VOD (CLICK HERE to watch).
#2 ‘Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack’ (2001)
If the bombastic title wasn’t clue enough, this movie is great fun. Serving as a direct sequel to the 1954 original while ignoring every other installment, ‘Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack’, commonly abbreviated as ‘GMK’, delivers all that and Baragon, a subterranean kaiju who previously fought against Frankenstein’s Monster in ‘Frankenstein vs. Baragon’.
This one leans into the fantastical in a number of interesting ways. Godzilla, for instance, is actually composed of the souls of those who’d died at the hands of the Japanese in World War II–the destruction he causes is Japan’s punishment for forgetting and denying their former atrocities. Baragon, Mothra, and Ghidorah are reimagined as an ancient group of “guardian monsters” who the human protagonists awaken in order to fight Godzilla.
Godzilla himself is depicted as pure evil, in contrast to some other films where he ranges from antihero to outright defender of humanity. It’s a unique entry to the franchise, creatively helmed by director Shusuke Kaneko, and offers a number of good moments and pulpy kaiju action.
‘Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack’ is available to buy or rent on VOD (CLICK HERE to watch).
#1 ‘Shin Godzilla’ (2016)
Motivated by the success of Gareth Edwards’ 2014 ‘Godzilla’, Toho produced ‘Shin Godzilla’, their first new ‘Godzilla’ movie since ‘Final Wars’ in 2004. Unlike other reboots, this one ignores the 1954 original and starts fresh with an entirely new origin story, showing Godzilla’s physical evolution from a relatively small, fishlike lizard to the Big G we know and love–it’s also the first Toho-produced movie to create a fully CG Godzilla, finally letting go of suitmation.
The core human plotline of the film involves the efforts of Japanese higher-ups to not only defeat or contain Godzilla, but also to deal with the catastrophic public health crisis and the civilian toll that his destruction entails–whereas the original was inspired by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ‘Shin Godzilla’ was inspired by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami, as well as the subsequent Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. With a realistic style and no camp, it stands out as a film to take seriously, as was the original.
Godzilla himself is more menacing than ever before, depicted as more mindless and reptilian than in previous incarnations–bulging, marbly eyes indicate impartiality to the destruction, reinforcing the concept that he’s a force of nature. The destruction itself is awesome, and Godzilla feels more powerful here than in most other films.
‘Shin Godzilla’ won the Japan Academy Film Prize for Picture of the Year, culturally equivalent to the Oscar for Best Picture, and it’s deserving of the accolade–absolutely worth a watch.
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‘Destroy All Monsters’, originally meant to be the final ‘Godzilla’ movie, is like ‘The Avengers’ of the Showa era, featuring every kaiju that had appeared in the franchise all the way back to Anguirus–it’s great fun to watch once the monsters assemble, but an uninteresting human plotline keeps the movie off the list.
The English dubbed version of ‘Destroy All Monsters’ is available to watch for free on Tubi (CLICK HERE to watch).
‘All Monsters Attack’ is widely regarded as the absolute worst ‘Godzilla’ film, and for that it’s worth a watch. Unlike any other ‘Godzilla’ movie, it follows a latchkey kid named Ichiro Miki (Tomonori Yazaki) who learns to stand up for himself through his friendship with Minilla (who was the first incarnation of Godzilla’s son before Baby Godzilla).
In spite of its reputation, there’s an earnest quality to the film–director Ishirō Honda, who’d directed a plethora of films including the original 1954 ‘Godzilla’, ‘King Kong vs. Godzilla’, and ‘Mothra vs. Godzilla’, later stated that this one was one of his personal favorites.
‘All Monsters Attack’ is available to stream on the Criterion Channel (CLICK HERE to watch).
By Daniel Choi
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Daniel Choi is a writer who’s currently pursuing a BA in Film & Television from New York University. With a background in amateur film production, Daniel is fascinated by how artists’ cultural backgrounds inform their work, subconsciously or not, and how that work is then perceived by different audiences across time and space. He joined Hollywood Insider to promote its mission statement of substantive entertainment journalism, and hopes to enrich readers’ understandings of cinema through insightful analysis.