As Godzilla vs. Kong has ignited more than the giant reptile’s atomic breath, the new blockbuster crossover has also reignited my interest in the Godzilla franchise.
I started looking back at the 30 plus library of films in Godzilla’s catalogue that have spanned nearly 70 years of moviemaking history, and while there are a lot of duds in the bunch there are also a lot of gems in there. In fact, I was surprised at how well a lot of the films hold up, and even when they don’t hold up how entertaining many of them are regardless. Maybe I’m biased, but I’d say the big guy has had more hits than misses.
If you want to get into the series or even if you’re already a Godzilla fan but you just want to walk down memory lane with some of the best the series has to offer, these are some of the must-see Godzilla movies out there. It’s tough to narrow them all down and I’m only going to include Godzilla movies from Japan, but here are my top ten:
10. Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth
This 1992 update of the Godzilla vs. Mothra battles from the 1960s improved upon the originals while retaining what made them so iconic in the first place. The pint-sized Shobijin twins are back and ready to plant the earwig of a ditty in your brain known as ‘Mothra’s Song’ all while you watch a giant moth pupa struggle to somehow swim in the ocean.
The movie starts out with some action sequences in an ancient jungle site that would make Indiana Jones proud. On the downside, the environmental message is obviously agreeable but a bit simplistic and perhaps preachy at times. Still, the fight scenes are good and the soundtrack keeps things lively. It’s not the most original Godzilla tale, but it is one of the most fun.
9. Destroy All Monsters
If you can only pick one Godzilla movie to watch out of the classic Showa Era (other than the black-and-white original), Destroy All Monsters is a good choice. It’s essentially a ‘best of’ compilation from the time period. The plot is perhaps even flimsier than usual, but I personally enjoyed the idea of an alien race pitting these behemoths against one another in an effort to take over our planet.
Destroy All Monsters is an excellent retrospect of Godzilla’s roots and a great way to get a general idea of how the series and filmmaking in general have evolved over the years.
8. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah
The first 90s Godzilla film was a beautiful start of a new decade and new chapter of the series’ history. It took everything from the Showa Era that worked and everything from the (at the time) modern era that worked, and combined them to create something that simultaneously felt both old school and new. Of course, the time-traveling aspect was corny, but somehow, against all odds, it felt right. Extraterrestrial visitors were back in this entry, and polished up for a decent portrayal (by 90s sci-fi movie standards anyway).
King Ghidorah looked better than ever. And the film bookmarked a transition period that involved a nice blend of traditional special effects and CGI.
Sure it has flaws. Sure there are plot holes (big ones… like, bigger than usual). And sure it’s unadulterated camp. But it’s good. This is a wonderful movie to gather ’round with likeminded goofballs and just soak in with all of its shameless glory. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah never loses sight of what it is. And it’s proud of what it is. You have to respect that.
7. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah took the series in an unexpected direction. After a string of pure cheese movies like Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah that threw any semblance of a coherent plot out the window, Godzilla vs. Destoroyah actually tries to tell a compelling narrative. Which is a risk. You gotta be careful with Godzilla films not to get stuck in the minutiae of an uninteresting plot when most people are just here to watch big monsters hit things. But with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah they genuinely tried to incorporate an actual story. And, here’s the crazy part… it worked. They totally succeeded.
I’ll try to avoid spoilers here, but the film was marketed as “the death of Godzilla” in Japan. It was built up as the end of an era. The director and studio clearly wanted to go out with a bang, and boy did they ever.
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah is probably the most suspenseful film in the series, and certainly the most emotional. It’s also one of the strongest examples of Godzilla as an anti-hero. This is the movie that best captures the duality this character represents. Plus, the new monster on the block helps keep things fresh and exciting. Overall, an above average release.
6. Godzilla (1954)
When I started this list, I wasn’t sure I would include the original Godzilla that gave birth to the franchise.
As much as I believe in paying respect and tribute, I also don’t want to hand out participation trophies. There was no guarantee the first Godzilla deserved to be listed in the top ten. After all, at the end of the day this list is not for hardcore Godzilla fans. This list is mostly for casual fans or people not terribly familiar with the character who are still riding off of the high from Godzilla vs. Kong. I want to recommend movies that have the most potential to get people into Godzilla and turn them into hardcore fans. Old black-and-white films might sound like a good time for movie snobs, but general audiences just mostly aren’t going to be interested.
However, after viewing the 1954 Godzilla for the umpteenth time, I’ve gotta say… I think most people would like it. It’s one of a few classic movies that has potential to still resonate with modern viewers. And the black-and-white presentation is actually helpful in setting the right mood and allowing the movie’s themes to shine through. I’d recommend at least giving it a shot to see if you like it.
5. Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla
The 2002 film Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla was part of what is known as the Millennium Series of Godzilla films which tried to rehabilitate Godzilla’s public image in Japan after what many considered to be a less-than-impressive take on the character in the 1998 American adaptation.
Honestly, pretty much any film featuring MechaGodzilla is a safe bet if you want some decent ‘Zilla action and storytelling (1993’s Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II was a strong contender for this slot), but Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla is probably the most enjoyable. For one, it has arguably the best pacing and the best world-building of any MechaGodzilla-centered story.
It begins with an epic opening sequence and ends with an equally epic climax, so there’s not really much to complain about. If you want a pure Godzilla experience that’s well-executed from start to finish, while retaining a healthy amount of campiness (without going overboard with it), Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla comes highly recommended.
4. Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.
Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. is the 2003 follow-up to the previously listed Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla and is even better. This time around it throws Mothra into the mix in what feels like a proper build-up to the classic character’s inclusion rather than a simple shoe-horned appearance. It doesn’t stray too far from the tried-and-true formula, but it definitely builds on the foundation well.
Like a game of Jenga, you’re always worried if a Godzilla film can strike a good balance and avoid toppling down like a building that’s been tail-swiped. Luckily, despite adding on even more monsters to the proceedings, Tokyo S.O.S. juggles them all quite effectively. It might not be the most original Godzilla experience, but if you want a quick shot of Kaiju goodness that successfully introduces a bunch of characters in one outing without getting too bogged down by exposition, Tokyo S.O.S. delivers.
3. Shin Godzilla
Undoubtedly, some viewers will insist this movie should be higher on the list; but I would argue it’s right where it needs to be – which is in the top five, but not at the top. Shin Godzilla (sometimes referred to as Godzilla Resurgence) is an excellent modern take on the classic Kaiju formula.
More than any other Godzilla film outside of perhaps only the original, it succeeds at using the giant lizard as a metaphor to drive home a message to the viewer about humanity itself. In that regard, Shin Godzilla is a social commentary first and foremost, and a Kaiju film second, which works to great effect.
Other films have tried to use the Kaiju genre as a vehicle for social satire, like Anne Hathaway’s Colossal, but none have pulled it off as crisply as Shin Godzilla. (No surprise, it was directed by the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion after all.)
And despite that more philosophical approach, it still delivers some great Godzilla rampage moments along with some refreshing if not disturbing new Godzilla designs that will haunt your dreams long after the movie is over. As long as you’re in the right mindset, you’ll probably see why Shin Godzilla was such a critical and commercial hit in Japan back in 2016, and why it’s even more relevant today than ever before.
2. Godzilla vs. Biollante
Godzilla vs. Biollante is the second entry in what is commonly referred to among fans as the Heisei Era of Godzilla films. It may be difficult to find nowadays as both the DVD and BluRay are out of print and it’s not currently available for streaming or even digital purchase in most markets. But if by some miracle you can get your hands on it at a fair price or rent it from some prehistoric Redbox somewhere, it’s worth a watch.
It’s gotten somewhat of a bad rap in some circles for it’s overly sci-fi “B Movie” plot, complete with psychic channelers, mutant DNA splicing of plants and animals, and 80s fashion and music on full display – but it’s actually really good in my humble opinion. Not only does it introduce one of the most original Godzilla monster opponents of all time in the Little Shop of Horrors-esque Biollante, but the special effects and costume/set designs really hold up well. I mean, sure, it’s still an 80s movie through and through, but it’s kinda remarkable how good it looks. And I liked the risks it took with the storytelling. For me, the whole thing is a near-perfect mix of all the components that make a Godzilla film work.
I would love to see Biollante make a return in future Godzilla installments. And considering the movie came out before the Jurassic Park craze hit in the 90s, it’s impressive how spot-on it was in foreshadowing future discussions over gene editing and DNA modification. Laugh all you want, but it was ahead of its time, even if only by sheer coincidence.
1. Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack
Sure it has one of the most unfortunate titles in film history, but Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (often shortened to simply GMK by fans) is basically the definitive Godzilla film as far as I am concerned.
It offers a steady stream of action, it features a downright intimidating Godzilla design, and the human characters aren’t too annoying. Some of them are, dare I say it, even likable. And despite being fairly straightforward, the plot still adds enough twists to the tried-and-true formula to avoid feeling like a stale retread.
The aforementioned Godzilla design certainly stands out for its uniquely aggressive characteristics and ghostly white eyes. And personally, I like Godzilla as the villain here. There are some genuinely terrifying moments, and nobody is safe from his wrath. Not hospital patients. Not school children. No one.
And like Tokyo S.O.S., we get a roster of monsters to watch duke it out, with the most memorable atomic blast scene in Godzilla history to boot. And speaking of that monster roster, it includes well-known heavy-hitters like King Ghidorah, and lesser-known creatures like Baragon. You can’t really ask for a more balanced cast.
Unlike modern films, the movie doesn’t overly rely on CGI. The traditional special effects may look outdated at first, but they actually add weight to most scenes and make the whole spectacle feel more alive. When buildings shake and hospitals crumble, you feel like you’re watching footage of an actual earthquake instead of computer-generated screensavers.
At the end of the day, GMK is the most re-watchable movie in Godzilla’s catalogue. So if you can only pick one film from his library to watch this week or share with family and friends, this is the one.