It has been nearly ten years since the last Godzilla film was released. That is the longest drought in the history of a character that has been a worldwide icon since the 1950’s. Next May that drought is going to end with America’s second attempt at bringing the King of Monsters to the big screen our way. We do not speak of the first attempt by less-subtle Michael Bay clone, Roland Emmerich, aside from the occasional use of the acronym G.I.N.O. (Godzilla In Name Only).
The week before last saw the release of the trailer for the new Godzilla, and to celebrate and perhaps help some of those who don’t have history with the character at the same time, I’m going to take you on a walk through memory lane and show you my picks for the best of the best from the nearly 30 films that Godzilla has starred in.
Growing up there were four cinematic establishments that would shape my tastes in entertainment forever. One was Universal Studios’ classic monsters. Star Wars and Ray Harryhausen were two more. The fourth was Toho Studios’ kaiju films, especially the Godzilla series. I watched and rewatched these things in a constant rotation during the heyday of VHS. Any money I could scrape together doing chores for a quarter each was spent at K-Mart on any Godzilla tape I could find. My dog was named after the monster King Seeser from Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla. Suffice to say I was a fan. And judging by my collection of bootlegs and imports that I got from Ebay in the 90’s and 00’s because I refused to wait for American releases, I still am.
I am really glad that I viewed the new trailer for Godzilla online before I saw it before at the midnight release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. I say that because I think there is a distinct possibility that if I did not know what was coming I might have soiled myself in the theater, and that would have just been embarrassing. As I’m sure you’ve seen; it’s pretty striking.
Having seen director Gareth Edwards’ previous film, Monsters, I can say without reservation that there is no better choice to bring Godzilla back to an artistic legitimacy that the character hasn’t seen since his feature film debut in 1954. There have been a lot of different versions since then, ranging from pro-wrestling superhero to vengeful demon. Here are the five Godzilla films that packed the biggest punch for me.
1. Godzilla vs The Sea Monster
A lot of fans don’t rate this 1966 offering highly, citing the one-sided beatdown of the title confrontation, but I’m judging these films based on overall quality, not just the fights, and for me this is a definitive kaiju flick.
The premise is that a group of people are marooned on an island with a terrorist organization whose watchdog is a gigantic crustacean known as Ebirah. Unable to escape by boat due to the monster patrolling the ocean, and hunted by the terrorists, the protagonists happen upon a hibernating Godzilla. Meanwhile, the island natives -enslaved by the terrorists- are praying to the monster Mothra for deliverance, setting up an epic smackdown on the island.
Godzilla vs The Sea Monster is key film in the series and gives a lot of bang for the buck. It lacks the excessive corniness of later films, has a cohesive plot and a solid concept, and features Godzilla at his badass best; not as a superhero out to save the children, but as something you simply do not want to get in the way of. The epic shot of him jumping off of a cliff into the sea is one of the most iconic of any kaiju film, and was reused so often it became a joke in later films. But in this one, it was awesome.
2. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster
You’ve seen The Avengers right? The very first time a group of characters from different films got together to battle a common menace. Or was it? Toho broke that concept in back in 1964 when they took solo film stars Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan and brought them all together to battle what would become the definitive villain of kaiju cinema.
Even though Mothra and Godzilla had faced off before in a classic encounter which I’ll get flak for not including on this list (I only excluded it to be different), this was the first instance of Toho creating their own consolidated monsterverse where all of their creatures could interact with one another.
Most casual observers will point at Destroy All Monsters as the definitive team-up film and choose to ignore the fact that as a film it’s sort of garbage. Throwing more guys in more suits and pointing a camera at them does not a true classic make in and of itself.
Ghidorah is an exceptional giant monster film, and also one of the first to portray them as sentient, social creatures. In a particularly humorous scene, our titanic heroes discuss the possibility of putting aside their differences with each other and humanity to defeat the unstoppable alien invader in their native tongues with Mothra’s fairy handlers translating for us humanfolk. Turns out that Godzilla has a potty mouth on top of his radioactive breath, which made me love him that much more.
3. Godzilla vs MechaGodzilla II
After a kiddie phase in the 70’s and a lengthy hiatus, Godzilla made his comeback in The Return of Godzilla, which was released theatrically in America as Godzilla 1985 and served as a rare direct sequel to the original film. Somehow it remains unreleased on DVD here so it’s only getting an honorable mention. The series that followed it put the monster back into his old role as a destructive force of nature and many very entertaining movies followed.
My favorite from that run was 1993’s Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II, which reimagined the definitive villain that was originally built by aliens to conquer Earth as a human creation used to deter a certain giant lizard from leveling Japan, as he’s wont to do. This is another bang for your buck pick that brings in Rodan as a bonus.
This MechaGodzilla was more like a really stylish tank than a monster unto itself, and the concept was frankly done better in 2002 with the excellent Godzilla X MechaGodzilla, but this one is a key film because it features the best version of Rodan and introduces Baby Godzilla to continuity making it the lynchpin for the 90’s series.
4. GMK: Giant Monster All-Out Attack
If somebody asked me to show them only one kickass Godzilla film to make them a fan, Godzilla, Mothra, Ghidorah: Giant Monster All-Out Attack is the one. And now you see why most American releases of Japanese films completely change the title. So they don’t sound like that.
Easily the finest film of the series since the original, this 2001 entry was the first time I ever watched a kaiju film and thought “those special effects look great”. It seamlessly combines classic suitmation with CG to get the best of both worlds, has likable human characters, and is just an excellent example of everything a modern giant monster movie should be while capturing everything great about the old school. It also features the coolest version of Mothra ever.
Godzilla himself is reinvented not as a defender of Earth or a consequence of mankind playing god with atomic energy, but as a vacant-eyed demon possessed by the souls of those who lost their lives as a result of Japan’s actions during WWII. He’s here for vengeance on Japan, forcing a trio of monsters to rise up and try to stop him. But they are really big lambs to the slaughter. This Godzilla is savage, merciless, and utterly unstoppable. I love it.
The rest of these picks are really great monster movies. Not true cinema classics by any stretch, but entertaining for what they are. This one is different. This is not just a great creature feature, this is a great film. I used the Japanese title for good reason. It’s a crying shame that this original cut wasn’t available in the West before a few years ago.
All sci-fi fans have seen the Americanized Godzilla: King of Monsters. But when I tell you that you have not seen the real film until you’ve watched Gojira, I am not exaggerating even a little bit. Picture any film you love stripped of its original dialogue and performances, replacing them with and shots of a random actor and voiceover cribnotes explaining the plot they cut out. In this case it took an amazing film and made it into a mere genre classic; still great, but not on the same level.
The original Japanese film has a thematic, emotional, and metaphorical depth that when placed in historical context makes it one of the most powerful pieces of film ever to come out of that country, which is a huge achievement for a film of the type considering Japan’s history of compelling and artistic cinema. It also represents a cultural turning point for a nation formerly known for its aggressive militancy and savagery in conquest towards becoming proponents of peace and humanism in the post-war era.
The last time I had new Godzilla on my television screen was the insanity of Godzilla: Final Wars in 2004, which took the title premise of Destroy All Monsters to its logical extreme. After stomping flat nearly every classic monster who has stood against him –plus his worthless, tuna-eating American counterpart- the king of monsters has rested in the decade since.
Next summer, I’ll not only get to see him raid again, I’ll see him on the big screen for the first time since Godzilla 2000 and for only the second time since Godzilla 1985 (still not counting GINO). The whole approach to marketing this monumental project has got me extremely excited. For the first time since that original 1954 Japanese film, this classic monster is going to be treated the same way he was then: as a walking atrocity brought on my mankind’s own combination of ambition and fear. I can’t f**king wait.