What does Godzilla mean to me? All I had were half-remembered fragments. A sense that I loved his adventures, but no concrete reasons why. Most of his movies I hadn’t seen since childhood. Some not at all. I could remember all the monsters — Biollante, Destoroyah, Mothra, Rodan, Gigan, Godzilla himself – but the stories? I had to watch them all again. Who was this character who sat so large in my mind, but had become so ill-defined?
Over the past month, I have explored the Godzilla series, sharing my thoughts with Godzilla himself in letters addressed to him. I will link back to those throughout this post. For the final entry in this series of essays, I take a step back from that format to instead present an overview of the entire franchise from 1954 to 2016, providing short blurbs about each film and sharing what makes each film special — or entirely missable.
Films will be noted as “Recommended,” if I enjoyed them but don’t think they’re essential, “Meh” if I don’t think they’re worth watching again, and, for those I truly find special, “I insist.”
Are You There, Godzilla? It’s Me, Evan
Showa Era (1954-75)
The Showa Era includes the classic era Godzilla cinema, from the original Gojira all the way to the box-office bomb Terror of Mechagodzilla. Over the course of the films, Godzilla goes from being a terror of the atomic age to a lovable hero for children. Many of these films were imported to the United States and other Western markets in heavily edited, hilariously dubbed versions that remain deeply ingrained in the pop culture consciousness to this day.
Read my letter here. I insist
Godzilla, King of the Monsters
The U.S. release of Gojira chops the original to bits, removing most of the romantic subplot and altering the context of sequences to insert an American reporter into the story. Regardless, a fun watch and a piece of film history that only improves the original by comparison. Recommended
Godzilla Raids Again
The quickie sequel to Gojira features a second Godzilla monster and his first foe, Angilas (Anguirus). “Angilas, as a creature, hates warlike predators,” is an actual quote. Surprisingly little Godzilla action, and what it has was incorrectly filmed and looks goofily sped-up. Regardless, the film’s focus on blue-collar workers dealing with the constant threat of a giant monster (spoilers: they normalize it immediately) is surprisingly compelling. Recommended
King Kong vs. Godzilla
Read my Letter here. I Insist.
Mothra vs. Godzilla
Read my letter here. I insist
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster
The introduction of Godzilla’s greatest nemesis and the first Toho monster team-up of Godzilla with frequent allies Rodan and Mothra (eat your heart out, Infinity War). Ghidorah features the first alien-invasion plot, as well as the introduction of silliness to the kaiju, who are treated as antiheroes here. Godzilla talks in monster language! This one is a ton of fun and the bedrock of what would become this year’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters. I insist
Invasion of the Astro-Monster
Also known as Godzilla v. Monster Zero, this one plays out like a lesser remake of Ghidorah, featuring Rodan and Godzilla being kidnapped by yet another race of Aliens and taken to their planet to ‘defeat’ Ghidorah. It’s a sequel of sorts. Features the most iconic aliens from the franchise and some of the goofiest moments yet, including that .gif you’ve probably scene of Godzilla jumping with delight. Fun, but missable. Recommended.
Ebhirah, Horror of the Deep
Originally written as a movie for King Kong and it shows. A group of partying kids become castaways on an island inhabited by an evil, SPECTRE-like organization led by a fabulously eyepatched Akihiko Hirata. The island is protected by a giant evil lobster. Godzilla just happens to be sleeping on the island. He wakes up, messes shit up, Mothra rescues the kids, and in the end Godzilla escapes an explosion by leaping off a cliff in slow-motion. Generally derided as the beginning of the end of the Showa era, I actually really love Ebhirah. I insist
Son of Godzilla
Read my letter here. Recommended
Destroy All Monsters
Easily one of the most disappointing films in the franchise pits every kaiju owned by Tokyo (including monsters from tertiary films like Varan, Baragon and Manda the Serpent) against the world, and then against Ghidorah for a final battle that ends the loose connectivity between the films up to this point. The alien Xiliens are introduced — a species that all look like beautiful women but are actually bug-like creatures. Additionally, the super-weapon Super X makes its first appearance here. However, the movie is a relentless slog, with none of the fun happening until the very last 10 minutes. Meh
All Monsters Attack
An oddity, as it’s the first movie to treat Godzilla as an abstraction in the mind of a child rather than a physical presence. More or less a clip show of earlier Godzilla adventures (particularly Son of Godzilla), All Monsters Attack follows a young, bullied latchkey boy as he learns to deal with his difficult life by imagining adventures with Godzilla’s son, Minya, on Monster Island. He is also kidnapped by the mob. It’s quite the adventure. Recommended
Godzilla vs. Hedorah
Read my letter here. I Insist
Godzilla vs. Gigan
Truly where Showa starts to sag, Gigan brings Godzilla firmly into the superhero mold for a low-budget adventure that feels more like strung-together episodes of Japanese children’s television. Not without its charm, though: The film doubles as a commentary on commercialization of monsters and the culture of churning out content at the expense of creative growth. And Gigan, a space-chicken with a buzzsaw in its chest, kicks ass. Recommended
Godzilla vs. Megalon
Easily the worst entry in the Showa period but also absurdly watchable in its absolute lack of visual continuity or plot coherency. Meh
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla
A tremendous soundtrack and cool villian don’t necessarily save this the introduction of Mechagodzilla from being one of the lesser films in the Showa run. The final fight takes too long because of the dreary human subplot. Love the alien Simians, though, who are basically just people in ape-masks. And King Caesar’s song rocks to this day. Recommended
Terror of Mechagodzilla
Read my letter here. I insist
Heisei Era (1984-95)
The Heisei Era started as a back-to-basics reboot, sequalizing only the original Gojira. From there, it became a series of quasi-remakes of classic Showa monsters along with a few new foes. Each film was built as a sequel to the previous, making this the only series of Godzilla films to tell an ongoing story. The grounded nature of Return was quickly abandoned in favor of genetic engineering, super-weapons, psychics and alien mysticism. This meta-arc concluded with Godzilla vs. Destoroyah and the much-publicized death of Godzilla. Unlike the Showa series, only the first film was heavily re-edited for Western markets, although many of these films remained difficult to find outside of Japan for over a decade.
The Return of Godzilla
Read my letter here. Recommended
Godzilla vs. Biollante
A cool monster original to the Heisei Era as well as a human story that feels inspired by ’80s action films imported from Hollywood. Impossible to find legally on DVD in the United States because its rights are uniquely tied up with Miramax and thus in limbo after the Weinstein scandals. Drags a bit in the center but, ultimately … Recommended
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah
Easily the most memorable of the “classic monster reimagined” entries in the Heisei series, King Ghidorah mixes the popular Hollywood genre staples of the early 1990s into one ludicrous cinematic package. Time travel, UFOs, Terminators, World War II nostalgia, mechas. This one has it all. I insist
Godzilla vs. Mothra
Given my feelings about Mothra (all positive, all the time), this one is nonetheless a disappointing installment that reimagines Mothra in some odd ways and tries too hard to play up a Raiders of the Lost Ark-esque angle that just doesn’t work. Aside from a reworking of the traditional Mothra score, it mostly hits familiar beats and goes on for far too long. Meh
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II
I go back and forth on Mechagodzilla II but ultimately think it’s a little too straightforward for its own good. Long and labored. The fight sequences are fun but extensive and maybe the worst shot of the Heisei saga. This is the first time Mechagodzilla is depicted as a human-piloted anti-Godzilla measure; a cool take. This also reintroduces and updates Minya (now “Baby Godzilla”) and Rodan (who plays a very Mothra-esque role). When I watched this for the first time in 2013 I adored it, but upon rewatch I could barely make it through. Definitely one I’ll re-watch again outside of a marathon setting. But for now… Meh
Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla
Features a compelling romantic human plotline, as well as the most adorable Baby Godzilla ever put on screen. SpaceGodzilla is a cool monster mostly wasted by the immobility of his suit design and the redundancy of being the third monster of the era who is just a different version of Godzilla. Straddles the line between … Meh and Recommended
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah
Read my letter here. I insist
The Millennium Era (1999-2004)
Easily the weakest of the sequence, this collection of anthology movies acts as sequels to the 1954 classic without ever acknowledging what made that such a great film. Each Millennium film is increasingly reliant on following fads in manga and anime storytelling, largely at the expense of interesting stories or compelling action. Perhaps the two high points are the start of the series, Godzilla 2000, which has a hilarious Western dub, and the last, Godzilla: Final Wars, a last-ditch goodbye to the franchise that finally honors the promise wasted by Destroy All Monsters 40 years earlier. Short-lived and littled missed.
Although the Japanese cut is pretty fun, the American dubbing adds a whole layer of comedy that doesn’t diminish the movie’s themes or flavor. It’s a good Godzilla adventure either way, although the final conflict between Godzilla and the alien Orga goes on far too long. Recommended
Godzilla vs. Megaguirus
A terrible film with no redeeming qualities. Just another boring, bug-like monster and a mediocre Godzilla suit. Meh
Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack
Directed by Shusuke Kaneko, who rebooted Gamera during the 1990s, GMK may be the only auteur Godzilla as the term is currently used. (I would argue that most of the Showa series fits the bill, but nobody in the United States gives a shit about Honda or Fukunda or Banno, and honestly writing their names in this context, like I’m dropping hidden knowledge, makes me feel like a real shit).
In any case, it reintroduces the title monsters — and poor, unnamed Baragon — with a cosmology all its own. The pupil-less Godzilla now represents the forgotten souls of the Pacific theater of war and the atrocities committed during World War II. The other monsters play their role as Earth’s guardians. Notably, this is Ghidorah’s only appearance as a protagonist. The story largely follows the traditional beats found in most Godzilla films and doesn’t dig into the premise enough to set itself apart, but it is nevertheless worth a watch. Recommended
Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla
A lame second-take on Mechagodzilla as human weapon. Adds the fun wrinkle of Mechagodzilla being built on the (semi-sentient) bones of the original 1954 Godzilla, but mostly squanders it. Meh
Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.
Directly follows Against Mechagodzilla (the only such continuity found in the Millennium Series), S.O.S. also plays as a direct sequel to the original Mothra and finds its place in the kaiju canon through her inclusion. Not particularly good, and certainly another movie that repeats the usual beats for its title monsters, but more enjoyable than its predecessor. Meh
Godzilla: Final Wars
An all-out exercise in pure excess. Final Wars came on the heels of the relatively unsuccessful Millennium Films, at a time when Godzilla’s relevance was rightfully questioned. As such, it features almost every iconic monster from the Toho Kaiju canon in what amounts to Destroy All Monsters mixed with The Matrix with an odd dash of X-men. As the kids say, it ‘slaps.’ The definition of fan service . I insist
American Movies and the Modern Period: (1998, 2014, 2016-Present)
American studios (TriStar and Legendary) have produced two Hollywood Godzilla films: Godzilla (1998) and Godzilla (2014). Additionally, Toho released Shin Godzilla a full decade after Final Wars.
Lousy not because of what it gets wrong about the title monster, but because it’s a Roland Emmerich circa-1990s take on a giant-monster movie that takes forever to get going. Once it does, descends into a generic Jurassic Park ripoff. That said: I like trash and found this pretty enjoyable despite myself. And I loved it when I was eight years old. Nonetheless … Meh
Not amongst my favorites in the franchise but precisely the aesthetic vision a Hollywood version of Godzilla needed in order to introduce the creature to a contemporary Western audience. The human story is boring, but that’s pretty much the trend with this series. Gareth Edwards really shines in making Godzilla and his (kinda boring) MUTO foes feel larger than life and truly destructive. Created an amazing world for what will hopefully be a better follow-up. Recommended
Shin Godzilla (2016)
An almost-perfect rebirth for the Toho suit-and-animatronics “human-catastrophe” Godzilla. Made in direct contrast to the 2014 American effort, which gave Godzilla a body fit for wrestling bouts, Shin Godzilla features the creepiest and least human Godzilla ever put to film … and by far the most apocalyptic. The first hour or so of buildup to his rampage is one of the best films in the franchise, but the second half peters out a bit until an unconventional, but rousing, climax. One of the best in the series on the strength of that first hour alone, Shin Godzilla will unfortunately always stand alone: Toho has announced plans to reboot the franchise yet again, this time following each of its signature monsters in a Marvel Studios-esque “connected universe” model. We’ll see how it goes. I insist
My Godzilla Top 10
- King Kong vs. Godzilla
- Godzilla vs. Destoroyah
- Shin Godzilla
- Mothra vs. Godzilla
- Godzilla: Final Wars
- Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster
- Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster
- Terror of Mechagodzilla
- Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1992)