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A Godzilla Primer: 10 Smashing Movies

Updated on April 20, 2015
Godzilla, King of the Monsters in 1954
Godzilla, King of the Monsters in 1954

Godzilla's Legacy

Godzilla has starred in over two dozens films and has leveled at least that many cities. Well, what is Godzilla exactly?

Godzilla is a cross between two Japanese words meaning "gorilla" and "whale". When put together, they sound like "Gojira". The transliteration became "Godzilla" for American audiences, and with that, a (giant, atomic ray breathing) star was born.

The original Godzilla is an animal of prehistoric origin which has been subjected to radiation from atomic testing. Another version of Godzilla is created by the resurrected embodiment of souls from WWII. Seriously! Whichever your Godzilla, it stills begs the question: Which of his amazing/mind-blowing/slamtastic films should I watch?

The following ten Godzilla movies have been selected as worth your while either due to significance to the Godzilla canon, quality of production, or sheer destructive value.

P.S. The best way to read this hub is to have the Godzilla theme song by Akira Ifukube playing throughout. I'll pause while you get it queued up...

Showa Era (1954-1975)

When you think Godzilla, if you imagine goofy rubber suits, bad dubbing, and lots of fake-looking models then you’re thinking the original Showa series. These are the films you may have seen lampooned by the MST3K guys, but the original films are not without their charm, especially for true fans of the genre. The Showa era boasts the most classics, true classics as well as camp/cult classics.

Gojira, 1954 promotional poster
Gojira, 1954 promotional poster

Gojira (1954)

Kaiju Appearing: Godzilla, King of the Monsters

When it comes to Godzilla, many consider the first to also be the best. In the original, Godzilla storms onto screens and terrifies viewers with his unstoppable force and unimaginable power. Flattening and melting every man-made object in his path as he makes his way through Tokyo, Godzilla turns mankind’s hubris upon itself as Godzilla represents the consequence of neglecting nature in favor of pursuing destructive technology. The memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were still felt fresh in the minds of many Japanese viewers upon Gojira’s initial release, and the nuclear holocaust with which Godzilla threatens its victims seemed a very real possibility.

This Godzilla was no joke but the kind of stuff from which nightmares are made. Gojira has withstood the test of time as a true classic. That being said, stick to the original Gojira and not the lesser version retooled for American release, Godzilla: King of the Monsters starring Raymond Burr.

Mothra Vs. Godzilla (1964)

Kaiju Appearing: Godzilla and Mothra

Another true classic of the genre, Mothra Vs. Godzilla contains a theme just as pertinent as Gojira. In this case, a greedy businessman tries to turn a giant egg into a tourist attraction rather than allow scientists to study it to discover its origins. This time man’s hubris takes the form of $$cash money$$ rather than technological advancement, but its repercussions prove just as tragic.

The special effects are excellent considering its time of release, and the filmmakers, including Ishiro Honda who directed the original, handle the monsters exceptionally well. Godzilla and Mothra are given more character development than most of the human roles, but isn’t that how it should be? After all, Godzilla and Mothra serve as the titular characters. Godzilla destroys just about everything set in front of him, kills Mama Mothra, and appears as unstoppable as ever. Meanwhile Mothra proves a sympathetic protagonist fighting on the side of mankind, cementing her status on the Kaiju hierarchy. Most fans rank this film closely behind the original, at least in regards to the Showa era.

As a bit of disclaimer, notice that Mothra’s name comes first in the title. Mothra is technically the star attraction here and owns the most screen time, and Godzilla only appears about a third of the way in the film. This throws some viewers, so consider yourself forewarned.

Godzilla's Fateful Drop Kick!

Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)

Kaiju Appearing: Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster

Right on the heels of Mothra Vs. Godzilla came Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. While not all fans love Ghidorah (It just kind of ends without resolution.), the film’s significance lies in the fact that it introduces Godzilla’s most formidable foe, the titular character. With three dragon heads, wings, golden scales, and lightning breath attacks, Ghidorah provides every challenge that Mothra does not. It doesn’t even matter that Ghidorah doesn’t have arms; Ghidorah doesn’t need any puny arms! After a pretty inventive fight, it takes three monsters (Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan) just to chase off Ghidorah at the end of the film. That’s right. Ghidorah doesn’t even technically “lose” the war; Ghidorah simply retreats to fight a battle on another day. While some argue that this lessens the satisfaction of the film’s ending, one could also argue that it highlights the strengths of Ghidorah, the kaiju.

Ghidorah also marks the first time that Godzilla fights on the side of the humans. In one of the series’ most interesting (and wonderfully weird) scenes, Mothra’s fairy twins translate a conversation among Mothra, Rodan, and Godzilla for the human characters. Godzilla basically says that he couldn’t really care what happens to mankind since mankind hates them, and Rodan agrees. Ultimately, Mothra convinces Godzilla and Rodan to team up. In the midst of this conversation, the twins say, “Oh, Godzilla, what terrible language!” The idea that Godzilla cusses like a sailor really appeals to me because… OF COURSE, HE DOES!

Destroy All Monsters (1968)

Kaiju Appearing: Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, Rodan, Gorosaurus, Anguirus, Kumonga, Manda, Minilla, Baragon, and Varan

Destroy All Monsters provides one of the Godzilla series’ most fun and biggest monster mashes. It also marks the last film created by the Godzilla original team of director Ishiro Honda, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka, special effects guru Eiji Tsuburaya, and music composer Akira Ifube.

The film heavily borrows some plot elements from the cult classic Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero (a.k.a. Invasion of Astro-Monster), and some fans point to Monster Zero as being the better plotted, paced, and acted of the two. That may be the case, but Destroy All Monsters is really about a metric buttload of monsters causing world-wide mayhem and little else. Godzilla stomps New York; Rodan flattens Moscow; and Mothra totals Beijing. All of the major Toho monsters are on display as they go about destroying the Earth then ultimately saving it by destroying Ghidorah and the alien menace that had been attempting to control the monsters’ minds. The final battle offers so many destructive goodies, it’s easy to forgive Destroy All Monsters all of its flaws.

Godzilla's "Funniest" Moments

Heisei Era (1984-1995)

In 1984, Toho essentially resurrected and rebooted Godzilla, ignoring every previous film with the exception of the 1954 original. Offering more modern special effects and a sleeker Godzilla design, the King of the Monsters came back bigger and angrier than ever to lay waste to all in his path.

Godzilla Vs. Biollante (1989)

Kaiju Appearing: Godzilla and Biollante

The follow-up to the initial 1984 reboot of the franchise, Godzilla Vs. Biollante looks and feels different than most of the other Godzilla films, earning it a special place in the canon. Biollante comes closer to a sci-fi/horror film than any other than perhaps the original Gojira by playing things a bit darker and more realistic. It is perhaps the most underappreciated entry of the series, but as more fans discover it, many are now beginning to rank it as one of the best.

Biollante, created by merging Godzilla cells with those of plants, is one of the coolest-looking and most imaginative of Godzilla’s opponents. In fact, the film itself offers some of the best visuals of any Godzilla film. Inventive battles, a great looking design for Godzilla as well as Biollante, and a unique plot set this film apart in a good way.

Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah (1991)

Kaiju Appearing: Godzilla, King Ghidorah/Mecha-King Ghidorah

Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah makes itself easy to love for fans of Godzilla. The film sheds some light on the origins of Godzilla and Ghidorah and has a wild plot brimming with time travel, psychics, and androids.

King Ghidorah, always one of Godzilla most challenging foes, fights Godzilla both as Ghidorah and then as Mecha-King Ghidorah. And if there’s one kaiju cooler than Ghidorah, it’s MECHA-King Ghidorah. Meanwhile Godzilla destroys EVERYthing without regard to morality or sides, proving that evil Godzilla makes for way more destructive, chaotic fun than “Defender of the Earth” Godzilla.

An interesting side note is that some have labeled Godzilla Vs. King Ghidorah as “anti-America” due to its depiction of some WWII era flashbacks and how Godzillasaurus appears to kill American soldiers while allowing the Japanese soldiers to escape. The Futurians, the film’s villains, also appear to be mainly Western in appearance and have a plot to more or less subjugate Japan. The director claims that any such political undertones were not intentional. Whatever the case, the film remains incredibly entertaining.

Godzilla Vs. Destoroyah (1995)

Kaiju Appearing: Godzilla, Destoroyah, and Godzilla Jr. (son of Godzilla)

Godzilla Vs. Destoroyah marks the end of the Heisei era and the “death” of Godzilla. Godzilla’s nuclear reactor of a heart is melting down which (naturally) makes Godzilla more and more powerful as he slowly but surely nears death. Nothing quite feels as depressing as watching one of your childhood icon’s die, but the filmmakers do everything they can do send Godzilla out with a bang (pun-intended). If you shed a tear caused by something other than laughter during a Godzilla movie then this is the one you’re watching.

The final battle between Godzilla and Destoroyah also emerges as one of the longest, so if you enjoy skyscraper leveling altercations, Godzilla Vs. Destoroyah will prove one of the most satisfying entries in the series. Both Godzilla and Destoroyah mutate into stronger and stronger versions of themselves as the movie progresses, so each skirmish likewise grows in intensity. Along with the film’s action and strong special effects, the filmmakers clearly went all out to give fans a suitably memorable to the series, making Godzilla Vs. Destoroyah one of Godzilla’s finest films.

Godzilla Flies!

Millenium/“Alternate Reality” Series (1999-2005)

After Godzilla’s death, there was only one thing to do. Tell Godzilla series in an “alternate reality” or timeline so that certain previous movies could be ignored! Each film in this series created its own “universe”, allowing Godzilla to be and do whatever the filmmakers wanted to varying degrees of success. Forget about continuity. This series was just about finding cool ways to explore variations of the King of the Monsters.

Godzilla Greatest Opponents

Who is Godzilla's greatest foe?

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GMK: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)

Kaiju Appearing: Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah, and Baragon

Perhaps the wildest and most fun film in the Alternate Reality series is its final one. In Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, the souls of those who died during WWII have… er… created(?) Godzilla to punish Japan for forgetting their sacrifice. Godzilla still acts as a symbol for mankind’s hubris-- this time our penchant to arrogantly ignore the past-- and runs amok in evil fashion. Mothra, King Ghidorah, and super goofy-looking Baragon act as Earth’s guardian monsters and provide a defense for mankind.

The plot sounds pretty outlandish, but GMK distracts its audience from thinking too deeply with plenty of action. This Godzilla in this film seems meaner than most previous incarnations and sometimes goes out of his way to violently murder characters in the film.

Seeing Ghidorah act as a good guy for once as well as the unique nature of GMK’s plot make it feel fresh. The designs and effects are top notch for a Godzilla film, and plenty of Earth-shattering mayhem should satisfy fans of kaiju destruction.

Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)

Kaiju Appearing: Godzilla, Mothra, Monster X, Monster X II (King Ghidorah), Gigan, King Caesar, Anguirus, Kumonga, Kamacuras, Ebirah, Manda, Hedorah, Rodan, Minilla, and Zilla

Godzilla: Final Wars works as a remake of Destroy All Monsters (and in turn, Invasion of the Astro-Monster) with even more monsters and more action. Technically, the films boasts literally THE MOST monsters and arguably THE MOST action. Better yet, Godzilla must work his way through each and every one of the other monsters (controlled by evil aliens) on his way to saving the Earth. Not that Godzilla is overly concerned with saving the Earth, the other monsters just happen to stand in his way. My favorite scene includes Godzilla destroys what appears to be the American version of Godzilla, called 'Zilla here.

Like Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla: Final Wars should not be watched for character development or plot. The film exists to provide lots of monsters, action, and explosive mayhem. If you that’s what you want, you will undoubtedly be entertained. This is not the Citizen Kane of Godzilla movies. It’s the Die Hard.

Godzilla Vs. American Godzilla (Zilla)

Godzilla (2014)

Kaiju Appearing: Godzilla and the MUTOs

Godzilla 2014 brings back Godzilla with the best production value and special effects to date. Plenty of flaws, not the least of which includes dull human characters and somewhat plodding pace, keep the latest rendition of Godzilla from being a universal success, but the film does Godzilla well and does Godzilla right. The battle scenes in San Francisco rock, and the film proves that Americans are capable of making a worthy Godzilla film, especially after the 1998 debacle.

Godzilla is back, literally bigger than ever, and brimming with promise. Hopefully, filmmakers can build on the elements of Godzilla 2014 which worked and raise Godzilla to new heights of success.

Here's a link to my full review of Godzilla 2014.

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