With a new Godzilla film hitting theaters this weekend, it can be tempting to seek out some of the classic films to catch up on all the monster action you've missed. But with 28 films -- 29 if you count Roland Emmerich’s 1998 American remake -- it can be intimidating to know where to start.
How can you bone up on Godzilla-lore when there’s such a glut of material in front of you?
Never fear, we’re going to help you figure out which Godzilla films are right for you.
-- A note about continuity. Godzilla films are split into three series, Showa -- lasting from 1954-1975, Heisi -- lasting from 1984-1995 and Millenium -- lasting from 1999-2004. Each series has it’s own continuity, much like the Batman continuity was reset with Batman Begins, but each film acts as a sequel to the original film. Don’t worry about it too much; they’re monster movies, you’re not going to miss much.
For the serious film fan -- “Gojira”/Godzilla: King of the Monsters 1954: He’s been a pop cultural punchline for so long, that it’s easy to forget the power of the original Japanese film. Plenty of atom-age monster movies gave basic lip service to the dangers of tampering with nature or embracing the nuclear age, but none examined the idea so thoroughly and so somberly as “Gojira,” an anti-nuke film that could only come from a country that experienced the horrors of the atom bomb. With stark black-and-white photography, fully developed characters and a true appreciation for the horrors depicted, Gojira is a classic film that truly lives up to the label.
For the disaster film fan -- “Godzilla Raids Again”/”Gigantis: The Fire Monster” 1955: The movie catches a bad rap from a lot of Godzilla fans for not living up to the first film and not following in line with the style of the rest of the series. But it’s interesting for having its own unique tone that’s never replicated and for introducing the first Godzilla monster fight that would become the staple of the series. In this, Godzilla faces off against Anguirus, a scrappy, spiky little fellow with some mean tusks. Unlike later films, the fight is relatively brief and lands in the middle of the film. The true meat of the film follows Japanese pilots as they try to stop this new Godzilla without the aid of the Oxygen Destroyer from the first film.
For the sci-fi fan -- “Invasion of the Astro Monster”/”Godzilla vs. Monster Zero” 1965: When people think of goofy, friend of the Earth Godzilla, it’s usually this era of Godzilla film they’re familiar with -- not surprising, since it was this era that was most frequently dubbed and released in American theaters and made its way to television screens. This is the best of the comic book-style Godzilla adventures, with the human story living up to the monster battles. In it, aliens from Planet X -- located behind Jupiter in the Japanese version and orbiting the exact opposite position of the sun in the English dub -- ask humanity to borrow monsters Godzilla and Rodan -- Godzilla’s pterodactyl-esque frenemy -- in order to stop the evil Monster Zero, who turns out to be the big G’s arch-rival King Ghidorah, a three-headed armless golden dragon who shoots electricity out of his mouths. The film has some twists and turns, and plays equal parts ‘60s sci-fi action and Japanese monster madness.
For the psychedelic fan -- “Godzilla vs. Hedorah”/”Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster” 1971: Are you a fan of trippy Japanese sci-fi/horror films like Nobayashi’s "Hausu"? Then "vs. Hedorah" is the flick for you. The sole Godzilla film by director Yoshimitsu Banno, the film swings between a kid-friendly approach, psychedelic visuals and intense horror. The film hits a lot of really peculiar and unique notes, which some Godzilla fans find jarring, but others find refreshing in a series that was becoming increasingly formulaic. The film features animated segments, ‘70s music and freak outs, and optical effects like draining the color from certain scenes and freeze frames. The film may not be for everyone, but for those who dig the style, it’s a can’t miss option.
For the comedy fan -- “Godzilla vs. Megalon -- Mystery Science Theater 3000 edition” 1973: Godzilla’s films went through a period of cheapness in the late ‘60s and ‘70s where they focused on entertaining children on Saturday matinees. These films got weirder and goofier, while remaining pretty charming. “Godzilla vs. Megalon” is often seen as the height -- or low point, depending on your view -- of this era of Godzilla goofiness, with a plot literally conceived by an elementary school child, who entered a drawing of a robot-superhero into a contest. The character, renamed Jet Jaguar, was set to star in his own film, until studio heads came to their senses and realized nobody wants to see a Jet Jaguar solo film. They quickly threw Godzilla into the script, and the result is a goofy as heck, but pretty fun. To help make it through the slow parts, we recommend the MST3K version, which adds a hilarious commentary to the proceedings. By the time they get to Jet Jaguar’s theme-song, you’ll be singing along.
For the fan of scale -- “Godzilla vs. Mothra” 1992: In the gap between the end of the Showa series and the start of the Heisi era, the layout of Japan had changed drastically. Godzilla no longer dwarfed the cityscapes he demolished; he actually is out-sized by many of the urban centers’ new skyscrapers. Instead of making him seem smaller, placing him in the context of human scaled buildings, highlighted just how huge Godzilla and his fellow monsters are. Nowhere do they seem as big as they do in “Godzilla vs. Mothra” which pulls out every trick in the book to convince you that these human-sized suits are actually hundreds of feet tall. The film features a combination of low angles, foreground action composited with background miniatures and slow-motion to really add weight to Godzilla’s frame. If you like your giant monsters giant, check out this flick.
For the monster fan -- “Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla II” 1993: In a lot of Godzilla films, no matter how interesting the human stories are, you tend to wait on the edge of your seat for the first appearance of the big G. This film gets right to the action, with Godzilla and Rodan showing up in the first fifteen minutes. The film’s got three lengthy monster battles between Godzilla, Rodan, and the Japanese G-Force-created MechaGodzilla that take up most of the movie’s run-time. Even better, nearly all of the human scenes include interactions with Baby Godzilla, an adorable vegetarian Godzillasaurus who believes the Japanese scientist looking after him is his mother. For an hour and forty minutes, there’s hardly any time where there’s not someone crammed into an uncomfortable monster suit. The film may not hit the dramatic highs of some of the rest of the series, but it is consistently entertaining.
For the fan of tear-jerkers -- “Godzilla vs. Destoroyah” 1995: Godzilla Dies. Don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler; it’s on the poster. Godzilla vs. Destoroyah was the final film in the Heisi era of Godzilla films, after the reboot “The Return of Godzilla.” The film begins with Godzilla going through a severe case of heartburn. His heart -- a nuclear reactor -- is going through meltdown. When it reaches the point of critical meltdown, he will destroy the world. If that’s not bad enough, he has to face-off against Destoroyah a killer crab-like beast created by the Oxygen Destroyer that killed the first Godzilla in the 1954 original. The film features cameo appearances by characters from “Gojira,” the best suit-work in the series and a surprisingly emotional climax.
For the fan of the all-out monster brawl -- “Destroy All Monsters” OR “Godzilla: Final Wars” 1968/2004: Of course, the main draw to any Godzilla film is the monster battles. There’s nothing like seeing two actors crammed into foam rubber suits performing wrestling moves and throwing each other into replicas of famous towns. These films, often called the monster-rally flicks, pull out all of the stops and feature nearly every monster in Toho’s stable. “Destroy All Monsters” was originally conceived as being the end of the series -- though low-budget Godzilla films would follow -- and it not only features Godzilla and his enemies, but monsters from related series as well. “Final Wars” was the final Godzilla film, released on his 50th anniversary, before Toho put him in his ten-year hiatus, finally broken by the new American picture. It’s goofy, and there’s not a lot to it other than Godzilla smashing his way through every monster they could get their hands on. There’s even a scene where Godzilla quickly dispatches his American counterpart from the 1998 Matthew Broderick film. If all you want to see is monsters going at it, pick one of these two.
For the hipster monster fan -- “Gamera: Guardian of the Universe” 1995: Is Godzilla too mainstream for you? Want a hipper underdog monster. Why not go with Godzilla’s scrappier younger competitor Gamera? He’s a 200-ft tall fire breathing turtle who can retreat his arms and legs into his shell, spin really fast and fly around the universe like a UFO. Gamera had a low-budget series in the ‘60s and ‘70s where he was cast as a friend to all children. After a long hiatus, he was brought back in the ‘90s with a -- relatively speaking -- gritty reboot. The ‘90s Gamera flicks are notable for their tight continuity, something Godzilla films never put together, great effects, and bloody monster battles. Gamera may not be as well known as his more popular competitor, but he’s got spark and spunk to spare.