One of the most exciting things to come out of this year’s San Diego Comic-Con was the trailer for Michael Dougherty’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters. Next year, the long-awaited sequel promises the same type of elegant, operatic monster action of its 2014 predecessor, with a much larger scope of Kaiju chaos.
Of course, Godzilla has a long, 50-year history with a lot of films that are great, and some that are plain awful. This list will give you the best of the best to check out before the king of the monsters returns next summer.
It may seem obvious, but if you’ve never seen the original Godzilla, you gotta watch it. Toshiro Honda’s 1954 masterpiece set the gold standard for kaiju films and launched an iconic character for decades to come. In addition, the film also puts forward the mission statement of the series.
A truly great Godzilla film is about more than buildings being smashed. Honda created a science fiction allegory with depths unseen since Shelly’s Frankenstein. Therefore, this is the urtext of every work to come.
Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964)
Honda would continue to guide the Godzilla franchise for almost 20 years after the original film. Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster is the largest scale production in Godzilla’s franchise up to this point.
In a way, this film is The Avengers (2012) for kaiju. Godzilla not only faces off against King Ghidorah for the first time but also teams up with Mothra (returning from Mothra and Mothra vs. Godzilla) and Rodan (returning from its solo outing Rodan).
Additionally, this film marks the first of many multi-monster throwdowns that would dominate the franchise for years to come. Big G evolves from walking nuclear destruction to the benevolent guardian. That’s right: Godzilla has an arc in this film. The performance of original Godzilla (Haruo Nakajima) shines through, giving the green monster a personality unlike any before.
Godzilla (2014)/Kong: Skull Island (2017)
Dougherty’s King of the Monsters will follow in kaiju-sized footsteps. Its direct predecessor, Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla (2014) is a stirring elegy about humanity’s powerlessness against the might of nature.
Meanwhile, Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, is a rollicking monster-fest that subtly criticizes American exceptionalism between monster kills. If Edwards’ Godzilla is Mozart, then Vogt-Roberts’ Kong is the Misfits. Both exceptional, and both required viewing for this new cinematic universe.
Forgotten Gems; Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1972)
This film is something of an outlier in the Showa era. The film’s director, Yoshimitsu Banno, was an assistant director for Akira Kurosawa. His debut film was an experimental audio/visual experience called Birth of the Japanese Island.
Banno’s idiosyncratic film uses the allegorical power of kaiju film to make a desperate plea to audiences to save the Earth from pollution. The film’s villain, Hedorah, is literally an anthropomorphized mountain of sentient sludge. Its unique design sets it apart from other villains.
He fits beautifully into Banno’s film with technicolor music sequences and animated interludes. Godzilla vs. Hedorah is one of the most underrated in the original canon of films.
Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (2001)
After successfully bringing the Gamera franchise back from the dead (see below), director Shusuke Kaneko was given the reigns to the Godzilla franchise. Much like the aforementioned Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, this film is an out-and-out monster smackdown.
However, Kaneko flips the script and revives Godzilla as a grim spectre of death instead of a valiant protector. Therefore, it’s up to Baragon, Mothra, and, believe it or not, King Ghidorah to stop him and save Japan. This film features truly astonishing suit and miniature work that rivals the spectacle of any modern visual effects.
Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla (2002)
The Mako Mori Pacific Rim spin-off movie that we deserved. Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla is another great piece of monster movie suit magic. It also features Lieutenant Akane Yashiro (Yumiko Shaku), one of the best female protagonists of the franchise.
It’s hard to believe that Guillermo Del Toro wasn’t inspired by the sight of Akane suited up piloting Mechagodzilla (aka Kiryu) when he created Pacific Rim. It’s an incredibly fun film and features one of the best designs and spotlights on the infamous Mechagodzilla. Though don’t bother with its sequel Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. as it shamefully pushes Akane to the side in the first 10 minutes.
Advanced Studies; Gamera Heisei Trilogy (1995, 1996, 1999)
Gamera never became quite as popular as Godzilla in the states. However, the reboot trilogy (1995-1999) of Gamera: Guardian of the Universe, Attack of Legion, and The Revenge of Iris are all incredible works in the kaiju genre.
Before jumping to the Godzilla franchise, director Shusuke Kaneko brought Gamera back from a nearly two-decade hiatus better than ever. Here you can see Kaneko’s masterful hand with kaiju action sequences that blend both practical and CGI effects. This trilogy of films shows the best of what kaiju films can be.
Rebirth of Mothra Trilogy (1996, 1997, 1998)
These are definitely for young kids, but they’re the perfect entry point for parents who want to get their kids into kaiju movies. I also must admit my own personal bias as Mothra is my favorite kaiju in this franchise. Regardless, the Rebirth of Mothra trilogy take the trappings of Godzilla films and sprinkle in some Studio Ghibli influences.
These films are less sci-fi and more fantasy as the twins Laura (Sayaka Yamaguchi/Misato Tate) and Moll (Megumi Kobayashi) try to stop their evil sister Belvera (Aki Hano) from unleashing ancient evil creatures to destroy the Earth. I’m especially recommending this trilogy for Rebirth of Mothra III for its crazy time travel plot. It’s a film that addresses the age old question: if you could go back in time and kill baby King Ghidorah, would you do it?
Shin Godzilla (2016)
The latest live action Godzilla offering from Japan is a strange beast. At times it seems like a Japanese remake of the political satire In The Loop that happens to also feature a giant monster. Equal parts kaiju film and sharp satire of government bureaucracy, Shin Godzilla is exactly the film you’d expect the creators of Neon Genesis Evangelion to deliver.
Hideaki Anno and co-director Shinji Higuchi made a kaiju film unlike any other, but one that still captured the fundamental truth of kaiju movies: it’s about more than big monsters crushing stuff.
Something Different; Godzilla: Half Century War (2013)
This IDW comic from writer/artist James Stokoe is one of the best-licensed comics ever made. The comic follows Ota Murakami as a Captain Ahab chasing his white kaiju whale Godzilla.
Stokoe moves Murakami through the years, dropping him into various conflicts inspired by the films. Stokoe’s artwork is completely jaw-dropping and may reinvent how you perceive Godzilla and his adversaries.
The connection here is obvious: director Nacho Vigalondo film follows woman-in-crisis Gloria (Anne Hathaway) as she returns to her hometown. She discovers that, under certain conditions, she can psychically control a kaiju monster that appears in Seoul, South Korea.
The premise is ripe for comedy. However, Vigalondo uses the allegorical power of kaiju to tell a more personal story. One about toxic masculinity, and overcoming your demons. Colossal is one of the most unique and underrated films to come out of American cinema in a long time. A must-see for any kaiju film fan.