It’s fun to watch giant monsters go on a rampage and destroy cities, or to go head-to-head in a super-sized slugfest. For decades now, the giant monster/kaiju genre has developed a strong fan following, while mostly being dismissed by critics. Over the years, Godzilla and King Kong have become household names. Let’s end the year by looking at a dozen of the greatest kaiju movies of all time.
Originally, this genre was called ‘Monster on the loose’ films before changing to giant monster movies and finally embracing the Japanese phase Dai Kaiju, or just Kaiju. There have been great ones and terrible ones. We’ll look at the terrible ones at another time. Today, let’s check out the 12 best.
12. GODZILLA VS. DESTROYAH (1995): Who’d ever have thought a Godzilla film could be so touching? This is the film that killed off the Heisei version of the king of monsters. His death is surprisingly sad for long-time fans. The big guy is already dying from the moment the movie starts, since his nuclear heart is melting down. Along the way, his home island is destroyed, his son is fatally wounded and Godzilla himself melts into kaiju history. The film cleverly links this (supposedly) “final” Godzilla movie to the 1954 original, by having Godzilla meet a monster created by the oxygen destroyer which slew the first Godzilla. I dare any real Godzilla fan not to get a lump in their throat watching Godzilla’s poignant demise.
11. PACIFIC RIM (2013): This film helped revive the kaiju genre, and set the mood for the upcoming Legendary Monster-Verse. It’s loaded with lots of exciting monster-vs-robot fights, and imaginative kaiju creature designs. This film is not only a homage to the Japanese monster movies, it also pays tribute to the popular giant robot anime of the past, like Gigantor, Voltron, Macross, Dancouger, Fight Iczer 1, and so many others. It’s fun and there’s a sequel on the way.
10. SHIN GODZILLA (2016): The most recent Godzilla is the first one since the original to revamp the king of monsters. Every other Godzilla movie since 1954 has connected back to the first. This one gives us a new origin, introducing a rebooted version of the creature. This incarnation is bigger than past versions and goes on a lot of fantastic city-stomping rampages. The mutating aspect of the monster is a new wrinkle but it works. The film has some clever social commentary subtext about how government gridlock and passing-the-buck makes it harder for our leaders to get anything down. The top-down view is a surprising but effective change from the worms-eye view of previous movies. This film won Best Picture and Best Director at the Japanese Academy Prize ceremony (their equivalent of the Oscars), something no other kaiju movie has ever done.
9. 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH (1957): What list of monster movies would be complete with something from the great Ray Harryhausen, master of stop-motion SFX? From the 50’s through the 70s, Harryhausen was the benchmark for cinematic FX excellence. This film introduces us to Ymir, the space creatures who comes to Earth aboard a space ship as a tiny being, only a few inches tall. As the movies progresses, Ymir begins to grow rapidly, and ends up slapping an elephant around in the climax. Classic Harryhausen magic.
8. GODZILLA VS. BIOLLANTE (1989): The second film in the rebooted Heisei series, this one changed the complexion of Godzilla films forever. This was the first ever Godzilla film to add so much depth and complexity to the plot. Previous films had been more straight forward and less intricate. This one gave us a deeper story with some emotional resonance. Biollante itself is an interestingly designed creature, with a detailed backstory. This film was a nice turning point for the franchise.
7. CLOVERFIELD (2008): A smart advertising campaign helped build expectation for this well-done giant monster flick. The cryptic trailer without a title got everyone talking about JJ Abram’s entry into the Kaiju genre. The monster (not actually called “Cloverfield” in the movie) is a weird and creepy creation, and the lack of a clear origin adds to the enigmatic aspect of the story. We’re not even told for certain whether or not the beast is killed in the end. Along with Pacific Rim, this movie helped revive the kaiju genre, setting the table for the new Legendary Monster-verse.
5/6. GODZILLA AGAINST MECHAGODZILLA 3 (2002) /GODZILLA: TOKYO S.O.S. (2003) : This is a two-part movie, so I’m placing these films in a tie for fifth and sixth. This has a terrific premise that incorporates the original 1954 Gojira into the newer Millennium series. The bones of the slain original Godzilla are used to create the cyborg Mechagodzilla, designed to fight the newest Godzilla, but it begins to have memories of it’s death back in the 50s and lashes out at the humans instead. It’s always great to see the modern films pay homage to the classic beginning. In the second film, Mothra is also added to the mix, as a sort of spiritual avenger, angry at humanity for sullying the souls of the dead. This creates a nice three-way dynamic of giants, each with its own agenda. Mothra and Mechagodzilla are two of Godzilla’s most consistent opponents, so it’s a blast to see them all together, backed by such a good story, and some exciting monster battles.
4. The BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS (1953): Probably the greatest creation of Ray Harryhausen, this beast was one of the first atomic monsters, and inspired a legion of other radioactive beasts, including Godzilla, who would debut a year later. The story, in general, sets the blueprint for the 1954 Gojira. If not for the success of this movie, we may never have gotten the Japanese Kaiju genre. This is an influential and trend-setting film.
3. GAMERA: GUARDIAN OF THE UNIVERSE (1995): The film that finally made Gamera cool! After years of being Godzilla-lite, the colossal turtle monster finally became interesting. For decades, Gamera was the Pepsi to Godzilla’s Coke, or the Burger King to Godzilla’s McDonalds. Most of the early Gamera films were weighed down by silly subplots with annoying kids. It made Gamera seem like second-rate children’s entertainment. But this film corrected all that, and allowed us to finally take Gamera seriously. For the one-and-only time in film history, Gamera was actually better than Godzilla. This is an insanely good giant monster film, with a great final battle, going from land to sky to outer space and back. The once-goofy turtle is vindicated in one of the greatest kaiju movies ever made.
2. GOJIRA (1954): Released in the US as Godzilla: King of the Monsters, this is a wonderfully gloomy, intense movie. Coming less than a decade after the atomic bombs fell on Japan, the film was a metaphor for the uncontrollable destruction that nuclear weapons can bring. The scenes of devastation, which saw even children being slain by the monster’s merciless rampage, are amazingly effective, often using actual footage from post-war Japan. The human subplot is actually interesting in this one, and vitally important for the plot. The sacrifice by Dr. Serizawa is a powerfully emotional moment. This film popularized the concept of Kaijus destroying Japanese cities, which would become a staple of Toho’s films for years and years to come. An epic, haunting and effective film.
1. KING KONG (1933): This movie was so incredibly influential, it can’t be overstated. It was not only the precursor to the kaiju genre, it was also the granddaddy of the big FX blockbuster, as well as giving us one of the most iconic pop-culture images ever…Kong on top of the Empire State Building. The cutting-edge FX in this movie were far ahead of their time. Stop motion pioneer Willis O’Brien (who would train his successor Ray Harryhausen) made such leaps in what can be done visually in a film, Roger Ebert once gave him credit for setting the blueprint of future sci-fi classics such as Star Wars. There are many ways to analyze the psychological subtext of this variation on the Beauty & the Beast tale, but it’s best just enjoyed as a fun, cool, exciting monster movie. This classic film frequently appears on the critic’s Best Films of All Time list, and with good reason. It’s a magnificent contribution to film history and the most entertainingly engrossing giant monster movie ever made!