After recently re-watching every Godzilla film in chronological order and allowing some time for my thoughts on the series as a whole to solidify, I thought it would be a good idea to rank the films and note any particularly impressive (or dubious) achievements. The varying quality of the Godzilla films is somewhat surprising given that each film can essentially be boiled down to “monsters smash buildings, and occasionally each other.”
I have divided noteworthy films into three categories:
- The Good: If you have any interest in the series, you need to watch these films.
- The Bad: Unless you’re a completionist (or a masochist), avoid these at all costs.
- The Bizarre: Your mileage may vary, but these films are enjoyable on some level.
With the series spread out over 60 years (with three reboots), comparisons can get a little messy. Hearts will be broken, longstanding kaiju fanatic beliefs will be shattered, and in the end, only one Godzilla film can tower over the rest. Which will reign supreme?
The film that started it all. The deceptively deep disaster film ushered in an era of effects films throughout the world in which the monsters were rightfully recognized as the true stars (get back on your motorcycle, Steve McQueen!). Aspects of Gojira remain profoundly moving to this day, and even more modern monster flicks such as The Host continue to draw influence from it.
Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)
There’s surprisingly little Godzilla in this film, but more than enough groovy 60’s campiness to enjoy while waiting for him to save the planet from a race of aliens decked out in spandex and shades. Astro-Monster is fun from beginning to end, and one of the most purely enjoyable films in the series.
Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)
After a shaky start (see “The Bad”), Godzilla’s 1980’s comeback hit its stride with Godzilla vs. Biollante, which set the tone for the remainder of the Heisei/Versus series (1984-1995). Biollante is the most visually impressive kaiju ever, and the film’s large variety of action sequences and bonkers pseudoscience ensure that there is never a dull moment.
Godzilla vs. Destoroyah (1995)
Make sure to have a box of tissues handy for this one. Godzilla is on the verge of an inevitable nuclear meltdown, but he has one last job to do: defend the planet (and his “son,” Godzilla Jr.) from a crustaceous kaiju with the ability to transform into a legion of smaller versions of itself. If the ending doesn’t leave you misty-eyed, you’re not a true Godzilla fan.
Godzilla, Mothra & King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
This one might be better classified as a “bizarre” entry in the series, but the imagination and enthusiasm behind it propel it to the top of the heap. Combining elements of Japanese folklore with more modern kaiju sensibilities (the director had previously resurrected series rival Gamera with a trilogy of excellent films), “GMK” shows that a standalone Godzilla film with “bizarro” versions of iconic monsters can be just as good (if not better) than anything preceding it.
Note: The 2014 Godzilla reboot would probably make my personal top 5, but I should allow a little more time before making it official.
Godzilla Raids Again (1955)
The sequel to Gojira deserves credit for giving Godzilla another monster (series mainstay Anguirus) to much on, but it drops the ball in nearly every other regard. Stale human drama, embarrassing plot contrivances, and poor pacing are the worst offenders in this uninspired retread.
All Monsters Attack, AKA Godzilla’s Revenge (1969)
Undoubtedly the worst Godzilla film ever made, All Monsters Attack is a shameless clip reel of footage from lesser 60’s Godzilla adventures, supplemented with a crappy coming-of-age story about a very annoying little boy in urban Japan. To see this sort of story done well, play Attack of the Friday Night Monsters for the Nintendo 3DS.
Ebirah: Horror of the Deep, AKA Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966)
Infamous for attempting to infuse some 007-inspired espionage into a Godzilla film, Ebirah: Horror of the Deep is just plain silly. Watching Godzilla play a match of boulder-volleyball with his rival would be worth checking this one out for if it hadn’t already been done before.
The Return of Godzilla (1984)
Godzilla’s grand return after a hiatus of nearly 10 years was marred by poor pacing, laughable American acting, and a general “been there, done that” feeling. Don’t even get me started on the horrifically inaccurate American localization, which was titled Godzilla 1985.
It almost feels cliché to bash the 90’s Hollywood Godzilla film at this point, but it really is that bad. Not only is it full of shameless product placement and unlikeable characters, but it has aged very badly. Watch Jurassic Park or even Independence Day instead.
King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)
In its own way, King Kong vs. Godzilla is as influential to the series as Gojira, establishing the formula that would be used in nearly every sequel to follow. It’s still an incredibly weird film, however, with blown-up octopus attacks, men in ratty gorilla suits, and… men in ratty gorilla suits being suspended by giant balloons.
Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971)
Godzilla films don’t get any weirder than this one. Sing along to “Save the Earth” while cheering Godzilla on during his fight against a sentient blob of waste. Chock full of psychedelic effects and animated interludes, there are moments where this feels more like a Simpsons parody than a Godzilla film.
Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973)
This is easily my favorite of the “bad” Godzilla films. Godzilla’s partnership with a cheesy 70’s robot named Jet Jaguar provides all the camp value you need to enjoy this kitschy masterpiece, but it’s the human characters that keep the unintentional humor flowing throughout. “Punch! Punch! PUNCH!!!”
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
Godzilla’s Heisei-era rematch against his greatest foe gets a lot of love from the Godzilla fan community, but I just can’t consider it to be one of the better films in the series. It’s certainly enjoyable in a way, but mostly because of how utterly nonsensical the plot is. Characters go back and forth through time in a dedicated attempt to create plot holes, and the weirdness is topped off by the inclusion of a Terminator-like android.
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I have a serious soft spot for the much-maligned final Japanese Godzilla film. Final Wars crowbars in as many monsters as possible, but its insistence on giving the human characters as many action sequences as the monsters is what makes this one such an oddity. Much like GMK, this one is more enjoyable if you forget about the traditional roles of the monsters.
And the best Godzilla film of all-time is…
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
It might not be the first film to pit a villainous Godzilla against a benevolent kaiju opponent, but it’s definitely the best. Equal parts 60’s camp and imaginative effects, Mothra vs. Godzilla remains a standard-bearer more than 50 years after its release. Mothra makes the perfect antithesis to the destructive Godzilla, and the surprising climactic battle is a joy to watch. I never thought it would be so much fun to watch a winged puppet beating up on a guy in a suit.
So there you have it – 60 years’ worth of strange and wonderful Godzilla films condensed into one article. With a successful reboot released earlier this year and an ambitious sequel already in the works, the future of the Godzilla series looks more promising than it has in a very long time.