The 8 Most Important Godzilla Movies to Watch | Fan Cliff Notes
In the mood for a truly horrifying parable about nuclear war or a goofy-ass 1960s rough-em-up?
Godzilla is huge. Sure, the King of the Monsters towers over skyscrapers and effortlessly crushes tanks underneath his massive feet, but the Godzilla franchise is also astoundingly expansive. With 31 movies (and a 32nd about to hit Netflix later this year), Godzilla is one of the longest-running movie series of all time. Only a few franchises boast more entries, and it’s doubtful that any of them are as well known as Godzilla — to American audiences, at least.
Since Japanese studio Toho and Legendary Pictures are both in the midst of creating their own new iterations of Godzilla, it seems like a good time to go back and get familiar with the monster’s impressive body of work. But where to start? The 63-year-old series boasts serious, intelligent installments and goofy, corny romps. Some films are masterpieces, while others are, uh, terrible masterpieces.
Here’s where you should start with Godzilla and, depending on what you’re in the mood for, where you should go from there.
Start With Godzilla: King of the Monsters
Some Godzilla fans might call this sacrilege, but if you’re really a newbie to the series, then the edited American version of the original 1954 movie, Godzilla, is probably the place to go. While later “Americanizations” of the Japanese series were sometimes wildly disrespectful to the source material, King of the Monsters used a clever combination of body doubles and editing tricks to add a new character, played by Raymond Burr. He serves as an entry point for American audiences, giving the movie some additional structure and a new framing device.
It’s a mostly faithful and very accessible adaptation, though it’s not perfect. Godzilla (or Gojira in Japan) is a masterpiece in its own right, and King of the Monsters turns some of the stars of the original into supporting characters. It also lightens the tone a bit. Remember, Godzilla came out less than ten years after Japan was hit by two atomic bombs. It’s a legitimate horror film that ends with a somber warning about the future, while King of the Monsters ends with Burr saying “the world can wake up and live again.”
Still, the Godzilla series itself would quickly stop being so serious without American re-editing. You can’t go wrong with Godzilla (and you should watch it at some point), but the slightly lighter tone of King of the Monsters makes for a smoother transition to some of the lighter fare. After this, you’ve got some options.
If You’re in the Mood for a Classic ‘60s Adventure…
…Watch Invasion of Astro-Monster
Also known as Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, this 1965 flick is just a good old-fashioned romp. It’s fun and delightfully retro, and is a great example of the early series getting fun without getting, uh, stupid. The movie sees the Big G and two of the most popular monsters, Mothra and Rodan, take down the series’ biggest villain: King Ghidorah.
If You’re in the Mood for a Live-Action Anime…
…Watch Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla
There are three different Mechagodzillas in the Godzilla canon, but the third one, Kiryu, who debuted in 2002, is the slickest, most action-packed. Previous iterations of the robot were mostly lumbering counterparts to the original monster, but Kiryu (and his pilot, Lieutenant Akane Yashiro) are closer to Neon Genisis Evangelion or Gundam than anything else, and the movie’s tone reflects this.
If You’re in the Mood for More Solo Godzilla Action…
…Watch The Return of Godzilla
This 1984 entry is the only movie other than the original film and the infamous 1998 American Godzilla (which, the less said about, the better) to just feature Godzilla. It was the first reboot of the series, as it ignored the continuity of all the movies before it (save for the original) and brought Godzilla back to his bad guy roots. Like with Gojira, there’s also an Americanized version of this one too, known as Godzilla 1985, and it even brings back Raymond Burr’s character. Unlike King of the Monsters, it is bad. Watch the Japanese version.
If You’re in the Mood for Godzilla at Its Most Corny…
…Watch Godzilla vs. Megalon
Look, Megalon isn’t the worst movie in the series, but it is one of the only two that was ever skewered on Mystery Science Theater 3000. It’s kind of the nadir of Godzilla’s most child-pandering era, since one of the monsters is essentially a toy robot who can inexplicably grow big and strong to fight some weird beetle creature. When people make fun of Godzilla, they’re probably making fun of this movie. That said, it’s a hoot if you’ve embraced laughing at it.
If You’re in the Mood for a Giant Monster Fight…
Watch Destroy All Monsters
This movie is The Avengers before The Avengers. In 1968, Toho gathered pretty much every monster it had (including some like Manda and Varan, who had never appeared in a Godzilla movie) and made them all team up — first to destroy the world, and then later defend it from King Ghidorah. Toss in a lovingly retro alien invasion plot and you have possibly the most Godzilla film ever made.
If You’re in the Mood for Something Really, Really Weird…
…Watch Godzilla vs. Hedorah
Look, picking Hedorah, a.k.a. Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster as your second movie in the series is like going from zero to 60. This is a movie about pollution that features graphic depictions of civilians choking on toxic smog, a trippy exploration of the 1970s underground club scene, animated scenes that are straight-up bonkers, and a monster whose eyes were allegedly modeled after graffiti of a vagina the director saw. Godzilla also learns how to fly in the movie. It’s a lot, but if you want to test the limits of the Godzilla’s versatility, this is your movie.
If You’re in the Mood for Something Spiritual…
…Watch Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack
Also known as GMK, this 2001 film reinvents Godzilla as a spirit of vengeance. Visually, it ranks among Godzilla’s most terrifying appearances, since his eyes are totally white. It’s a slick, well-done, and pretty badass twist on the classic mythology.
Those are just a few suggestions, and there are lots of other places to start. Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991) is a boldly anti-west movie that delves into dated Japanese politics and reinvents Godzilla’s backstory. King Kong vs. Godzilla was the first movie with “vs.” in the title, and it really sets the mold for a lot of films that followed (and Kong has really chapped lips). Godzilla Raids Again is actually the next movie in the series after Gojira, but it’s admittedly underwhelming.
Really, you can’t go wrong unless you watch the TriStar Godzilla or All Monsters Attack, which is a clip show with a sad little boy connecting them all.