It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that I love so much about the giant monster movie genre.
Perhaps it was my early fascination with dinosaurs and big animals at the zoo, or simply the idea of smashing model buildings and miniature cities growing up but giant monster flicks have stood the test of time for me more so than most of my childhood fascinations.
It’s a genre that can be both deeply thematic and even at the same time joyfully cheesy in the best way. It’s like watching your action figures come to life on the big screen and your imagination taking a larger than life form.
(And of course can be really entertaining on a “So bad it’s good” level too.)
So it has truly pleased me as a longtime fan of this crazy genre that giant monster flicks appear to be making a comeback these past five years with beautifully rendered and fully realized Hollywood re-imagining’s and with the new “Pacific Rim” film set to come out today I felt it would be great to share with you some of my all-time favorite monster flicks and why you should all make time to watch them.
I haven’t seen every kaiju-sized monster film blockbuster (you won’t find any of the “Cloverfield” films on here) but I have watched most all of the major ones that have appeared. So without further ado here are my top 10 favorite giant monster movies of all-time.
10. Godzilla against Mechagodzilla
There have been five total movies and three different costumes involving this particular nemesis of Godzilla but 2002’s “Godzilla against Mechagodzilla” is the best one of them all.
First of all, it’s the only version of Mechagodzilla that actually looks like the actual G-man himself (set to make an appearance in this month’s “Ready Player One” btw) and secondly there’s a fairly decent story going on in the middle of all of it.
It’s basically your typical soldier’s redemption arc but with a kaiju-sized plot point. Yumiko Shaku plays an ex pilot who’s run in with Godzilla during a mission costs the lives of her fellow service men some years ago and now she’s been recruited to pilot a great new weapon built on the bones of the original 1954 Godzilla (Godzilla timelines and realities are more all over the place than the X-Men franchise btw). Its dark at times but the cast plays well off each other and when the monster suit action goes down it’s a real blast to watch Godzilla and his mechanical doppelganger throw down.
When Mechagodzilla arrives in the final act to beat up on Godzilla he hilariously flies down from the sky and bumps him out of the way from fire-balling a children’s hospital in this hilariously dated visual shot. I can’t tell you how many times me and my friend rewound this scene to watch and laugh at it again and again as middle-schoolers back in the day.
9. Kong: Skull Island
The first of the new era of kaiju films on this list, this movie gets more and more fun each time I watch it. It has very little resemblance to any of the previous American King Kong films and frankly is more in line with Toho’s recreation of the character in the 60s and 70s in the best way.
After the so-so reimagining of “Godzilla” in 2014 I wondered if Hollywood would understand why there were mixed reactions to that film. Giant monster films really only work on two ends of a very extreme spectrum. You can only do them super dark and serious with heavy handed metaphors and minimal approaches to revealing the monster OR you show the monster all the time in the most ridiculous, action-packed, over-the-top, cheesy fashion. “Godzilla 2014” tried to have it both ways, trying some metaphorical shit about Godzilla (that really never applied to him) while also having a Showa era style monster throwdown.
“Kong” doesn’t make this mistake, instead opting for the latter in one ridiculous monster fight sequence after another. The big ape goes full pro-wrestler in this film and layeths the smacketh down on these Skull Island monster’s candy ass’s and it’s a total blast.
It also helps that unlike “Godzilla 2014,” while characters are fairly one-dimensional in this too, they are at least fun to watch and the script seems self-aware that they are in a big cheesy monster film between the bantering of the soldiers and John C. Reilly’s delightful WWII Dr. Bruhl routine.
“Kong” was one of the films that was quietly one of the best, in my opinion, in 2017 and I’m looking forward to the next Giant Monster shared universe film because of it.
When Kong starts flinging old boat propeller chains at the big Skull Crawler in the final act like fucking Kratos from “God of War.” It’s again such an awesomely, ridiculous sequence that harkens back to the cheesy films it pays homage to in the best way. Not to mention tearing the monster’s throat out was gnarly as hell too.
8. Gamera: Attack of Legion
Godzilla is obviously the most popular kaiju to emerge from the Pacific Ocean to attack Japan but not enough fans worldwide pay tribute to the big flying, fire-breathing, turtle that often protects it, from Toho’s rival studio Daiei.
Gamera is probably my second favorite all-time kaiju and his films in the 90s were arguably better and definitely darker than the Godzilla films that came out during the Hesei era. The giant turtle had some truly violent confrontations, for kids movies, during this time and “Attack of Legion” almost gave me nightmares as a child.
If you like “Starship Troopers” or “Aliens” this is a good one to watch as Gamera takes on a hive of space-faring, plant-based(?) insects and the smalls ones rip apart the humans in often grisly fashion in this film.
The costumed fight sequences are a lot of fun to watch and Legion herself(?) is a really well designed monster that plays a worthy adversary for the Guardian of Earth.
When Gamera unleashes his big new weapon when his chest opens up and puts out a giant chest fireball powered from ancient energies from a far (I know right?). It kind of reminds me of Guyver’s own chest busting weapon in his manga series (ask your weeaboo friends) and it leaves behind an anime sized crater where Legion once stood. Few of the Godzilla films have a sequence as jaw-dropping as this one and even if it was a big cheesy monster flick it’s still quite a cinematic moment when it goes down.
7. Gamera: Revenge of Iris
This one by far is probably the darkest of the Heisei era monster flicks.
There’s a small element of Cronenberg level horror in this film and some more grissly death scenes the Gamera franchise is known for in the 90s. At its core though it has a pretty decent thematic story about revenge and how it consumes us all, leading to in this case literal big consequences as a Japanese school girl name Ayana, who’s family was crushed accidentally by Gamera in the first film of this series (“Guardian of the Universe”) vows revenge by calling on an ancient evil beast to kill the big turtle.
The cinematography, even for a costumed monster flick is really solid in this film and even today has aged fairly well. The dark hues of Japan during a stormy night, the updated more vicious look of Gamera and the new enemy Iris all look the part in this big revenge-filled throwdown.
It’s the type of spectacle that makes these Gamera films stand apart from the rest of the costume monster genre as being one of the few that manages to be cheesy with giant rubber suit but also dark and thematic at the same time.
It’s still such a damn shame though we never got to see this giant turtle lock horns with the King of Monsters though =/.
When Gamera his own hand off, which was pinned to the Kyoto Bullet Train station by Iris’s claw, to save himself and Ayana, and goes full G Gundam shining finger on its ass. Yeah, it’s a pretty insane sequence but it’s so fucking cool when it happens!
6. King Kong (1933)
If this was a list based purely on level of importance to the genre the original “King Kong” is easily number one on here. But we’re rating this purely on my own personal aesthetic taste because if we rated films only on their importance to filmmaking everyone would have “Birth of a Nation” and “The Jazz Singer” on their top 10 lists and I’m preeeety sure no one wants that (seriously look it up).
Anyways, “King Kong” despite being made almost 100 years ago now is the most important film in this genre by a mile and has a pretty awesome amount of giant monster action that holds up on the fun scale even after all this time. The stop motion animation used in this film was revolutionary for its time and still visually entertaining to watch between the man eating brontosaurs (yeah, I know) and Kong beating the shit out of other large beasts on the island all while just wanting to spend some quiet time with his special lady friend.
It’s one of the first major blockbusters too in Hollywood history, hugely influential on a host of a big-time directors and virtually all giant monster fans will tell you their first love was this movie.
I guess it’s only because I’m such a Godzilla/Tokusatsu fanboy “King Kong” isn’t higher on this list but regardless, this big great ape will always have a spot in my kaiju-shaped heart.
Hail to the King, baby.
After all this time it’s still Kong breaking the jaw of the tyrannosaur while saving Ann from being eaten. It’s a scene that has been recreated in other monster films multiple times but the original is still a classic moment.
5. Godzilla: GMK
Short for “Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah” (which is funny because it completely leaves out Baragon from this title who is also in it), “GMK” is far and away the best of the Millennium era of the giant monster films and unsurprisingly the man behind the greatness of this kaiju flick also made the three bad ass Gamera films of the 90s: Shusuke Kaneko.
Kaneko, much like his Gamera films, mixes in the cheese of your typical rubber suit monster film with the darker tone his films of the past take on.
Generally speaking the closer the story of a Godzilla film relates to the original 1954 movie the stronger the story is and this one builds on the themes of the atomic bomb while also addressing a topic relevant to Japanese politics.
This has been ongoing for a while in Japanese society but for those who don’t already know Japan has no army. It has a defense force that is in many ways under the jurisdiction of the United States and the rest of the world. Japan pretty much lost its sovereignty to defend itself after WWII and this has not sat well with much of the country. Another film, that you’ll see soon on this list, also addresses this topic but the position Kaneko takes is that Japan has forgotten the horrible the sins it committed in the wake of WWII and must understand why it has lost its right to have an active military.
Godzilla works best when he’s a big walking metaphor for something terrible and in this way Godzilla assumes the visage of a vengeful God coming to punish Japan for those sins it committed during the war. In this film Godzilla is the accumulation of dead souls from the pacific campaign and Imperial occupation of Asia and it’s an appropriate way of reminding the Japanese audience of this film “Don’t you ever fucking forget what you did.”
Now, there’s a strong debate to be had about giving Japan back its military. Afterall, if the US can invade other countries and commit war crimes why the hell should we be able to tell Japan (an ally) they can’t either? BUT it’s still important that Japan understands why such a declaration was made in the first place and certainly promoting revisionist history of their time occupying Asia is NOT a good look and this film expresses that loudly.
A little Easter egg moment is honestly my favorite among all the giant monster action and heavy metaphors of the story. Basically the cast of characters are discussing other strange monster sized occurrences across the world and one of them remarks there was an attack in New York in 1998 and how the Americans think it was Godzilla. Then one of the characters more or less says “Nah that can’t be true” and it’s pretty amusing of course if you know what that’s referencing.
4. Godzilla vs Destoryah
Other fanboys in the 90s had “The Death Superman” that rocked their childhoods and put them into a depressed stupor. Well, for me in my childhood it was “Godzilla vs Destoryah” aka “The one where Godzilla finally dies.”
I remember picking that VHS tape up from my local video rental shack as a kid with both giddy excitement and somber acceptance. First of all the name “Destoryah” as a kid that sounded totally bad ass and I couldn’t wait to see my favorite giant reptile throw down with him but knowing this would be his last film (for now) made me sad and depressed.
Set a truly beautiful and dark score by the original “Gojira” composer Akira Ifukube the thrills and destruction of Godzilla is fully realized in its rubber costume glory. I don’t think there was a better looking suit than this volcano inspired visage the G-man rocks here.
Destoryah himself is a really neat looking monster too. Part prehistoric crustacean and part demon from the underworld, this beast was real eye candy for me as a kid and paid homage to original film’s big plot device. The Oxygen Destroyer, which is the device that killed “Gojira” in the first film, is what mutates Precambrian era lifeforms into this beast that ultimately does battle with Godzilla and it’s a glorious throwdown.
There’s also a light homage to “Aliens” in this film too when the Japanese equivalent of SWAT gets whacked in a refinery by a bunch of smaller Destroyahs and it’s actually a pretty tension filled sequence.
But it was knowing that the film was the end of an era that made it so great, as the actors behind the characters seem to be self-aware of this being Godzilla’s final curtain call (again, for now). It’s like watching a liftetime achievement award in action almost as the kaiju mayhem is upped to 11 and Godzilla’s ultimate death is both cinematic and mesmerizing to watch all while Ifukube’s score plays softly in the background.
As the dust settles from Godzilla’s meltdown, we suddenly see a large silhouette in the smoke where Godzilla Jr’s body once lay, Destoryah had presumably killed him earlier but now a fully grown new Goji stands there triumphantly roaring into the night.
As a kid this made me tear up, not just because I was attached to Jr. and was glad he was ok but because it was like the film was saying to its fans “This isn’t good bye. We’ll be back.”
I had gone into watching this movie as a kid thinking this would be the last Godzilla film I would ever watch and it had made me sad but seeing the new Godzilla emerge from old one’s shadow made me hopeful I would see my favorite childhood, atomic breathing dinosaur once more.
And sure enough I did.
3. Pacific Rim
This movie isn’t so much a film as it is a love letter to the Tokusatsu genre. If you grew up on giant monster flicks and mech anime this was the film that was made for you and the childlike joy Guillermo Del Toro directs this film with is just perfect.
No, the story isn’t particularly deep and neither are the characters as it has a bit of “Top Gun” mixed in with “Neon Genesis Evangelion” but the film is so colorful and fun that who gives a shit?
A giant mech, that looks like a football player, uses an elbow rocket to punch a gorilla shaped giant monster in the face and later uses an oil tanker like a baseball bat to club another one. It’s awesome!
What was truly great about the film though is that it feels like a cheesy monster flick from the 60s but simply with updated graphics. Unlike the failed 1998 “Godzilla” film these monsters don’t move around like fucking T-Rexes. They lumber, they throw fists with exaggerated motions, and heave themselves around without any sense of grace, just like dude’s in rubber suits do. It looks like how I would imagine those old monster flicks would look with better CGI.
And of course Charlie Day and Ron Pearlman are just delightful as Newt and Hannibal Chau as they are in everything they are a part of. The cast in general seems to have blast in this movie and it’s part of what makes the film so perfect.
Nearing the end of the battle in China, Raleigh and Mako are out of options as a winged kaiju flies them up into space to drop them down from up high but just as all hope seems lost Mako unlocks the last weapon on Gypsy Danger; A FUCKING SWORD! And just to put icing on the cake before slicing the kaiju in half, Mako delivers the most badass line of film triumphantly declaring in Japanese “For my Family!” I lost my damn mind in theaters when she dropped that line. Who cares if they didn’t use the damn sword earlier; that was fucking awesome!
2. Shin Gojira
“Shin Gojira” is basically what I thought/wanted “Godzilla 2014” to be.
I felt it had been too long since we had a truly evil Godzilla film (GMK being one of the few outliers really in about 60 plus years of Godzilla films). The big guy had been a Face for too long and desperately needed to revert back to being a Heel and “Shin Gojira” takes the big guy back to his grim, dark, metaphorical roots.
Out of all the Godzilla films that have come out this one most closely resembles the tone and themes of the original, though with some differences in the messaging. This film takes the opposite side of “GMK” in that it’s all about the Japanese need for national sovereignty again. It’s openly critical of the US and of the Japanese government’s failure of bureaucracy. If anything, it’s almost a conservative film railing against the dangers of big government.
More than half the film is really just board room meetings within the Japanese government where that failure of politics really becomes heavy and sometimes even feels a bit like “Dr. Strangelove” with the dry, dark humor as the politicians fail again and again to address the problem.
I don’t believe either “Shin Gojira” or “GMK” make stronger points on Japanese politics but rather they both make good ones and this film illustrates well that Japan is in many ways defenseless toward attack without the rest of the world getting involved. In this way Godzilla becomes a big walking metaphor for any number of threats that could attack Japan, from North Korea to Russia and hell even an allegory for the US’s own meddling in this regard.
There’s a real sense of dread with each step Godzilla takes in this film, leaving a large path of destruction in his way. He plods slowly but you get the sense that despite this there is truly nothing Japan can or is even prepared to do and it adds to the somber reality of the story’s theme. There’s pretty obvious callbacks to the Fukushima disaster too as we see tidal waves wash over the cities and nuclear waste left behind by Godzilla and it adds to the film’s relevant messaging.
A lot of fans have mixed opinions on Godzilla’s, let’s say, crusty appearance but personally I liked it. There’s a nice horror element to this design as this particular Godzilla is made out millions of mutated creatures in the ocean coming together and his cold, dead, listless eyes are pure nightmare fuel. It’s in my opinion one of the best looks the big reptile has ever had and it especially works well to again add to this image of Godzilla as less a creature and more a demonic God coming to punish the non-believers.
When Godzilla unhinges his mandibles (Holy shit! What the fuck!?) and unloads a giant anime sized atomic blast upon Tokyo in honestly my favorite giant monster sequence of all-time.
Unlike “Godzilla 2014’s” big atomic blast sequence which plays more like cheap fan service, there’s a clear build-up to this moment in the film. Things had been steadily getting worse with each scene in this movie up until this point for the Japanese and the main characters are all on the ropes at this point as they just try to escape Godzilla’s wrath, giving in to defeat as they run for safety. Then Godzilla’s fins begin lighting up and it’s like “Oh shit what now?” for these characters and the entire sequence plays like the gates of the Rapture opening up. It’s terrifying and if you didn’t get to see this cinematic scene on the big screen while it was in select theaters, you truly missed out.
You didn’t actually think this list wouldn’t end with this at number one, right?
Yup, the original 1954 classic is my all-time favorite monster movie and while the genre is largely just fun, campy schlocke, “Gojira” even with its dated special affects is not that type of movie.
It’s somber, dark, depressing and was a hugely important film at the time for Japan. Up until this point there wasn’t a whole lot of post war or atomic bomb discussion or expression among the Japanese and it made it hard to cope with what happened. “Gojira” was the first time the people of Japan kind of got to confront what happened and it was both terrifying and cathartic for them.
“Gojira” though is a story that ultimately is about the failure of humanity. The film was created less than a year after an off shore atomic bomb test unintentionally killed Japanese Fishermen in the pacific causing another panic amongst the Japanese populace reminding them of what had happened just a decade before. Godzilla in this film becomes a metaphor for that failure to not learn from the mistake of creating such a terrible weapon. He becomes less a “force of nature” metaphor as King Kong is and more egregiously how the 2014 film made him out to be but rather again a vengeful God coming to punish the human race for their hubris and sins.
The creation of Godzilla in this story, an ancient subterranean dinosaur awakened and mutated by atomic bomb testing, harkens back to the themes of Mary Shelley’s classic “Frankenstein” and how we humans often meddle with forces beyond our understanding to the point of our own undoing. The film makes this point effectively with each step Godzilla takes as he levels Tokyo and the despair and dread of the characters and the citizens of Japan can be heavily felt on screen. It’s a darkly, beautiful film because of it and it’s kind of ironic when you think such a thematic and message driven story could give birth to such a cheesy and over the top genre of movies for decades to come.
Nonetheless “Gojira” stands alone as not just the King of Monsters but the King of all Monster Films.
In the aftermath of Godzilla’s destruction we cut to the next day where the citizens pick up the fallen pieces of their city and its people. There’s hospitals full of the wounded and dead and shots of children with Geiger counters beeping all over them. This is really where the film really emphasizes the pure terrible destruction the atomic bomb and how we all are doomed to repeat this tragedy if we don’t learn to coexist better. As school children sing a “Prayer For Peace” over these images it’s truly hard not to get misty eyed during this sequence.
Anyways that’s my list, hope you enjoyed reading it! Let me know what your favorite giant monster film is in the comments! Cya at the Miracle Mile tonight when we cancel the Apocalypse again!
War ready, mother fuckers!