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FEATURE: My Top Five Favorite GODZILLA Movies!
Celebrating nearly 70 years of the Big G
As far back as I can remember, there’s always been Godzilla movies to keep me company. Maybe I had to turn the UHF dial on a TV, or line up for a movie ticket, or flip over a Laser Disc, but by this point it’s not even a matter of why or when. Hang out with me too long, Godzilla movies are going to be in heavy rotation, and I’ll force you to watch some. But after nearly 70 years of features with this creature, there’s a lot of celluloid wreckage to sift through, and not all Godzilla movies are created equal.
So, here’s is my personal list of the really, really hot ones.
1. Godzilla, King of the Monsters (1956)
It’s a monster on the loose movie…it’s a somber warning for the atomic age… it’s a moody post-war noir steeped in real-life tragedy. It’s the first Godzilla film I ever saw (at age five) and it happened to be the first one ever made.
Much as I love Gojira, the uncut Japanese version, the American edit is carved into my brain courtesy of an audio cassette I recorded off the TV set then played again over and over. Even with English dubbing and missing scenes, the thick atmosphere, dense sound mix, and Akira Ifukube’s monumental score from the original still seep through.
Toho Studios could have easily made a mindless creature feature at this moment in time, but instead, director Ishiro Honda approached the material like a documentarian. The resulting film has an immediacy and emotional range that you don’t find in many other monster movies before or since.
Meanwhile, Godzilla looks like he’s smiling through it all with a big toothy grin. It’s the face of a little kid having fun and causing trouble. I know it well.
2. Invasion of Astro Monster (1965)
Should we trust a bunch of weird aliens from Planet X who just want to borrow our monsters and take them off our hands for a bit? Sure, what could go wrong?
Mashing up elements from earlier Japanese alien invasion epics like The Mysterians, and marrying them to the kaiju genre, was a slam dunk move only Toho Studios could have pulled off. As if Godzilla, Rodan, and Ghidorah the Three Headed Monster on the bill was not enough entertainment already, interplanetary sci-fi action and cool mid-sixties style make Invasion of Astro Monster (aka Monster Zero) a movie that’s a lot of fun even when the Big G isn’t on stage.
Then there’s the emotional core of the film: a love story of epic proportions between American astronaut Nick Adams and doomed space lady Kumi Mizuno that threatened to leap off the screen and into real life.
Adams slays every time he opens his mouth with line delivery like Ed Wood by way of the Bronx: brash, full tilt, giving him a bigger cinematic impact perhaps than Godzilla himself.
3.Terror of Mecha Godzilla (1975)
More aliens, more Mecha Godzilla, more problems.
Director Ishiro Honda came back to the kaiju movies after a long absence and injected the pessimism of his first Godzilla film into a series that had basically become kiddie fodder (I like Godzilla vs Megalon just fine, but wouldn’t want to live there).
The seventies bummer feel comes in the form of a mad scientist who is haunted by the past, a cyborg girl struggling with the last embers of her humanity, and the general feeling that things will not end well, despite the King of the Monsters fighting on our side.
The secret sauce holding everything together is Akira Ifukube’s musical score, which is heavy and lumbering in the best way possible: like an orchestra playing Vol. 4-era Black Sabbath.
Not a hit when it originally came out, it still packs a feel-bad wallop today, despite the goofy monster fights. I went to a screening in Tokyo once and all the adult Godzilla freaks came out on the other side totally and emotionally drained.
4. Godzilla vs Biollante (1989)
With many of the original filmmakers out of the way (except for producer Tomoyuki Tanaka) it took Godzilla a while to find a new direction in breezy Bubble Era Japan.
Under the supervision of writer-director Kazuki Omori, Godzilla vs Biollante lets loose with a restless pace reminiscent of a Hollywood mockbuster, but with really good practical miniature and monster effects.
The tone, pitched at general audiences, might annoy some Godzilla purists, but this one still routinely tops fan polls in Japan when ranking the best of the series. There are more mad scientists, super weaponry like the Super-X2, and Godzilla almost gets his head crunched like a Blow Pop by a massive plant monster that looks like something out of a John Carpenter movie.
This creative team and filmmaking style would quickly flame out with increasingly messy entries in the series, but this one feels organic, fun, with a genuine sense of wonder. If only all the American Godzilla movies we’ve gotten so far could at least aim for this mark.
5. Shin Godzilla (2016)
It took the trauma of the 3/11 earthquake and tsunami disaster to give Godzilla his first great movie of the 21st century. It was also prophetic. Living in Japan during Covid-19 was like watching this movie every day in slow motion.
Written and directed by Hideaki Anno, of Neon Genesis Evangelion fame (also a lifelong kaiju fan), the first half of the film is a bitter black comedy on par with Dr. Strangelove as bureaucrats choke on the rules and regulations while a monster mutates and eventually irradiates Tokyo. The second, less pointed half, where Japan strikes back, had some viewers moaning about “nationalism”, but… hey, shouldn’t the army try and stop Godzilla? It won the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture either way.
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