King of the Primers: Garrett's Godzilla Guide
Godzilla: King of the Monsters just declared itself King of the Box Office this past weekend, and if you've read my review you know I liked it very, very much. It would seem I'm in the minority here, as the movie is currently sitting at 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, and from what I can tell this is partially due to Godzilla having a limited fan-base in the states. A lot of my love for this movie stems from my recent deep dive into the kaiju franchise, which boasts 35 movies including the American incarnations and the recent anime series on Netflix. It's the longest running franchise in cinema history, and part of its enduring legacy is just how flexible it is. If you were to ask me "what exactly is a Godzilla movie?" I'd have to point you to at least 5 different movies so you could get a real sense of the various incarnations that, in my opinion, are all vital to answering that question. So I'm going to do just that!
The following is a Godzilla starter pack, to prime you on Godzilla's many, varied forms as a movie star, his mythos and those of his monster pals, and to hopefully get you excited and prepared for what Michael Dougherty is offering up with his version of the King (or as I like to call him, My Best Big Boy). One important note before I begin: I recommend watching the original versions of each of the films listed below, in the original Japanese with English subtitles. In some cases the American versions are quite different, with added scenes, re-edited sequences, and confusing translations. While they can be entertaining in their own ways, the original versions have always worked much better for me and I think provide the best look at why Godzilla is such a cultural phenomenon.
1. Gojira (dir. Ishirô Honda, 1954)
It may seem obvious that the most essential part of the Godzilla franchise is the original film, but it bears some explanation for why I'm including it here. Perhaps my favorite thing about this franchise as a whole is that every subsequent film is a direct sequel to this movie only. There are a handful of movies in the series that are directly related to their predecessor (for instance Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S is a sequel to Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla) but even in those cases each movie tends to function completely on its own. Gojira is essential not just because it is in fact the best Godzilla movie, marrying politics to morality through groundbreaking special effects, but because this is the only prerequisite to enjoying literally any other Godzilla movie you watch. The premise of nearly every single Godzilla movie is "remember what happened in 1954? Well it's happening again!" This movie also establishes what I think is the key ingredient to the best Godzilla movies, that being a specific metaphor that Godzilla represents for the human characters, in this case the destruction of the atomic bomb. If you enjoy Gojira, then you should absolutely continue on through this list and see what My Best Big Boy has to offer you as he stomps through his career.
2. Godzilla, Mothra, and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (dir. Shusuke Keneko, 2001)
Since the Godzilla franchise doesn't have any real continuity, fans divide them up into various eras sometimes simply defined by who was Emperor of Japan at the time of production. This movie is from the Millennium era, which happens to be my favorite era of Godzilla movies, as these tend to be great entry points for new fans but also really satisfying and rewarding for those that have kept up with the series through the years. In particular, Giant Monsters All-Out Attack is one of the best blends of humans and monster stories they've ever achieved in these movies. The cast of humans are immediately compelling, finding a perfect balance between the cheese and heart that these movies have, and the monsters are characterized in such a way that they really feel like supporting characters in the story, rather than just disruptive obstacles. That said, this movie is filled to the brim with truly stunning big monster battles. The miniature work is excellent, and the costumes and puppetry have never been better. This is the Godzilla movie that stands out most to me as easily recommendable as it's the most like a "movie" in the way a Western audience might define that term.
3. Godzilla vs. Mothra (dir. Takao Okawara, 1992)
My blu-ray of this movie is called Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle For Earth, and that title is much more fitting of this Heisei era film. This is easily one of the best directed movies in the history of the franchise, full of iconic, poster-worthy moments. And as was common at one point in the franchise's history, the human plot is loosely based on an American blockbuster, in this case Indiana Jones. The Godzilla movies that use American blockbusters as their template are some of the most fun, as it's fascinating to watch Japanese filmmakers re-purpose and transpose American tropes for their audience. But the reason I love this entry so much is it's one of the best examples of what happens to be my favorite mode for a Godzilla movie to be in–that of awe and respect for the God-like creatures. This treats Godzilla and his monster-cohorts as natural creatures that herald the consequences of our mistreatment of the planet, rather than abominations of science. It's a more universal metaphor than that of nuclear consequences, and one that only seems to get more relevant with time. It's my favorite take on what Godzilla can mean and often results in what I find to be the most watchable entries in the series. Plus, alongside Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, you'll get a healthy crash course in some of the deeper kaiju lore of the Godzilla franchise, like Mothra's Infant Island origins and the psychic twins that precede her entrance into most movies.
4. Godzilla: Final Wars (dir. Ryûhei Hitamura, 2004)
I must confess, I really wanted to put Shin Godzilla on this list, the Post-Millennium era Toho reboot of the franchise, as it's one of my absolute favorites. However, I think Godzilla: Final Wars, the last movie in the Millennium era, is a more important entry on this list as it serves to illustrate one of the extremes this franchise can go to. Final Wars is a totally batshit b-movie that stars Godzilla and nearly every single monster-pal he's fought against or alongside of over his storied career. It takes a small helping of mythology from every previous era of Godzilla and remixes it all into this wild science-fiction movie about aliens, mutants, and kaiju, all while paying homage to everything from The Matrix to The Twilight Zone. The characters are all enormous cartoon characters, including an American submarine captain (humans using submarines to contact/revive/battle monsters are a hilariously common trope in these movies, and an important one to visit before King of the Monsters), and the monsters are strictly here to beat each other up for our entertainment. This is yet another mode of Godzilla movie, one that is mostly devoid of metaphor and instead puts its focus on monster-on-monster action, and I think this is just as important to understanding the appeal and magic of these movies. Seeing the extremes this franchise can go to, both the melodramatic and the tragic, is important to understanding just what makes Godzilla so enduring - he is a character constantly in flux, that can be used to a variety of ends, and is all the better for this lack of cohesiveness.
5. Godzilla vs. Destroyah (dir. Takao Okawara, 1995)
This is easily my favorite Godzilla movie, and it won't be hard to see why. From the same director as vs. Mothra, this doubles down on the monsters being the stars of the movie and almost completely removes any real human story. They are graciously not replaced by annoying, bland characters as sometimes happens in these films, but instead archetypes that are just compelling enough to propel the story forward. This movie makes Godzilla the tragic hero of his own story and brings with it some excellent monster battles, new creature designs (even for My Best Big Boy), and brings the idea of evolution into the mix, transfixing on Godzilla's history with humanity and how it's affected him. This movie is equal parts sincere, melodramatic, and fun. In my mind, you can do no better than this. It's a perfect synthesis of the many iterations of Godzilla, and one that seems to me to have been an enormous influence on King of the Monsters.
You'll notice I didn't include Gareth Edwards' 2014 Godzilla in this primer, which is not meant as a slight to his movie. I like his movie quite a bit, but in true Godzilla fashion, Michael Dougherty's new movie doesn't make the previous outing a necessity to enjoying its many splendid wonders. I think these five will serve as a better appetizer for the feast that he's delivered unto the 2019 summer box office, and perhaps help some folks see the love for Godzilla that he slathered his movie with. In my opinion, he did My Best Big Boy justice.