Godzilla has been rebooted six times since he first emerged from the Pacific Ocean to wreak havoc on the Japanese coast in 1954. But which Godzilla origin story is the best? In this ranking, we are looking at cinema’s original, Grand Master kaiju in each of his “stand alone” film entries. This list will only rank the entries in which Godzilla is featured as the main nemesis against humanity, and as such, will also include the Americanized and edited versions of both Godzilla (1954) and The Return of Godzilla (1984). When we think of Godzilla, we usually have a tendency to only elaborate on the movie’s in which he fights another kaiju, but his stand alone films are also crucially important in establishing his mythology. There are hits and misses in various rankings of this nature but it’s always fun to see where all of our tastes align with such an iconic character, so let’s take a look at how the origin stories stack up.
Although the Roland Emmerich directed, late-90s Hollywood reboot of Godzilla has gained a small cult following, the Matthew Broderick-led cast and goofy screenplay have not aged well in Godzilla fandom. It doesn’t help that Godzilla himself looks like a giant iguana and spends most of his screen time running away instead of fighting. This version of Godzilla, or rather Zilla, since fans refuse to refer to him as a God, didn’t even have atomic breath, and only unleashed what appeared to be common dragon breath. For a long time, it seemed like this movie may be a case of bad word-of-mouth that people legitimately accept as fact without investigating further, but no, this movie really is that bad.
As an older millennial that can still somewhat recall the Reagan 80s, I recall watching Godzilla 1985 on video tape when I was maybe 6 or 7 (1988 or 1989). I loved the movie, but being a young kid, that just comes with the territory for any fellow Godzilla fan. A recent rewatch, on VHS no less, (which I dug out of the basement), I can now see why it was critically panned. But alas, like the 1998 reboot, Godzilla 1985 has amassed a “so bad, it’s good” cult following since its release. But this hokey, shameless (how many Dr. Pepper product placements can one film promote?) and badly edited Americanized version of The Return of Godzilla (1984) cannot get out of it’s own way. Watch the unedited Japanese version instead.
Godzilla 2000 (2000)
After the close of the Heisei era of Godzilla films, Toho initiated a rebranding exercise for the new millennium by launching the Millennium era of Godzilla films, with the appropriately titled Godzilla 2000 kicking off the new era. This new origin story isn’t bad, it’s just not that memorable, as the once again awakened titan rises to fight off an ancient UFO threatening Tokyo. The design of Godzilla is pretty impressive in retrospect.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters! (1956)
The very first Godzilla film was such a success in Japan that America contacted Toho studios to arrange for new footage to be shot for the film to make it more appealing to American audiences, who for the most part, hate reading subtitles. The result is mixed, and the most memorable thing about this hatchet job is that it introduced many Western audiences to Godzilla in the first place. The new scenes revolve heavily around Raymond Burr who plays a news reporter that gets caught up in Godzilla’s rampage across Japan. He is basically just on hand to provide a Hollywood protagonist for audiences. Like Godzilla 1985, which also saw Burr reprise his role, the unedited Japanese original version is much better.
In 2014, Legendary studios unleashed Godzilla’s latest incarnation (in the West anyway), the Monsterverse series of films was born. Some reactions to this new origin film were mixed, such as the limited amount of screen time of the title character, and far too much human conflict and talking, but honestly, that has always been a feature of Godzilla films since the beginning. When Godzilla does emerge and starts to battle the MUTO’s, some of the finest displays of CGI craftsmanship play out in incredible visual splendor. The “human” element of the film is also not bad, and Bryan Cranston’s character is sorely missed.
Shin Godzilla (2016)
In 2016, the retroactively titled Reiwa Era of Japanese Godzilla films was unleashed with Shin Godzilla. For many who have seen this film, the reaction is largely the same: it is perhaps the most unique and strangest of all Godzilla origin stories. Everything about this movie, from the human element, to the new and inventive design for Godzilla, to the metaphorical themes that have inspired a slew of thematic analysis, is superb. Perhaps the most memorable aspect of this origin story is the multiple forms that this new Godzilla takes throughout the film–suggesting that Godzilla truly is a force of nature, and possibly a mirror reflection of humanity’s worst impulses.
The Return of Godzilla (1984)
Forgetting all about Godzilla 1985, the actual movie minus the American-shot footage is dark, cerebral, and strangely moving. The plot of Godzilla’s first reboot is essentially the same as the 1954 original, but the execution of the story, the incredible score, and the excellent practical effects, including a piercing new roar, are all first rate. A great ending to the Showa era and the beginning of Heisei Godzilla.
It would be hard to realistically make a list like this and not include the very first Godzilla film as the best. There are arguments I could make about either of the two films before this one being the best stand alone Godzilla entry, but apart from the first film creating an icon, it is also an incredible film on its own. The first film is an allegory for the atomic blasts that devastated Japan only 8 years prior in 1945, and in this allegory, a film monster legend was born. The first film mixes drama, sci-fi, and even elements of horror excellently for the mid-1950s, with Godzilla’s very first Tokyo rampage being the stuff of legend.