Welcome to Debate Club, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, tackle the greatest arguments in pop culture.
For a senior citizen, Godzilla is looking pretty darn good. That great and terrifying monster has been with us for 65 years now, rampaging through cities, letting out horrifying screams and shooting flames. Of all of Japan's cultural exports, from filmmaker Akira Kurosawa to baseball legend Ichiro Suzuki, Godzilla might remain America's most beloved.
It probably has something to do with the creature's ability to suggest primal, unholy destruction — never forget that the beast was inspired by Japan's post-World War II trauma, which America had a lot to do with. As Godzilla: King of the Monsters prepares to hit theaters, we rank the five best Godzilla movies.
Don't worry: The Matthew Broderick one doesn't make an appearance.
Warner Bros.’ Godzilla reboot began here with a movie that’s often as much about the human characters as it is the big guy. Probably not surprisingly, it's an imperfect offering, presenting us with Bryan Cranston's grieving husband — he lost wife Juliette Binoche in a reactor accident that just might have to do with ungodly monsters — and Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen as a married couple years later dealing with their own lizard-related issues.
As a way to reintroduce Godzilla — not to mention a freaky new creature, nicknamed MUTO — Godzilla is a bit of a tease, refusing to give us the really intense monster action until near the end of the movie. That said, the looming dread and spectacular destruction help set an ominous tone. Hopefully, the sequel Godzilla: King of the Monsters will up the ante.
Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
This was titled Godzilla vs. The Thing when initially released in the United States, and that's a title that gets everything wrong. Mothra hardly just a "thing." She is the greatest of all Godzilla foes, if just because she has a straightforward motivation: she wants to protect her young. That motivation matters, and it leads to legitimately compelling battle sequences. You're not looking for deep psychological dissections in these movies, but it's nice to have a cool 'villain' who's fighting for something you understand.
Godzilla vs. Destroyah (1995)
This one has a straightforward gimmick, and you've gotta forgive the spoilers here, but considering it was used in the promotional material, we think it's OK: Godzilla dies! There's more going on with the movie than just that, though: it has a grander, more epic scope than you're used to seeing from Godzilla movies, leading to a broader canvas and a more expansive ambition. But the real draw is Godzilla dying. It packs a punch. (Don't worry, he'd come back.)
For years, American audiences knew this movie as Godzilla, King of the Monsters, which was a re-edited version with lots of Raymond Burr as a journalist named Steve Martin writing about the devastation caused in Tokyo. That movie is bad, but the actual Godzilla is not, and even if the effects are a little cheesy now, the seriousness of the material hasn't dated.
Director Ishirō Honda wasn't simply making a monster movie but, rather, an allegory about Japan in the wake of the United States' atomic bombing at the end of World War II. When Godzilla comes on the scene to unleash hell, he's also articulating a cultural fear that death and flames could rain down at any moment. (Think about all the post-9/11 horror movies that were meant to be metaphors for that terrible terrorist attack and you’ll get a sense of what Honda was attempting.)
Along the way, though, Godzilla also gave us an iconic monster whose destructive power was both intoxicating and terrifying. Will you remember the human characters in this movie? Probably not, but as is often the case with Godzilla, it's the beast that matters.
Shin Godzilla (2016)
This Japanese production has quite the intriguing premise: What would it be like, really be like, if kaiju attacked Tokyo today? How would the government react? How would the citizens react? How would it be covered by the media? It's a fascinating look at Japanese government and politics while still being an awesome monster movie as well.
The monster's googly eyes can be a little disorienting, but that's part of the fun, too: It makes the reality of everything else that's happening all the more bizarre and compelling. If you haven't seen this, you really should.