MovieBob continues his look back at previous Godzilla movies. All 29 of them!
The second wave of Godzilla movies is a little complicated to keep track of, since unlike the mostly self-contained Showa Era (as discussed previously), generations of long-running Japanese films are often grouped into “eras” based on the name of Japan’s emperor at the time), it’s actually multiple separate continuities – some only one or two films long.
So: What we have here are seven films in a “relaunch” series begun in 1984/85 generally called “The Heisei Era;” followed by mini-arcs usually known collectively as “The Millennium Era” to differentiate them from the earlier series even though Japan was still technically in the Heisei period. Let’s have a look…
The first new Godzilla feature in a decade is today best remembered (in the West) for a tongue-in-cheek U.S. ad campaign that “jokingly” treated the monster’s revival like a major actor coming out of retirement and a clever gimmick of once again inserting a now-aged Raymond Burr into the action, but it’s a worthy entry regardless. It also established what has become a tradition (carried on, sort of, in the 2014 film) in Godzilla reboots: Treating the original 1954 film as “canon” while disregarding the subsequent entries. Godzilla is also the nominal villain once again, setting up a streak of moral ambiguity that would inform the series from this point forward.
Godzilla vs. Biollante (1989)
1985’s direct sequel continues the “darkzilla” arc of its predecessor while adding a Manga-esque spin to the proceedings. It spills over into what might today be called “Gainax territory” with one of Godzilla’s most bizarre opponents ever: A gigantic sentient rose (though it takes a more conventionally monstrous form for the finale) blooming in the center of a Japanese harbor that may be inhabited by the soul of a scientist’s dead daughter. It’s a highlight of the Heisei Era, but the new series didn’t catch on at the time outside Japan and for years this was the last “new” Godzilla movie U.S. fans got to see.
Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
Another hallmark of the Heisei Era was building plots as obvious “homage” to American blockbusters, in this case The Terminator. Time-travelers arrive from the future offering to help prevent Godzilla from ever existing, but it turns out they’re actually an evil consortium of American, Chinese and Russian agents whose real goal is to create King Ghidorah in order to prevent Japan’s ascendancy to the #1 world superpower in their time (the Heisei Era was nothing if not patriotic).
We also get a reimagined/expanded origin for Godzilla himself: Originally a “normal” (somehow still-living) dinosaur, he’s discovered on a Pacific island by Japanese sailors during WWII and helps save them from American naval invaders (this would be the other reason Toho stopped bothering to market these movies in the United States). Decades later, now having been transformed by nukes into Godzilla, he’s heavily implied to be attacking Japan to punish the now-aged generation he’d protected for not protecting him (from the bombs) in return. The Heisei Era is weird.
Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth (1992)
And here’s the Hesei Godzilla “cover” of Indiana Jones. Archaeologists discover a ruined civilization and release Earth’s guardian spirit, Mothra, and her nemesis, Battra, whose renewed conflict is shaken up by a nosy Godzilla. This brief fantasy interlude is an outlier in the renewed series, as Mothra was spun-off into a trilogy of her own more family-friendly kaiju features after this, while Godzilla continued on a scifi-centric trajectory.
Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla II (1993)
Rodan makes his (it’s?) Heisei debut, sparring with Godzilla and humanity over an egg that ends up containing a new-for-the-90s version of Minilla (alternately called “BabyZilla” or “Godzilla Jr.”). Meanwhile, the United Nation’s anti-Godzilla task force has a new plan: Build a pilotable new Mecha-Godzilla. It works out about as well as every other plan ever tried against Godzilla. This is occasionally called a low-point in the second series, but I think people just didn’t cotton to BabyZilla’s overtly “kawaii” redesign.
Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla (1994)
A giant crystal comet is on a collision course with Earth, bearing one of Godzilla’s most bizarre-looking (and least-imaginatively named) foes along with it. With a stronger emphasis on beam-weapon optical effects and pyrotechnics, plus another human-piloted mech in the form of a new Mogera, this is sometimes derided as a “Sentai-fication” of Godzilla, but it’s not without its charms.
Godzilla vs. Destroyer (1995)
This was the plan: Toho would (for the first time since ’54) kill off the original Godzilla in a lead-up to the 1998 American remake launching a new series. It didn’t work out, obviously, but “The Death of Godzilla” was a big enough deal at the time to make headlines in the United States.
How does it go down? Turns out the Oxygen Destroyer weapon that solved the problem in 1954 also created a new species of super-resilient crustacean/reptile hybrids that have now reached maturity and are swarming the country Aliens-style; while Godzilla himself is dying (but also more powerful and angrier than ever) from his own internal nuclear reactor melting down – threatening a cataclysmic event. There’s a little too much time spent riffing on Aliens and Starship Troopers, but the finale is haunting and even poetic as these things go: Godzilla goes down fighting and takes all of Tokyo with him – and leaving a now fully powered Junior as his legacy.
This movie sucks.
Godzilla 2000 (1999)
Toho was deeply unhappy with the 1998 American Godzilla, and even less happy that they didn’t get much money out of it. The lean, gritty and angry “Millennium” series (so named to distinguish it from the 80s/90s films despite Japan still technically being in the Heisei era) was their response: 1954 is the only canon once again, but now Godzilla is an oh-so-late-90s conspiracy subject followed around by what we’d now call “Truthers” storm-chaser style. This is also the one that gave us the “Godzilla is inside each one of us” meme.
Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000)
Godzilla battles giant dragonflies and black holes in the underwhelming (unconnected) follow-up to 2000. The “Millennium” relaunch was a swing and a miss with both Japanese and international audiences (both movies are sort of drab), prompting Toho to go in a radical new direction next time out…
GMK: Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack (2001)
While Godzilla had spent the 90s and early-00s mired in uneven films, Japan’s other famous kaiju – Gamera the jet-propelled turtle – had been revived in a trilogy of celebrated features by director Shuseke Kaneko, who found a winning formula mixing high-end suitmation FX with bizarre metaphysical storylines influenced by anime/manga phenoms like Evangelion. Toho asked him to bring that same sensibility to an entirely new-canon, standalone Godzilla entry… and this was the result.
The atom-age paranoia is gone, replaced with Shinto-influenced mysticism, a total-upending of the franchise’s conventional good/evil divide and an incendiary (for mainstream Japanese cinema) political edge: Godzilla isn’t merely a mutant, he’s an instrument of revenge against Japan by the collective unrestful-souls of all soldiers killed in WWII’s Pacific Theater. Opposing him are the mystic Guardian Monsters of Old Japan: Baragon, Mothra and (a heroic!) King Ghidorah. You’ve got to try hard to make the weirdest Godzilla ever, but Kaneko got there.
Godzilla Against MechaGodzilla (2002)
This was the first of two installments centered on a new MechaGodzilla (built from the bones of the 1954 Godzilla) that attempted to mix a nostalgic appeal to longtime fans (it actually counts the first half of the Showa Era series as part of its continuity and even name-checks War of the Gargantuas and Space Aomeba) with an anime-inspired story about a female mech-pilot who bonds with the machine – which turns out to be sentient and prefers to be called “Kiryu.” It’s not the best Godzilla ever, but I still wish this version had taken off beyond one sequel.
Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S (2003)
The second film of what’s dubbed the “Kiryu Series” brings Mothra into the mix, offering to take Kiryu’s place as Japan’s protector in the hopes that maybe Godzilla will chill out. Godzilla does not chill out. It’s not as good as the first one.
Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)
After trying for over a decade to make Godzilla “stick” as an ongoing franchise again and coming up short, Toho decided to retire the characters for a while. But they wanted to go out with a bang, conscripting Versus auteur Riyuhei Kitamura (then the “bad boy” sensation of the Japanese genre movie circuit and a huge classic Godzilla fan) to devise and direct the ultimate send-off – a “greatest hits” farewell tour so big it would have a U.S. premiere and finally land Godzilla “himself” a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
The result is a gonzo love-letter from Kitamura to the Showa Era, blending a Matrix/X-Men-inspired superhero story for the human cast with a Destroy All Monsters-inspired alien-invasion story that pits Godzilla (and Minilla!) against an army of enemies both famous and obscure – even Gigan, Ebirah and King Seesar show up! So does 1998’s American “Zilla,” expressly so that Kitamura can have Real Godzilla kill him instantly while even his alien masters grouse about how much he sucks.