The giant monster, known as kaiju in Japanese, is a very different beast from the human-sized nasties you find in movies from Alien to World War Z. Giant monsters can eat you whole. They can wreck cities just by stomping. And the movies they star in are some of the most important in the genre. Here are the ten you must see.
Illustration of Godzilla by cheungchungtat on Deviant Art
1. King Kong (1933)
This was one of the first giant monster movies ever made, and it came in the wake of a gorilla craze in American pop culture. Gorillas had only been discovered a few decades before, and these fierce, human-like apes inspired a slew of gorilla movies like Mighty Joe Young. King Kong was, no doubt, the greatest of these films, with its tale of an enormous, wild gorilla who is captured and taken to New York. It featured fights between dinosaurs and King Kong, as well as Kong's famous climb up the Empire State Building. King Kong became such an iconic giant monster that he even fought Godzilla in a Japanese movie made almost 30 years later.
2. Godzilla (1954, Japanese version)
This is the movie that set off the kaiju craze in Japan and the rest of the world. Godzilla is an atomic monster who erupts from the sea to destroy Tokyo, much the way American pilots did with the firebombing of that same city during World War II. Like many giant monsters of the 1950s and beyond, Godzilla was a way that we re-imagined a disaster so vast and incomprehensible that it seems like only a monster could cause it. Unlike later Godzilla movies, with their rubbery and friendly kaiju, this one is dark and terrifying. An American version of Godzilla was released in the U.S. a year later, with some of the original's most disturbing footage cut and an American character played by Raymond Burr added along with dubbing. Today you can see the Japanese original, beautifully remastered with subtitles.
3. Them! (1954)
Released in the same year as Godzilla, Them! is perhaps the best-known atomic monster movie in the United States. It's about how radiation from atomic bombs causes ants to grow to enormous sizes. The mutated giant insects begin living in Los Angeles' underground tunnel systems, terrorizing humanity until the military saves the day.
4. Kronos (1957)
A less-remembered giant monster movie from the 1950s is Kronos, which is actually about something that is more like a giant robot. The giant machine Kronos is sent to Earth from another world, whose resources have dried up. Its job is to consume all of Earth's resources and bring them back to the aliens — and in the process, Kronos grows into a robot creature so huge it would put even Pacific Rim's jaegers to shame. Interestingly, Kronos is less about the horrors of the atom bomb, and more about the problem of squandering natural resources. This becomes a big theme in later giant monster movies, too.
5. Gamara vs. Monster X (1970)
Though this isn't a particularly famous kaiju movie on its own, this entry in the kaiju genre is important because it comes at a time when giant monsters began to be viewed as friends and allies as well as enemies. Gamera the flying turtle made his first appearance in a 1965 movie, where he basically chews up a bunch of Tokyo's electrical infrastructure and breathes fire on everything. But over the intervening years, he became known as the "good" kaiju who protects children. By the time this movie comes out, he's well-established as the good guy, and spends a lot of his time rescuing kids — like in this movie. Many kaiju movies made after this point show Gamera and Godzilla as allies of the humans (even communicating psychically with them) against other evil monsters.
6. Jurassic Park (1993)
After Japan ruled the kaiju genre for decades, the United States finally made its comeback with this amazing movie about de-extincted dinosaurs. The special effects were incredible, the dinosaurs were created using the latest scientific knowledge from paleontology (feathered dinosaurs were unknown at that time), and it was scary as hell to watch the T-rex chasing humans around. Sure, no cities were destroyed — but the giant monster genre was back on the American side of the Pacific.
7. Call of Cthulhu (2005)
The tentacled god of the deep, H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu, is perhaps the most famous giant monster in literature. It rises up from the depths to inject madness and terror into the minds of humans — and occasionally, to torture unlucky sailors with a vision of its eldrich horror. Perhaps no movie has ever done justice to this creature until this indie flick, a silent film made in the style of the 1920s movies that Lovecraft would have been watching at the time he penned the short story "The Call of Cthulhu." There are countless amazing hommages to Lovecraft in movies, but this unknown gem is far and away the best.
8. The Host (2006)
This satirical Korean film is about how toxic dumping in the Seoul harbor spawns a giant monster who looks like nothing you've ever seen in a kaiju before. Only one brave but bumbling family can save the day when their youngest member is taken by the monster into its watery lair. Full of crazy scenes of destruction interspersed with dark humor, this would be a fantastic film even without the giant monster. But this is a giant monster who looks so cool that he influenced many monsters who came after (including Cloverfield and some of the kaiju in Pacific Rim).
9. Cloverfield (2008)
Like the original Godzilla, Cloverfield is a monster movie that's full of references to a real-life disaster that destroyed a city: the 9/11 attacks. Just as Godzilla reminded audiences of the firebombing of Tokyo, Cloverfield reminded its audiences of the terrifying confusion that reigned in New York City on the day the Twin Towers were destroyed. A giant monster rises up from the sea, smashing everything, dropping deadly crotch lice everywhere, and sticking its scary, throbbing face into the camera. We follow a group of young New Yorkers through the carnage, as they film everything on a new digital camera. Genuinely terrifying, Cloverfield changed the kaiju game forever.
10. The Troll Hunter (2010)
This Norwegian film is about a documentary film crew who are trying to investigate a mysterious set of disasters in the countryside. What they discover is that trolls are alive and well in Norway, and are being contained and studied by a secret government unit of troll hunters. Funny, smart, and exciting, this movie is probably the greatest modern-day fairy tale you'll ever watch. The trolls look incredible, and the bitter troll hunter is like a government worker in the worst job ever.
Honorable Mention: Tremors (1990)
Before Jurassic Park made giant monsters cool again, this cult western movie about giant, tongue-wielding monsters called "graboids" in a small town was freaking people out and making them laugh. A sleeper hit starring Kevin Bacon, it spawned several sequels and a short-lived TV series.
Annalee Newitz is the author of the book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.