Gigantic monsters have featured in myth and folklore for centuries, with stories such as the Greek titans or the Biblical behemoth passed down from generation to generation. But since the hulking mass of the radioactive, prehistoric reptile Godzilla first smashed its way onto our cinema screens in 1954, audiences have been gripped by the ‘kaiju’ film genre.
Meaning ‘strange beast’ in Japanese, kaiju movies have inspired all manner of the gargantuan creatures and giant robots that have lumbered their way across our theater screens, and while the Godzilla films remain the most iconic of the genre, there are a number of worthy contenders for the title of best giant monster movie.
Much to the relief of the citizens of Tokyo, you probably don’t need to be reminded that there aren’t any animals that would grow to Godzilla-like proportions (tainted by radioactive waste or not), and for good reasons. The square cube law, a mathematical principle that describes the relationship between an object's volume and surface area, means that as an object grows in size, its surface area and volume will grow at a faster rate. That puts a limit on how big an animal can get in real life before it simply crumples under its own weight.
However, let’s not let science get in the way of a good story, so here is our pick of the best giant monster movies to sink your massive teeth/fangs/claws into. And if you’re still itching for a lesson or two on nature's wonder and fury, or feel the need to reflect on the hubris of humanity, we’ve also got guides to the Jurassic Park movies ranked, and the Jaws movies ranked too.
- Release date: November 3, 1954
- Cast: Akira Takarada, Momoko Kōchi, Akihiko Hirata, Takashi Shimura
It would feel wrong to start a best giant monster movies list without giving the original Godzilla picture the first spot, ranked or not. Ishirō Honda’s surprise masterpiece pioneered “suitmation” special effects, in which a stunt performer wearing a suit interacts with miniature sets. But, of course, it left a huge mark on both Japanese and international audiences because of its commentary on nuclear weapons and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki… through a giant dinosaur with atomic breath.
A heavily re-edited version for American audiences was released in 1956, but the original Japanese cut is the way to go for obvious reasons. Moreover, the movie holds up visually way better than many kaiju features that were made in the following years thanks to its grounded – and often haunting – disaster sequences, plus a memorable group of main characters.
2. King Kong
- Casts: Fay Wray, Robert Armstrong, Bruce Cabot (1933)
Jeff Bridges, Charles Grodin, Jessica Lange (1976)
Naomi Watts, Jack Black, Adrien Brody (2005)
If Godzilla is Japan’s top kaiju, then King Kong is the United States’ most renowned giant beast – he was born 21 years before Big G terrorized theatres. However, Kong originally came from an adventure fantasy horror movie in the vein of 1925’s The Lost World. The original picture elevated stop-motion animation to new heights and gave us some of the most iconic movie scenes of all times, plus an unforgettable take on the “woman meets a misunderstood monster” trope.
Like Godzilla, King Kong has reappeared several times over the decades in a handful of movies, including a mediocre remake in 1976, but Peter Jackson’s 2005 update of the original classic remains the reinvention of Skull Island and the titular giant ape that you shouldn’t miss. Despite its bloated runtime, it’s a bigger-than-life adventure with strong performances all-around and set pieces which still look stellar.
3. Gamera (Heisei trilogy)
- Release dates: March 11, 1995. July 13, 1996. March 6, 1999.
- Casts: Shinobu Nakayama, Ayako Fujitani, Yukijirô Hotaru (1995)
Miki Mizuno, Toshiyuki Nagashima, Tamotsu Ishibashi (1996)
Shinobu Nakayama, Ai Maeda, Yukijiro Hotaru (1999)
Japan’s other kaiju star is Gamera, who debuted in the 1965 picture Gamera: The Giant Monster. While the character and the movie were first intended to compete with the success of Godzilla, the franchise eventually became iconic in its own right. Initially a fire-breathing turtle monster exposed to nuclear radiation, Gamera went from destructive to benevolent, eventually becoming a protector of humanity.
There are 12 Gamera movies so far, but the Heisei-era trilogy – comprised of Guardian of the Universe, Attack of the Legion, and Revenge of Iris (Jashin kakusei) – is widely regarded as the franchise’s absolute peak. Critics and fans praised the vibrant and energetic action of these installments, which was coupled with a cohesive storyline and a masterful mix of suitmation and CGI effects.
- Release date: January 19, 1990
- Cast: Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Finn Carter, Michael Gross
Giant monsters don’t have to be as big as buildings to feel menacing, and a playful tone is sometimes more than welcome. 1990’s monster-centric horror comedy Tremors proved it was possible to distil much of the humor found in 1980s “town invasion” classics such as Gremlins and inject it into a giant monster feature.
In the original movie (it spawned several direct-to-video sequels), the small desert town of Perfection, Nevada, is threatened by prehistoric, worm-like monsters that have emerged from deep underground after a series of mysterious tremors (pun intended). What makes it truly special is the dazzling cast chemistry and a witty script full of clever ideas, though the practical effects are rad as well.
While we don't have any evidence of worms growing to quite the size of the Graboids in Tremors which are about 9m long, there were giant worms wriggling around the floor of the prehistoric oceans.
5. The Host
- Release date: July 27, 2006
- Cast: Song Kang-ho, Byun Hee-bong, Park Hae-il, Bae Doona
Before Bong Joon-ho found massive mainstream success with Best Picture winner Parasite, he was already making big waves with movies such as Memories of Murder and The Host (Gwoemul). The latter tells the story of a mutated fish monster that captures a man’s daughter and the authorities’ efforts to kill it after several deaths.
While the basic premise is straightforward (it was marketed internationally as a riff on Jaws), the actual movie is quite layered and largely plays like a politically heavy satire. The Host can be scary, funny, and sad, and it does it all wonderfully, but we admit it might not be for everyone due to all the context required to grasp its full discourse.
6. Shin Godzilla
- Release date: July 29, 2016
- Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, Mikako Ichikawa
If you’re sticking to Godzilla’s best of the best, you shouldn’t skip Hideaki Anno’s (Neon Genesis Evangelion) radical reinvention of the greatest kaiju of all time. As it stands, this reboot won’t have a continuation despite all the critical acclaim, but it doesn’t need one and stands strong as a memorable one-off. Previous knowledge of the Godzilla franchise isn’t required either, since even the titular kaiju underwent a huge redesign that made it more of a giant deep sea animal monstrosity (and then something else).
Mind you, Shin Godzilla isn’t an easy watch; it’s heavy on bureaucratic talk and national politics, and the pacing may be rough for Western audiences. Action is pushed aside – though the more catastrophic scenes are unforgettable – and dialogues and satire take the spotlight. It all creates perhaps the most intelligent of the Godzilla movies, with a nearly perfect 21st century update of the original picture’s concerns and key themes.
- Release date: January 18, 2008
- Cast: Michael Stahl-David, T.J. Miller, Jessica Lucas, Lizzy Caplan
Bad Robot’s Cloverfield represents a crucial inflection point for North American giant monster movies. Through the use of the “found footage” directing style and a tight but well-spent budget, producers J.J. Abrams and Bryan Bruk, writer Drew Goddard, and director Matt Reeves managed to capture much of the classic kaiju genre’s magic (and terror) from a unique angle.
Running under 90 minutes, Cloverfield is economical filmmaking at its finest. There’s a big initial mystery that pays off through huge moments, the cast is likable, and the overall experience is daunting and stressful. Roughly 15 years later, this one remains an outstanding rollercoaster ride. And, word is that a straight-up sequel might be happening sooner rather than later…
8. Pacific Rim
- Release date: July 12, 2013
- Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day
Just as Legendary Pictures was readying another North American reboot of Godzilla, Guillermo del Toro went all out with a massive, ultra-nerdy take on the kaiju and mecha (giant robots) genres. Pacific Rim basically felt like a sci-fi anime coming to life with a Hollywood budget, and that alone made it a modern classic almost instantly.
The ambitious story and worldbuilding also framed the gargantuan conflict as an alien invasion movie, making it even more enticing. While the more character-centric moments – outside of Mako’s personal journey – might not shine as bright as the apocalypse-cancelling sections, this one’s a banger that nobody has been able to replicate yet.
9. Godzilla: King of the Monsters
- Release date: May 31, 2019
- Cast: Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Charles Dance
After a very self-serious 2014 reboot, the second Godzilla movie by Legendary Pictures embraced the post-1954 source material from Toho and delivered a giant monster brawl which ranks among the genre’s best. This didn’t resonate nearly as well with Western audiences, but diehard Godzilla fanatics and those familiar with the traditional kaiju genre praised it as one of Hollywood’s strongest efforts – alongside Pacific Rim and Godzilla vs. Kong – to capture that inherently silly formula.
Despite the noticeable tonal shift (akin to Kong: Skull Island’s), King of the Monsters doesn’t ignore its predecessor, and instead builds upon the solid worldbuilding and mythology that movie established to plant the seeds for a more playful MonsterVerse, starting with the arrival of King Ghidorah and other renowned kaijus from the Japanese franchise. Its human drama may not be the best outside a couple of inspired moments, but everything else is a perfect homage to Toho’s most explosive Godzilla installments.
10. Godzilla vs. Kong
- Release date: March 31, 2021
- Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Millie Bobby Brown, Rebecca Hall, Brian Tyree Henry
The first phase of Legendary’s MonsterVerse culminated in 2021 with the release of Godzilla vs. Kong – the first face-off happened in 1962 through Toho’s middling King Kong vs. Godzilla. Of course, this movie maintains the course set by Kong: Skull Island and Godzilla: King of the Monsters, which translates into a jumbo-sized rollercoaster ride full of zany ideas and ludicrous plotting.
On top of a script which hits all the “fun targets” with relative ease, Adam Wingard’s knack for embracing silly elements and framing the titular monsters in true Japanese fashion really paid off here, and both critics and audiences agreed with this sentiment. As a result, Legendary has fast-tracked a follow-up that is now in post-production and will arrive in 2024.
Why don't why have giant monsters in real life?
We've made a few references to the square cube law in this article, but what exactly is the square cube law and why does it prevent giant monsters from existing?
The square cube law is a mathematical principle that describes the relationship between an objects volume and surface area. In simple terms, that means that as an object grows in size, its surface area and volume will grow at a faster rate.
This isn't the only limiting factor on the size of life though. We've discussed why we don't have many giant animals anymore before, looking at some of the evolutionary pressures that push against animals growing larger. Science education YouTube channel Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell has a great series of videos about the size limits on life, at both the massive and tiny ends of the scale.
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Fran Ruiz is an entertainment freelancer and massive dinosaur nerd. He has a BA of English Studies, focusing on English Literature, from the University of Malaga, in Spain, as well as a Master's Degree in English Studies, Multilingual and Intercultural Communication. On top of writing features and other longform articles for Live Science & Space.com since 2021, he is a frequent collaborator of VG247 and other gaming sites. He also serves as associate editor over at Star Wars News Net and its sister site, Movie News Net.