Ginormous! That’s what it comes down to. We love looking at giant movie monsters because they’re towering, awesome, eye-boggling, huge. They were made for the five-year-old in all of us. But some giant monster movies are better than others, and here’s my list of the top 12 of all time. You’ll notice some omissions, and they are not accidents: “The Host” has a good monster, but sorry, I think it’s a turgid movie, and “Tremors” is one-joke intentional camp. “Pacific Rim” has a great deal of affection for the genre, but it’s still an overly mechanical nostalgic stunt. Here are the 12 you can watch forever.
Courtesy of Warner Bros
12. The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953)
In the ’50s, giant-monster movies were fairy-tale nightmares that played off the primal postwar fear of what nuclear weapons had the potential to unleash. And this was the movie that started it all: the first of the giddy big-creature-in-the-city attack spectacles. The image of a dinosaur tromping through the streets of New York, after being awoken from its frozen state by an atomic-bomb test, was brought to life by the stop-motion maestro Ray Harryhausen, in the first of his visionary spectacles. He had done the effects for one previous film (“Mighty Joe Young”), but this was where Harryhausen introduced “Dynamation,” a technique that allowed him to blend monsters with live action, thus fooling the eye into believing that the monsters are real. Based on a story by Ray Bradbury, “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms” looks dated now, but what hasn’t aged is its primitive awe.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
11. The Lost World (1925)
There are certain silent films — “The Great Train Robbery,” Georges Méliès’s “A Trip to the Moon” — that seem to contain the seeds of entire genres, and this wide-eyed science-fiction fantasy adventure is one of them. Based on a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, it’s about an expedition into the Amazon to find the dinosaurs that a London professor (Wallace Beery) is convinced still exist. Sure enough, the place turns out to be the primeval jungle menagerie of every thunder-lizard-fixated schoolkid’s dreams. The dinosaurs, animated by Willis O’Brien (who would go on to create the special effects for “King Kong”), loom on the tops of eerie plateaus and fight each other to the death, but mostly they just make us gape at the sheer wonder of their existence. For 65 million years they’ve been extinct, but suddenly, in 1925, through the magic new medium of film … they live.
Courtesy of First National Pictures
10. The Amazing Colossal Man (1957)
So who says a giant monster can’t be a regular guy? This tall tale about a military officer (Glenn Langan) who gets irradiated by an atomic test blast in the Nevada desert was released the same year as “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” That movie, however, went on to become a sci-fi classic, while this one is still thought of as oddball trash — and it is, though it’s an innocently haunting B-movie. And what a unique metaphor for alienation! Our hero grows bigger and bigger, until he’s a bald, maimed, nearly nude 50-foot-tall hulk of unhappiness skulking around in his underwear (think Rex Ingram’s Genie from “The Thief of Bagdad” as a mental patient), and we almost can’t help but feel for him, even as he lays waste to Las Vegas out of sheer pique.
Courtesy of American International Pictures
9. Godzilla (2014)
Certain movies are eternal; they more or less cry out to be remade. “Godzilla,” the 1954 man-in-a-crusty-skinned-lizard-suit Japanese classic of schlock awe, is not one of them. If you update the monster, as the 1998 remake directed by Roland Emmerich did, then you’ve made a pointlessly retro-fitted piece of product. But if you go back and try to reconjure the Atomic Age magic of the original … well, that’s just what director Gareth Edwards tried to do in this reboot of the reboot, and the miracle is: He brought it off! The new “Godzilla” has a standard-issue ensemble of disaster-movie characters, but it’s an extraordinary piece of visual and atmospheric nostalgia, with Godzilla looking as splendidly majestic-yet-fake-yet-squint-and-he-seems-almost-real as you remember him. When he lumbers through San Francisco at sunset, the film attains an artisanal-trash cardboard grandeur that makes the seamless digital proficiency of something like “Cloverfield” seem downright soulless.
Courtesy of Warner Bros
8. The Blob (1958)
No, it’s not an oversized walking creature — it’s an oozing mass of extra-terrestrial slime that looks like an angry batch of Jell-O. But this queasy-campy teenage sci-fi chiller, which gave Steve McQueen his first starring role, qualifies as an oversized-monster extravaganza, and the title says why: It’s not pretending to be anything other than a movie about … a blob. It’s elemental ’50s horror kitsch, the sort of of thing that should, by all rights, have been produced by Roger Corman, but in fact it was a drive-in special released by Paramount. The title song, with music by Burt Bacharach, goes, “It creeps and leaps and glides and slides across the floor…,” and that’s the movie’s entire plot. But if you ever catch this late at night on TV, you may find yourself hooked on the innocence of its idiocy.
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures
7. The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
The towering Cyclops! The resplendent Dragon! The epic bird of prey known as a Roc! Ray Harryhausen really began to connect with the technological and imaginative possibilities of cinema when he conceptualized and crafted the special effects for the first film in what would turn out to be a “Sinbad” trilogy. When the princess Sinbad, who’s set to marry, is shrunken by an evil magician, our hero heads for the Island of Colossa to battle a host of creatures in order to retrieve his magic lamp. As drama, the Harryhausen films are stick-figure fairy tales, but the best of them are driven by an obsession, and the drama of scale — tiny humans confronting monsters of sheer vastness — is at the heart of it.
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
6. Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964)
In Japan, it didn’t take long for the kaiju genre to turn into something unintentionally demented, acquiring a level of camp far beyond the rubber-suited cheapness, the endlessly recycled creatures, and — for Western audiences — the atrocious dubbing. Movies like “Gamera vs. Monster X” had a loony-tunes garage-sale apocalypse quality that made the original “Godzilla” look like a film by Bresson. And this is the movie where it all began to go haywire — but sublimely, with a lingering hint of that black-and-white atom-bomb-metaphor solemnity. Mothra, who is — yes — a giant moth, emerges from an island where his god-like status is heralded by two tiny girl twins who speak every line in unison. He’s the savior to Godzilla’s hellion, and their battle has the coolest and nuttiest climax of any Japanese monster movie, with the babies from a Mothra egg emerging to spray and coat Godzilla in a web of moth-silk.
Courtesy of Toho
5. Mysterious Island (1961)
The least cartoonish and most delectable of the Ray Harryhausen über-beast movies. Loosely based on the Jules Verne novel, it’s about a crew of Civil War prisoners who escape in a hot-air balloon and wind up stranded on a remote island populated by enormous mutant wildlife — a crab, a squid, a swarm of bees — that look as cool as they sound. There’s a biological grandeur to the whole production, and with a score by Bernard Herrmann and a script co-written by Billy Wilder collaborator Charles Brackett, the film itself sustains a tension that allows the creature encounters to come off as more than mere set pieces.
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
4. Them! (1954)
Let’s just say it: giant ants. On the face of it, that sounds no more promising as the take-off for a science-fiction feature than giant rabbits (“Night of the Lepus”), a giant bird (“The Giant Claw”), or a giant gila monster (“The Giant Gila Monster”). Yet because it was a major studio production (starring James Whitmore), made early in the cycle of nuclear-mutant monster movies, “Them!” has a sense of revelation about it. It’s a tightly paced tale that breathes with the horror of a larger-than-life nightmare the movie itself believes in. When we cast our eyes on those fuzzy-legged big bugs, they’re unsettling — so freakish they seem to embody everything that’s scary and disturbing and just plain wrong about the nuclear age.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
3. Jurassic Park (1993)
Forget the Jurassic era: Steven Spielberg’s virtuosic creature feature marked the real birth, in movies, of the digital age, and the beauty of the film’s dinosaurs is that they transcend any hint of the anything-goes CGI seamlessness that has become the bane of special effects. The gargantuan reptiles here are rooted in the earth, from the benignly looming brachiosauruses, to the fearsome, bounding T-rex with his blasting carnivorous roar, to the leaping velociraptors who are like lickety-split dancers of death. Michael Crichton’s theme-park plot is merely okay, yet along with “King Kong,” this remains the most ingeniously and organically choreographed of all giant-monster movies. In “Jurassic Park,” they’re not just chomping down; they’re channeling the life force.
Courtesy of Universal Studios
2. Godzilla (1954)
Some special effects age splendidly, and some age not well at all. The special effects in “Godzilla” have aged marvelously, but only — ironically — because of how majestically cheesy they were in the first place. In a primal parable of the end of World War II, a nuclear dinosaur who resembles a skyscraper-sized T-rex with a backbone of jutting plates stomps all over Tokyo, replaying the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Or you might put it this way: A man in a scowling monster suit streaked with rubber-skinned rivulets smashes a bunch of miniature metropolis sets, reconstituting the magic of a kid playing with toys. In “Godzilla,” the two dimensions interlock: Since Godzilla isn’t quite real, he lets the audience surrender itself to childlike shock and awe and deconstruct those feelings at the same time. That’s why the campy dubbing never mattered much, and why the “pure,” undubbed (and uncut) Japanese version isn’t really much better. To watch “Godzilla” is to watch yourself watching a monster movie, and that’s the insane glory of it.
Courtesy of Toho
1. King Kong (1933)
It’s got the greatest of all giant monsters, because he’s the only one who attains a timeless emotional complexity. He’s fearsome … and tender. He ape-handles Fay Wray … then becomes her romantic protector. Kong isn’t just the Other; he’s the noble primate inside the beast in all of us. He’s also a special-effects triumph of such singular audacity and imagination than even now, 84 years later, when our sophisticated eyes can see right through Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion trickery, the animation still adds up to something greater than the sum of its herky-jerky frames. Kong doesn’t just move — he lives and breathes. The film retains a singular grandeur, and that’s because it’s shot through with mythic American themes of race, showbiz, and our tragic tendency to destroy the things we love. When Kong climbs up the Empire State Building and perches himself on top of it, swatting away fighter planes like flies, he’s not a monster attacking us — he’s a beast of valor making his home in the new citified jungle, leaving his mark forever on New York City and American movies.