The English title of Destroy All Monsters - not meaningfully similar to the Japanese title, which I've seen translated variously as Charge of the Monsters, March of the Monsters, or Attack of the Monsters - very nearly proved to be prophetic, for the 1968 film began its life as an intentional finale to the Godzilla series and to the whole matter of daikaiju eiga at Toho. It was, indeed, very nearly all monsters that would be involved; not just the "core group" of recurring stars Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah, but a grand total of no fewer than eleven monsters taken not only from the Godzilla films, but unrelated projects as far away as Frankenstein Conquers the World and Atragon, the latter of which wasn't even meaningfully a kaiju film.

In the grand tradition of best-laid plans, this star-studded epic, intended to provide a suitably grand farewell to the iconic Godzilla character whose movies had been leaking air at the box office, instead rejuvenated him. Destroy All Monsters was quite a big hit altogether, giving the giant lizard enough of a boost to carry him into the 1970s before falling admissions sent him back to the chopping block. One assumes that this was mostly because of the marketing wet dream of having all those kaiju gathered in one place, but there's also the simple fact that Destroy All Monsters represents a huge course-correction for the series after the trivial, junky Ebirah, Horror of the Deep and Son of Godzilla, cost-cutting measures for a juvenile audience. Destroy All Monsters plainly was not made on the cheap: there are many fancy and expansive sets, instead of empty tropical islands, and effects aplenty; and many of those eleven monsters are represented by brand new suits.

The biggest impact on the film's quality, though, might simply be the creative team brought in to make it: for this grand finale, producer Tanaka Tomyuki brought back Toho's daikaiju eiga master Honda Ishirō to direct, and he brought with him composer Ifukube Akira. It's not the complete A-team; the cinematographer was Kankura Taiichi, with whom Honda had not previously worked, and effects director Tsuburaya Eiji was still "supervising" the effects, while the real work was being handled by Arikawa Sadamasa. Both Kankura and Arikawa did splendid work, let's be clear about that - the latter man in particular hitting some really impressive heights with the film's enormous climactic battle that are at a completely different level than anything he did in Ebirah and Son of Godzilla, which we can perhaps chalk up to the impoverished budgets of those films.

What we have, in between everybody, is a glorious explosion of kaiju spectacle, the most ebullient popcorn movie of all Toho daikaiju eiga, and the one that feels most like a modern blockbuster, though not for entirely becoming reasons. Because, despite Honda and Kimura Takeshi replacing Sekizawa Shinichi on screenwriting detail, Destroy All Monsters still has an utterly dopey human story counterbalancing all of the monster action, redeemed almost solely in that it is so tightly linked to the monster material that we can't even rightly say that there's a "human plot" and a "monster plot". They're all the same; and unfortuntely, in their sameness, they are an alien invasion thriller of a sort that had played itself out before the dawn of the 1960s, and which was already done in this exact same franchise (and much better) three years and three films earlier, in Invasion of Astro-Monster. Obviously, it's not enough to seriously imbalance the kaiju action that works so well in the film, and anybody heading into a Godzilla picture for the excellence of its storytelling ought not to be heading into a Godzilla picture, but there's still a continuum. And on that continuum, Destroy All Monsters is skewed heavily to the "idiotic pretext for monster scenes" side.

The film skips ahead more than three decades from the 1967 in which the preceding film, Son of Godzilla presumably took place, to find that in 1999, all the Earth's giant monsters have been kept to an island in the Ogasawara chain, now referred to as Monsterland. Here, as a sensible-sounding narrator informs us, such creatures as Godzilla, Rodan, Anguiras (not seen since all the way back in 1955's Godzilla Raids Again) Manda (from Atragon), and Gorosaurus (from King Kong Escapes) live in quiet peace, far from major human metropolitan centers to rampage through. Here they are studied by scientists deep in an underground bunker. Also, in this immensely far-flung world at the end of the 20th Century, there are frequent trips to and from the moon, and our hominid protagonists are the crew of a vessel built for just such a purpose, the SY-3. The only ones we need to bother with are Captain Yamaba Katsuo (Kubo Akira) and Manabe Kyoko (Kobayashi Yukiko), whose functions beyond being a pretty girl are unclear. They happen to be at Monsterland when the film opens, which puts them in a perfect position to investigate after strange things start to happen: both the Monsterland scientists and the monsters themselves are starting to acting in dangerous, unpredictable ways. This leads to the first monster attacks in years, as five major cities are simultaneously attacked (making this the first movie where Godzilla attacks New York, and by far the better one).

The SY-3 and her crew quickly discover that this is the work of an extraterrestrial humanoid species, named either the Kilaaks or the Kiraku, depending on which subtitle translation or dub we trust (or, y'know, if we speak Japanese). Either way, they're an old-school "race of evil beautiful women" species, and their queen (Ai Kyoko) has a nefarious scheme to take over the world with mind controlled kaiju from her base under Mount Fuji. All of this is discovered with breathtaking speed: the first monster attack sequence and the first pitched space battle between humans and Kilaak-controlled slaves have both occurred before the one-third mark, a far cry from the pacey longueurs of several of its predecessors.

Reckless speed is certainly one of the best things Destroy All Monsters has going for it, since it means we get through the empty, pedestrian B-movie shenanigans of the space invasion plot, to arrive at the massive monster smashes long before we get bored. And those are generally terrific things, though nothing is as breathtaking as the four-part battle that ends Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster. Still, there's unexpected impact and brutality here, and a weighty grandeur to the framing that gives the warm-up to the final battle, as Godzilla marshals his monsters to square off against King Ghidorah (who, expectedly, turns up as the aliens' secret weapon) on the plain before Mount Fuji.

It helps that the monsters are almost uniformly of topmost quality; the Ghidorah suit was starting to look a bit patchy, but the new Godzilla is terrific, with a meaner face and sleeker build (my only complaint is his legs: they're too skinny and human-looking). The updated Manda, who gets a surprising amount of screentime, is a much more impressively scary beast than in Atragon, the new Anguiras is a terrific fantastic dinosaur whose relative brief appearance is disappointing, and Rodan, though only modestly changed from last time, has a bit more flexibility and elegance to him. Unsurprisingly, the only really ugly creature is Minilla, the suit being re-used from Son of Godzilla, but except for an appearance at the start of the battle royale that even deflates the commentator (the final battle is rather ingeniously narrated like a sporting event), he barely registers. The Mothra puppet - only as a larva this time, sadly - is re-used, but in good shape; Baragon and Varan are also re-used but kept to flashes to disguise the lousy shape of the suits.

But really, all-star cast or not, this is a movie deeply in love with its Godzilla, and he justifies every bit of that affection. It's probably my second-favorite suit of the first phase of Godzilla movies after the one from King Kong vs. Godzilla, animalistic and genuinely dangerous and offering Nakajima Haruo plenty of flexibility, maybe more than ever before. This suit got a lot of use over the next few years, and even aside from the cost-cutting measure involved there, it's easy to see why: this is Godzilla as he's meant to be, rough and nasty and powerful.

All of which maybe doesn't excuse how vanilla the story and non-monster scenes are. Or maybe it does, I don't know. Honda directs with a light but detached touch (other than a few scenes of devastation, the artistry of the man who made the first Godzilla is nowhere in evidence), and the emphasis on spectacle leaves the feeling that this is still a bit of a kiddie-friendly matinee Godzilla picture. The best thing about it, other than the sheer delight of the monster scenes, is Ifukube's magnificent score, roaring and martial and relentless, adding a layer of pageantry and gravity that the film otherwise completely lacks. Let's not lose sight of the important thing: this is an awfully fun Godzilla movie. It is, however, a slipshod and inconsistent movie movie, and with Honda at the helm, it's not unreasonable to have hoped for a bit more depth to it than just "oh, look at all the big monsters! whee!"