Godzilla: King of the Monsters is Bringing Back the Spirit of Toho

Godzilla: King of the Monsters will retain the realistic feel of the 2014 movie, but with more kaiju, more tech, and more...everything.

Fenway Park has seen better days. A chunk of the stadium appears to have been pulverized. A section of the concourse is blocked by debris, obstructing access to the restrooms. This can’t be attributed to Fenway’s status as the oldest ballpark in America. And even though the home of the Boston Red Sox has a Green Monster in residence of its own, it would appear that the damage this time was done by an even bigger one.

Of course, this isn’t Fenway Park, just a section that has been recreated on an appropriately massive soundstage outside of Atlanta, Georgia. This 300,000 square foot warehouse also houses wonders like an undersea base for a global team of super scientists, a mysterious arctic outpost, two different rainforests, and other secrets as big as its title character.

With just these details alone, it’s clear that Godzilla: King of the Monsters will take a less cerebral approach than its predecessor. While Gareth Edwards’ 2014 film was well-received, and is handily the smartest Americanization of the Godzilla mythos yet, it still took a few hits for being a little too thrifty with its deployment of the title character and other giant monsters, not to mention its deliberate pacing, akin to the leisurely, plodding gait of the classic man-in-suit approach to Godzilla in his original cinematic outings. While a critical and box office success, 2014’s Godzilla still felt like an appetizer, one that successfully reclaimed the idea of an American Godzilla franchise from Roland Emmerich’s unspeakably bad 1998 effort, but one that also lacked the bonkers charm that fans of the Toho films have long been waiting to see resurrected.

But from the moment the sequel was first announced, fans were assured that this time around, Godzilla wouldn’t be alone, with stalwarts like Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah joining the party. Even the first trailer for Godzilla: King of the Monsters, two-and-a-half minutes of surprisingly beautiful, haunting visuals and sounds (and arguably the best, most impactful trailer to come out of the 2018 San Diego Comic-Con) only hinted at what’s in store for kaiju fans who have been waiting to see what a summer blockbuster version of Toho’s greatest monster mashes could look like. They won’t be disappointed.

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With Michael Dougherty directing, it’s evident that Godzilla: King of the Monsters will appeal to those who want a little more city-stomping action. Dougherty has a genre-friendly resume, including writing credits on X2: X-Men United, Superman Returns, and X-Men: Apocalypse. But it’s his work as writer-director on the alluringly bonkers Krampus and the stone cold Halloween season classic, Trick ‘r Treat, that perhaps make him the best fit for Godzilla. Trick ‘r Treat in particular captured the indescribable feel of ‘80s horror in a way nothing else had until Stranger Things came along. And if there’s anything missing from other attempts to modernize and Americanize Godzilla, it’s that certain intangible “soul” to the character and his world. Fortunately for Dougherty, who describes the project as “a dream come true” and the big guy himself as “a good friend,” Godzilla is akin to religion itself.

“It’s funny because when I got the job I went back and looked at an old childhood bible where I had drawn Godzilla, in between the various bible illustrations, so there was a picture of like, the fall of Jericho and I had added Godzilla,” Dougherty says. “I figured if I add Godzilla to anything, it’s better.”

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is making an effort to lean into the mythic elements of kaiju lore and create a solid foundation for the next chapter of what Warner Bros. has dubbed their “Monsterverse,” the shared cinematic universe that encompasses Godzilla and King Kong (thanks to Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ vivid, ambitious Kong: Skull Island, and the pair will square off in Godzilla vs. Kong in 2020), in what seems the most natural way possible: by positioning them as ancient beings who owned this world before humans.

“It’s not like the monsters are suddenly popping out of nowhere,” Dougherty says. “They’ve always been here. They were here before we were. So the concept we’re running with is that this world belonged to them. If anything, we’re the invasive species and we’ve simply rediscovered something that’s always been there, and that they are in some ways the old gods. The first gods. And that’s something we’re also trying to bring to this film for a more mythological, almost biblical, backdrop to the creatures… the idea that these creatures were once worshipped by some ancient civilization.”

The movie is definitely taking this approach with Mothra, as evidenced by the production art glimpsed on set that shows a “Mothra temple” and Mothra’s Shobijin priestesses depicted in hieroglyphs. This shouldn’t sound too revolutionary to Toho fans, especially those familiar with the Mothra films but it’s the first time it’s been tackled in an American Godzilla movie, and another perfect example of how the new movie is finally bringing together disparate elements of kaiju lore.

“I really love that about the old movies in that Mothra was this deity. It really opened up the mythology,” Dougherty says. “So if Mothra existed thousands of years ago, and Godzilla existed thousands of years ago, and Mothra was worshipped by some ancient civilization, as was Kong, that would make sense that the other creatures probably had some contact with human beings at some point too. As a kid it always bummed me out that dinosaurs never actually crossed paths [with humans]. After years of Ray Harryhausen films, that was such a heartbreaking truth to discover. So I’m saying fuck that. No. At some point, ancient humans that we have forgotten about somehow did interact with these ancient beasts.”

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As far as franchise concerns go, Dougherty is quite happy with the number of toys he got to play with for this movie. “These are the crown jewels of Toho as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “Mothra, Rodan, Ghidorah, and Godzilla, those are the ones that come to mind when you think of the Godzilla universe. What was fun about them too was, outside of the Universal classic monster movies, Toho is one of the first companies to pioneer the idea of a shared universe. They were doing it long before Marvel was. So it kind of feels like things are coming full circle.”

Dougherty seems to naturally speak in fan-friendly, nostalgic terms, even when describing the differences between his and Edwards’ approach. “I hesitate to say it, but I would call it the Aliens to Gareth’s Alien,” he says. “So it’s a bit more of an ensemble film. Whereas the first movie was really about Brody’s character kind of weaving his way through that adventure and Monarch kind of was the backdrop for that, here Monarch is the focus, because I find that concept really fascinating.”

Monarch, of course, is the agency that was in charge of monitoring the rise of kaiju during Godzilla, whose roots were explored in Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island, and it’s something that Dougherty was eager to explore in King of the Monsters.

“The idea that there is a secret agency that tracks giant monsters–that is a dream come true for me too,” he says. “I think if the government said to me, ‘Tomorrow you have to fake your own death and abandon everyone you know to go hunt the paranormal,’ I would be gone in a heartbeat.”

Dougherty’s optimism about the world of Godzilla helps inform his view of how Monarch would operate, as well.

“I felt there was an opportunity to sort of craft Monarch as a group of humanists, who unlike a lot of top secret government agencies where they have their own nefarious mission statements, Monarch has a very positive outlook on what these creatures are and what they represent,” he says. “And the idea of a team of heroes who are scientists really appealed to me. This isn’t a Marvel film where you have people in mech suits or with superpowers getting into endless fist fights. These are just very intelligent, capable people who are up against impossible odds. In our current climate, where science is being constantly questioned and targeted, the idea of creating a film where scientists are heroes, I thought was really important.”

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read more: Marvel’s Godzilla Comics Were Monstrously Weird

Yet what would heroes be without cool gear, vehicles, and, most importantly, a lair? Monarch still has it all. Operating out of an undersea base disguised as an oil rig, complete with at least one submarine, Monarch now feels like a true super science organization, with the sets reflecting an aesthetic that still leans into the weighty realism of the first film while embracing everything cool that comes along with having a secret underwater headquarters (appropriately King of the Monsters’ working title while filming was “Fathom”).

“I really did want this to be the first film that blows open the doors and lets us get a peek behind the curtain,” Dougherty says. “Which is why we’re shooting in Monarch’s headquarters, in their underwater base. I think there was something really powerful about the idea of this secret organization, which has altruistic intentions and noble ideals about trying to understand our place in the world after these creatures have been discovered. This will be the first film where you finally get to know some of these scientists on a deeply personal level and understand how they interact with each other and how they interact with the creatures.”

A plaque identifies the underwater HQ as MLD Site 102874, indicating that there are other Monarch bases around the world. The mind wanders to how cartoony they could take this. Is there a Monarch base in an active volcano? One buried in the desert? While we don’t have answers to those questions yet, walking through the halls of the set, you can see how much almost every detail is designed to add a sense of history to the Monsterverse. An enormous wall of names, a monument dedicated “In honor of the brave members of Monarch who gave their lives so that all might thrive” takes up an entire hallway connecting offices and laboratories.

Within those laboratories, there are treasures. When Godzilla: King of the Monsters hits theaters, fans will want to pay attention to every monitor screen and map, as they’re all emblazoned with genus and species names, some of which will be quite familiar. Immediately recognizable giant monster icons like Titanus Mosura, Titanus Kong, Titanus Abaddon, and Titanus Rodan are mixed with Titanus Bunyip, Methuselah, Leviathan, and others, while mysterious kaiju and cryptid fossils add additional flavor.

read more: The Must See Movies of 2019

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Picking up five years after the events of the first movie, Godzilla: King of the Monsters will address how the reemergence of MUTOs (now called “Titans” in this film) has wider geopolitical implications, with Monarch developing technology such as the ORCA, an experimental device that allows humans to communicate with Titans, while shadowy organizations race to harness MUTOs and traffic in Titan DNA. To help combat this is G-Team, a military division that specializes in kaiju affairs.

“There’s certain divisions of military and then there’s G Team,” O’Shea Jackson, who plays G-Team officer Barnes, says. “There’s the cream of the crop and there’s the crazy cream of the crop that makes it to G-Team. You’ve got to get up on a different side of the bed to hunt monsters willingly. Yeah, if I haven’t seen my family in years, I know the requirements to become G Team. But to be a high ranking officer on G Team, warrants a little crazy.”

Returning from the first film is Sally Hawkins’ Dr. Vivienne Graham, briefing a group of Monarch scientists and operatives from G-Team about Charles Dance’s mysterious character, Alan Jonah, a terrorist whose organization has captured a Mothra larva and set-up a compound around it in a Chinese rainforest. Apparently, this isn’t the first Titan specimen that has been commandeered by terrorists. The scene is being filmed as a long tracking shot, with the camera circling the table to allow various members of the team to chime in, including Bradley Whitford’s Dr. Stanton and Kyle Chandler’s increasingly frustrated Dr. Mark Russell, who appears to have a troubled history with the Titans.

And with good reason. Russell’s wife (Vera Farmiga as Dr. Emma Russell) and daughter (Millie Bobby Brown as Madison Russell) are both missing, likely because of Titan-related research and activity. “You learn as the character goes along his relationship to Godzilla and the other creatures and his wife and his past with this situation over the past many years and the loss that he’s encountered,” Chandler says. “So that’s the dichotomy for what he feels through the storyline and you get to learn what his emotional drive is through the story. There’s a learning curve. It’s not just a hatred toward monsters.”

This is the only scene journalists see filmed, and while central to the story, it’s notably short of actual monsters. Godzilla and friends weren’t on set that day, but they were there in spirit, and there is other evidence of their presence.

“I think you should be able to close your eyes and listen to the creatures and be able to identify them without any visual whatsoever, because the sounds of the creatures are so distinct,” Dougherty says. “Ghidorah’s got that really cool trill, shriek to it. What I did was I gave a super cut of all the creature noises from the original films to the sound designers and said start here and then start layering and playing, but they have to be as distinct as the original films. Ghidorah, Rodan, Mothra, have the beginnings of some of those sounds… But getting the note right is huge. I think they did a great job with Godzilla’s roar in the first movie. I pushed them a little bit further to bring it even closer to the [1954] original.”

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While little can be done to actually put giant monsters themselves in frame with the cast while shooting (“lots of tape and tennis balls,” Chandler says), Dougherty found other ways to give the monster a real and motivating presence.

“When we’ve been shooting on the set, my sound mixer created this massive speaker system I called ‘Behemoth,’ and I’ve got an iPad in a tent,” Dougherty reveals. “So any scene that involves our cast running and screaming in terror, I’ve been playing creature noises. And it really ups their performance. Something pops when they hear the noises. So, in some ways, the creatures have been on set with us.”

While all of the monster and Toho love is apparent on set, it would be easy to think that King of the Monsters is consciously backing away from the more serious tone of Edwards’ Godzilla, but Dougherty is quick to point out that isn’t the case.

“What I appreciate about Gareth’s film is that it took things seriously,” Dougherty says. “I think there’s a fine line between the two. This is not a knee slapping comedy by any means, but again, it’s like if you compare Alien, which is a very straight science fiction film with not a lot of yucks, compared to Aliens which sort of had more fun, tongue-in-cheek moments, we’re somewhere in the middle there.”

Tone aside, the most important thing that fans want to see, and the criticism that was most often leveled at the 2014 film, is more Godzilla, and more kaiju in general. Don’t worry. “We definitely see the creatures a lot more in this movie,” Dougherty promises. But it will also retain one particular influence from the Edwards film. “What I loved about the visual aspect of Gareth’s film is that he treated them with a sense of reality,” he continues. “There was never a magic CGI flying camera. Every shot of the creatures felt like it could have been shot by an actual human being. Whether they’re on a helicopter or a crane, handheld, whatever, the camera movements were never artificial. And so that’s also one of our ground rules, because it does take you out of the movie, whether consciously or subconsciously, when you realize that there’s no way a camera could have possibly gotten that shot. It adds a sense of weight and reality to it which I think is missing from a lot of blockbuster movies.”

But not too much reality. Colorful production art and paintings show off incredibly faithful, albeit slightly modernized designs for Godzilla’s iconic allies and antagonists, with Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and an impossibly massive (even compared to the others) King Ghidorah all present and accounted for.

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Perhaps the most promising image of all, the one that draws the eye of everyone in the room, is an incredible painting of Godzilla himself wading ashore, flanked by Mothra and Rodan, with the military apparently on their side. This appears to be a “Godzilla and friends to the rescue” concept piece, and whether this moment appears in the movie or not remains to be seen, but it captures that intangible quality of the Toho films, where the monsters could be both friend and foe…but kids always want him to be their friend.

“Speaking as a Godzilla fan, I always hated those humans [in the films] who acted like Godzilla didn’t just save their ass,” Jackson had joked on set, “but with the realm that we’re in now, what happened in San Francisco in 2014, from what I can see, he holds down the Pacific, so California seems safe. I’m down with that.”

Godzilla: King of the Monsters opens on May 31. 

Mike Cecchini is the Editor in Chief of Den of Geek. You can read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @wayoutstuff.