It’s taken decades for Japan’s time-honored kaiju genre of cinema to properly invade American shores, but with Guillermo del Toro’s futuristic fantasy epic Pacific Rim set to tear the box office limb from limb in July and Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla movie tentatively set for next May the thirst for giant monsters and robots consuming mass quantities of wanton destruction has rarely been greater. Next year’s Godzilla adventure won’t be the first time the scaly radioactive giant lizard first immortalized in 1954’s Gojira (released here two years later as Godzilla: King of the Monsters) has undergone the Hollywood blockbuster treatment…unless you choose to not acknowledge Roland Emmerich’s stillborn 1998 attempt as many of us have already done.
The first major attempt to make an American Godzilla movie took place in the early 1980’s, and had it happened it would have united some of the greatest artists in the fields of feature film special effects, make-up, and conceptual art that the world of fantastic cinema ever birthed into popular culture. In 1982 Steve Miner, best known as the director of Friday the 13th Parts II and III and Halloween: H20, made a deal with Godzilla’s home studio Toho to bring the big G to the U.S. in a grand-scale motion picture as befitting a creature of his stature and cultural impact: Godzilla, King of the Monsters 3-D!
Miner had major plans for the Godzilla movie he was planning to direct. In an 1983 interview with the magazine Cinefantastique Miner expressed disappointment that the monster movie genre had not been able by that time “been properly treated with the post-Star Wars technology.” “Having explored only the very surface of what 3-D could possibly offer,” Miner added, “it became clear that there could be a perfect marriage between monsters and 3-D.” In the same interview he outlined his vision for his 3-D Godzilla blockbuster:
“The approach is to make the best monster movie ever made. The movie will be very much in the spirit of the original Godzilla film, but it is a totally new film played absolutely straight. It is going to be scary, full of suspense. It is diametrically opposed to the more recent Godzilla films, and we’re getting away from the “˜man in the suit’ concept for the monster. We’ll be using stop-motion animation to bring the creature to life.”
Hired by Miner to write the script was Fred Dekker, a struggling young screenwriter from San Francisco whose horror script House would be brought to the screen under Miner’s direction in 1986. Dekker achieved his own special success later in the decade when he both wrote and directed the underrated sci-fi horror-comedy Night of the Creeps and the kid-friendly Universal Monsters love letter The Monster Squad, both of which were virtually ignored at the time of their release but later went on to become cult classics on home video and cable.
A meteorite crashes into a US SDI defense satellite orbiting the Earth. The collision causes the satellite to launch a nuclear warhead into the South Pacific. The resulting atomic explosion causes a huge reptilian creature to stir. A Japanese fishing ship is lost on its way to San Francisco. The ship is later found, badly damaged and burned and is impounded by US authorities for study. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Dana Martin sneaks past the armed guards and onto the wreck. She finds a prehistoric trilobite lying on the ship, but is startled when a dying Japanese fisherman lurches out of the shadows; his dying words are ‘Godzilla’.
Martin takes the trilobite to paleontologist Gerald Balinger, who doubts the worm’s authenticity until he examines it. Elsewhere, on Oto Island, near Taihiti, US Special Forces troops watch as a huge creature destroys a native village, roasting the buildings with its fiery breath.
Closer to home, off the coast of Mexico, Navy Colonel Peter Daxton heads the investigation of a sunken Soviet nuclear submarine. Daxton lost his eye years ago during a spy mission. The man who claimed his eye, KGB agent Boris Kruschov, is watching the American recovery efforts from a nearby boat. Kruschov lost a hand in the same fight that cost Daxton his eye, and the Russian now sports a retractable steel blade where his hand should be. The KGB is not really interested in the sub; they want two proto-type missiles that sank with the vessel. The missiles are experimental ‘Dragon’ anti-fission devices, designed to counter nuclear weapons. Unfortunately for the KGB, Daxton’s team recovers the warheads and takes them back to the States. The missiles will be held in impound until the US and Soviet governments have mediated some sort of agreement through the UN. A videotape is also salvaged, recorded by the sub’s external cameras and showing the vessel under attack by some sort of reptilian monster.
His mission a success, Daxton returns home to San Francisco. His young son Kevin is waiting for him, an amateur magician and escape artists with a fascination for lizards. Daxton is not home for long before the CIA comes for him. Daxton, Kevin and Gerald Balinger are whisked away to Baja, where the carcass of a huge lizard-like creature has washed ashore. Daxton recognizes it as the creature that attacked the Soviet sub. It must have been killed when the Ruskies fired missiles in an attempt to save their vessel. Balinger determines that the creature is some sort of dinosaur, but the military dismisses the idea, believing it to be extra-terrestrial in origin and putting a ‘top secret’ label on everything as they set the wheels in motion for a cover-up. The military decides to ship the carcass to the Presidio in San Francisco. Saddened by the dismissal of his theory, Balinger tells Kevin about the legend of Godzilla, a mythical fire-breathing dragon known to the ancient Japanese.
Off the California coastline, a second reptile, this one far larger, surfaces and destroys an oil rig and a tanker.
The dead reptile is stored under guard in a waterfront warehouse in San Francisco for study. The researchers soon begin getting sick, showing all the earmarks of radiation poisoning. Balinger theorizes that the dead creature was like some sort of living atomic reactor, a proto-saur predating even the dinosaurs, with amazing regenerative abilities. He also believes that since the sea disasters are still continuing that there is another of these creatures. A larger one. Heading for San Francisco.
Kruschov, in an attempt to force Daxton to return the Soviet missiles, kidnaps Kevin. The Russian takes Kevin to a KGB hideout in the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. Using his knowledge of magic tricks, Kevin escapes his bounds and tries to run away from Kruschov. Just then, Godzilla appears, battering the Bridge with a swipe of his tail, apparently killing the boy and the KGB agent chasing him. Godzilla menaces the cars trapped on the bridge and panic crawls across San Francisco. Army tanks blast Godzilla, but their attack only provokes him. Godzilla destroys the bridge and comes ashore. His path of destruction levels Ghiradelli Square before Blackhawk Cobra attack helicopters arrive to attack the beast. Meanwhile, Daxton and Balinger hatch a plan to lure Godzilla out of the city and destroy him with the captured Soviet missiles.
F-16 fighters engage Godzilla in Union Square, and during the battle, Godzilla actually grabs up a cable car and swings it at the jets like a flail, battering one from the sky to crash into the Chronicle building. Dana Martin and Balinger head for Alcatraz Island, where they intend to play a recording of the dead reptile taken from the Russian video tape to lure Godzilla to their position. For his part, Daxton loads the missiles onto a Cobra helicopter. As the helicopter begins to lift off, Kruschov arrives, with Kevin. The KGB agent again demands the restoration of the ‘Dragon’ missiles, and the two spies are soon again locked in battle as the helicopter flies to Alcatraz. Kruschov has Daxton hanging from the landing struts of the helicopter and is about to cut Daxton’s grasping fingers when the spy kicks the Russian, knocking him from the helicopter. The KGB agent lands in Godzilla’s palm even as the helicopter careens out of control and crashes. Godzilla stares at the Communist spy for a moment, then incinerates him with a blast of atomic fire.
Godzilla goes on a rampage, burning the city with his breath. It is obvious that the beast is looking for something. Godzilla finds the corpse and utters a terrible roar of anguish and rage. Just as he begins to turn back towards the city, Martin and Balinger play the recording. Godzilla turns, heading toward the prison island. Daxton arrives, dragging one of the Soviet ‘Dragon’ missiles with him. The missile is loaded onto a proto-type attack helicopter, the Scorpion-78. The weapons officer falls out of the helicopter as it takes off, and Daxton, piloting the helicopter, entrusts launching the missile to his stowaway son Kevin. As Godzilla opens his mouth to roar, a sobbing Kevin (who had come to sympathize with the monster) fires the ‘Dragon’ down the dragon’s throat. Godzilla drops, in mortal agony. As the helicopter banks away from the monster, Kevin falls out, but Godzilla catches the boy, setting him down on the island’s shore before taking a final, painful breath.
The plot sounded like a fun but highly derivative monster flick, owing as much to the classic Godzilla movies as to other cinematic greats like Jaws and King Kong with a little bit of decade-appropriate Soviet hysteria thrown in for good measure. Miner then retained the services of William Stout – a gifted illustrator and longtime genre movie buff who had drawn storyboards for Raiders for the Lost Ark and worked as an artist and production designer on films like Conan the Barbarian, First Blood, and Return of the Living Dead – to oversee the redesigning of Godzilla and produced numerous illustrations and storyboards to help him sell the movie to the major studios.
In an interview published in the unauthorized Godzilla biography Japan’s Favorite Mon-Star Stout discussed his unrealized intentions for the most iconic movie monster in the world:
“I wanted to get away from something you could obviously tell was a man in a suit, and deliver a creature that people could either completely believe, or if they doubted it at all, they’d go, “How in the hell did they do that?” I gave him a more dinosaur-lilke configuration in the legs, to begin with, so it didn’t look like there was just a guy in there with human legs. Then I began to develop a muscualar structure that was believable. It was based on Allosaurus, which has arms that actually function, as opposed to those of a T-rex, which are basically useless.”
Plans were afoot for effects companies Industrial Light & Magic and Dream Quest to collaborate on this massive project, and special effects make-up legend Rick Baker was contacted about designing and building a cable-operated, animatronic Godzilla head to be used for close-ups, with stop-motion animation greats Jim Danforth and David Allen looking to come aboard as well. Even with this mouth-watering pool of cinematic creative visionaries working tirelessly behind the scenes no studio in Hollywood would bankroll the proposed $30 million project, quite a hefty sum for a monster movie in those days. Despite the best efforts of all involved Godzilla, King of the Monsters 3-D would sadly go unrealized.
As a result we lovers of outrageous, extravagant science-fiction, horror, and fantasy films were deprived of what could have been an all-time monster geek classic. Here’s hoping that Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla picks up where Miner and Dekker left off three decades ago and delivers the sucker punch of kaiju goodness we desperately desire.
Here are some selections of William Stout’s unused storyboard art for the movie.
Here is Stout posing with the Big G…and the Little G.
An animatronic Godzilla designed for the unmade movie.