Exploiting our Archive: Scalding Hot Takes: Rampage (2018)
When I was young, I wanted all of the things that ambitious young men and women are supposed to want. I wanted to live a life rich with meaning and purpose. I wanted to write books that conveyed profound truths about who we are and how we live. I wanted to travel the world. I wanted to elucidate the complexities and wonders of the human condition. I wanted to make movies and TV shows and give speeches and be feted as a public intellectual.
I wanted to make my mark upon the world. I wanted to create a body of work that would endure. I wanted to be somebody, to say something essential, to not just be another grim automaton wearily going through the motions. I wanted to live, to love, to leave an imprint on history.
When I was a young man I radiated reckless ambition. I wanted it all and I wanted it now.
As a grown man, my ambitions have grown more modest. At this point in my life, I pretty much just want to watch movies where giant monsters destroy places I used to live in ways that remind me of my childhood. My awful, awful, endlessly romanticized childhood.
So I started getting excessively excited about Rampage the moment I discovered the iconic 1980s video game was being adapted for the medium of film with Dwayne Johnson in the lead. I like Johnson even if I’m a little ambivalent about this new paradigm where he stars in every movie. That seems a little excessive. I’m fine with him starring in a lot of movies, but if commercials and sneak previews are any indication, he’s going to star in about 40 percent of all big budget action movies from here on out, and I’m worried he’s going to get burnt out.
Johnson stars in Rampage as Davis Okoye, the world’s most muscular primatologist. Davis is an elite super soldier as well in addition to being the caretaker of George, an albino ape who begins growing at an alarming and unprecedented rate after being exposed to a mutagen created by Energyne, a sinister corporation messing around with DNA to create a race of deadly super-animals.
Rampage is yet another movie where people unwisely decide to play God and transform ordinary animals into blood-crazed killing machines genetically engineered to be as dangerous and violent as possible. For the love of God, why? Why create inhuman instruments of mass murder when they’re just going to run amok and attack the nearest skyscraper and/or nosh on anyone nearby? Didn't anyone learn anything from Deep Blue Sea?
I mean, sure, there’s ostensibly a military purpose to creating killer apes, wolves and crocodiles but the downside is so huge that any reasonable cost/benefit analysis will reveal creating giant killer animal monsters to be a bad idea at best.
That said, I can imagine Trump going on television to announce, “Project: Rampage is a huge success. Despite all the fake news coming out of the disgusting, disgusting, Obama-riddled city of Chicago, it’s working beautifully and I was just shown footage of a beautiful, beautiful, 80 foot mutated Chupacabra protecting the U.S Mexico border that Mexico is totally going to pay for, as well as feed, with human sacrifices if necessary. Mission Accomplished.”
Energyne really should be better prepared for the mayhem they accidentally unleash because a Rampage stand-up arcade game can be seen in the background of the company’s headquarters. This raises all manner of annoying, unanswerable questions. Is Energyne’s “creating giant evil monsters” program inspired by the iconic 1980s arcade game? Or is it merely an astonishing coincidence that they have a program called Project: Rampage that leads to the creation of a massive, malevolent, rampaging ape, crocodile and wolf that happens to eerily echo the premise of a video game of the same name?
Malin Akerman plays Claire Wyden, the evil head of Energyne and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, essentially borrowing Billy Bob Thornton's accent and persona, plays a slippery good old boy government agent who end up helping our muscle-bound hero. That’s right, Rampage is a stealth Watchmen reunion. We Mennonites (as us Watchmen super-fans call ourselves) live for moments like that and if Akerman is a standard-issue heavy she at least gets to be swallowed whole by a giant marauding ape monster whose off-the-charts aggressiveness she’s largely responsible for. It’s not much of a role but it's a hell of a death.
Naomie Harris, fresh off her Academy Award nomination for Moonlight, costars as Dr. Kate Caldwell, a genetic scientist with the power to possibly cure George of his unfortunate compulsion to destroy everything he comes into contact with. Davis and the doctor join forces and head to Chicago to try to prevent the city from being demolished by a trio of genetically engineered super-animals.
Rampage does not waste a lot of time with exposition or character development, particularly where our monsters are concerned. Sure, George is a noble brute in the King Kong tradition, an intelligent, sensitive, very human animal with a tender, powerful, familial bond with Davis, as well as a raunchy, irreverent sense of humor that reminded me of Clyde the Orangutan of Every Which Way But Loose and Any Which Way You Can. Thankfully, unlike those films, the subject of George's libido goes blissfully unaddressed. I appreciated that there was not even a single scene of Davis trying to get George laid, unlike both of Clint Eastwood's ape buddy pictures.
We learn nothing about the giant-ass crocodile. We know nothing of its hopes and dreams and fears and loves. We learn zero about its familial situation or its relationship with its parents. The same is true of the giant killer wolf. All we know is that they’re giant killer monsters irrevocably drawn to Chicago to destroy and that’s enough. Rampage is a meat and potatoes monster movie exclusively concerned with delivering the goods. I appreciated that. It knows its strengths and limitations and works adequately within them.
Dwayne Johnson is the perfect star for Rampage. He’s a gentle giant himself, a brute with soul as well as a man so preternaturally capable that he seems more than equipped to more or less single-handedly resolve a conflict involving an ape, crocodile and wolf all the size of buildings. Johnson’s movie star swagger implicitly says, “I’ve got this” even when “this” is a monster rampage the likes of which the world has never known.
Rampage’s primitively effective plot calls for a signal in Chicago to beckon the out of control ape, wolf and crocodile. This leads to a climax where a violent, unexpected force wreaks havoc in a major American city, reducing towering skyscrapers (the kind found in the upcoming Dwayne Johnson motion picture Skyscraper) to rubble and filling the streets with dazed, bloody and confused survivors.
Throughout Rampage’s climax I found myself thinking it was a lot like the tragic events of 9/11 except for the part involving a giant genetically engineered killer ape battling a freakishly mutated crocodile and colossal wolf creature. My memory is not great, but I don’t remember that being part of the tragedy. Metaphorically we dealt with all manner of monsters, but on a purely literal level, giant mutated monsters were a non-entity, as far as 9/11 was concerned.
Yes, friends we’ve finally reached a point where we can experience innocent, child-like joy watching cities be destroyed, the way we did when Godzilla laid waste to New York in the 1998 motion picture of the same name, without being reminded of Osama Bin Laden and the terror he wrought.
On a personal level, there’s something viscerally satisfying about seeing Chicago get destroyed. I don’t think I would have mildly enjoyed the movie anywhere near as much as I did if the metropolis being demolished hadn’t done such a number on my self-esteem and sense of self. I’m not necessarily saying Chicago deserves to be destroyed by giant, evil monsters but there is something oddly cathartic about seeing the Second City get smashed.
It turns out I have a lot of complicated feelings about my old home town that can only be satisfactorily resolved by watching it be destroyed by a genetically modified albino ape, crazy-huge crocodile and monster wolf.
When Rampage received an entirely appropriate 53 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes (that’s about what I’d give it, the old good enough C+), somehow rendering it the top-rated video game adaptation of all time, Johnson tweeted proudly about the movie’s curious triumph, purposefully ignoring that its “record” says infinitely more about the sad state of video game movies than it does about Rampage’s quality.
The depressing intimation of Rampage’s sad “record” is that a video game movie only has to be slightly better than average to qualify as the most acclaimed arcade-derived motion picture of all time.
I’d like to think that Rampage is not the best the video game movie genre has to offer (has the world forgotten Postal?) but really, all Rampage needs to do is deliver on its promise of a giant ape, a big ass wolf and a crazy fucking huge crocodile monster rampaging through downtown Chicago to succeed.
I am a simple man. I just want to see shit get fucked up. On that level, and pretty much only on that level, Rampage satisfies.
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