Thoughts on ‘Rampage’

Over the past few weeks I’ve been to see Steven Spielberg’s film about a world bounded only by the imagination, the ultra-hyped latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a Dwayne Johnson vehicle based on a cheesy arcade game. Guess which I think was the best. Go ahead; guess.

Rampage is basically a sci-fi channel original movie with a big budget and a crew that knew what they were doing. It’s incredibly silly, kind of stupid, and a ton of fun. Dwayne Johnson (more on him in a bit) plays an asocial ex-special forces primatologist (you know, one of those) who comes to work one day to find his favorite gorilla, George, has grown much larger and more unstable over the night. Turns out the experiments of an evil corporation have fallen from their corporate space station (again, one of those) and have resulted in three mutated, out-of-control monsters: George the Gorilla, Ralph the Wolf, and Lizzie the Alligator (who doesn’t get named in the film). They all end up in Chicago, where Johnson, with the help of a smug, faux-cowboy federal agent and a good-looking, oft-endangered scientist (the fact that I can describe the female lead thusly earns the film an extra point right there) try to find a way to stop the monsters and the evil corporation while saving George if possible.

Rampage is one of those delightful films that has no illusions about itself: it doesn’t think it has an important statement to make about corporate greed or animal rights or anything, it just wants to tell a fun little adventure involving giant monsters on a rampage. Just about everything it does is in service to that end, which makes it a surprisingly solid and streamlined film. There are holes, of course, that’s to be expected, but at least so far there’s only one or two that really stand out to me, and the movie was entertaining enough that I didn’t really care. Once accept the premise and the film holds together fairly well. And it lives up to the title, with the three monsters tearing up Chicago, the human cast, and each other in satisfying and creative ways.

Speaking of the human cast, after the incredibly bland characters in Black Panther, this was breath of fresh air. The characters aren’t especially deep or well developed, but they have personality, sometimes almost too much. The moment we meet the female lead, we see she is a little bumbling and absent minded, and that her life is a mess. We thus immediately like her because she both has a clear character and is the underdog. Likewise, it would have been incredibly easy to have the federal agent be just a stiff; instead he’s got this hilarious faux-cowboy persona, with accompanying permanent smug grin that he somehow uses to convey every emotion. Even the villain, though a pretty generic evil businesswoman is given a bit of extra personality by having a loser brother who hangs around her panicking the whole film (she also has a pet rat; parallel, perhaps?).

As this indicates, the film has a pretty good sense of humor: actually found myself laughing out loud at some of the lines. Like when the loser brother takes out his frustration at losing the multi-billion dollar space station by smashing a scale model, his sister notes they’ve lost “Ten Billion, plus twenty-thousand for the model you just broke.” Or the heroine’s excuse for hanging up on her boss: “I’ve gotta go; the car in front of me just…exploded.”

Basically, these aren’t deep characters, but they are serviceable for the kind of film this is, and they are constantly enjoyable to watch. Though they’re stock characters, the writers made an effort to inject a little life into them. Again, contrast Black Panther where the love interest’s entire personality is ‘earnest and capable action girl, but not the other one.’

As for Johnson, he’s basically playing a variant of his usual character, which is perfectly fine with me. He’s given the added dimension of being mildly misanthropic and having a chivalrous streak. Though I joked about his career path, the film actually does give him a fairly plausible backstory of special forces – anti-poaching team – primatologist. Basically, his character makes sense on his own terms. His connection with George is cartoonishly exaggerated (he apparently can convey complex instructions like “look after the new guy because he’s confused” with a few simple signs), but it gives an extra layer of emotional investment to the story.

Watching this film, one thing that struck me about Dwayne Johnson is that he really knows how to make his characters heroic. Like, when the bullets start flying the first thing he does is throw himself in front of the girl and try to shield her. Then he risks his own life to save the guy who has been nothing but rude to him and whose fault the whole situation is in the first place. Even outside the action sequences he’s polite, chivalrous (e.g. rebuking George for making lewd gestures in front of the girl), and generally a stand-up guy. I like the way he tries to talk down the two MPs who come to arrest him and the girl before knocking them out. And I love his description of his last encounter with poachers: “They shot at us and missed. I shot at them and didn’t.” (why do I remember so many more lines from this film than the other two?). In sum, yes, I’d call this guy a legit hero.

(By the way, the heroes of this film are two super-masculine men and a cute, feminine girl. The villains are a soulless, dominating businesswoman and her weak, sniveling brother. Not sure if there’s any meaning to be gleaned from that, but it made me like the film even more).

I just realized that, of the three films I’ve seen recently, Black Panther had the least impressive hero. The kid in Ready Player One was kind of weak, but he at least had a moment where he made a hard call to protect the girl, and he had to struggle a little and grow a little, and the story ultimately depended upon him. T’Challa was effectively useless without his powers, which could literally be given to anyone and which he loses because he made a series of terrible decisions for no reason and gets back through no effort of his own. He never has to sacrifice anything or make a hard decision for someone else; the arc of the film is the villain gets power because of the hero’s incompetence, then the hero is rescued by his friends and comes back to stop him before he can seriously misuse it, all in the final third of the film. There was little sense of what was at stake; we didn’t see people being threatened or in danger, we just heard Killmonger ranting about how he wants to kill women and children.

In Rampage, on the other hand, during the climax the characters are constantly worrying about the civilians. We see people in danger, and when the crisis is over we see people expressing relief and reuniting with loved ones. We are given a clear sense of what our heroes were protecting and that they succeeded in doing so.

Actually, my biggest problem with Rampage is that it ends too abruptly: I would have liked to see an epilogue showing what happens to the characters afterward. It seems so obvious that I’m kind of amazed they don’t have one (I also would have liked to see some smooches between our two leads, but oh well).

So, that’s Rampage: it’s nothing great, but a very solid, very enjoyable B-Movie that, in its own simple way, outdoes the giant A-pictures it goes up against. I feel kind of like Johnson’s character here: preferring the company of a gorilla to ostensibly more engaging companionship. Here’s hoping Infinity War proves to be the lovely geneticist who will make me care about the human race again (a convoluted metaphor, but I think it holds up).

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