A couple weeks ago, my movie night was revisiting Rampage, the 2018 video game adaptation starring Dwayne Johnson, Jeffery Dean Morgan, and a giant cgi gorilla.
When I first saw the film in theaters, I found myself unexpectedly pleased by it, at least for what it is. Keep in mind that I saw it just after back-to-back viewings of Black Panther and Ready Player One, both of which are horribly written films. Coming off of those two, this seemed a pleasant surprise.
I was curious to see whether it held up, and, well, once again, it surprisingly does. It isn’t brilliant by any stretch, but it’s one of those films that is much better than it had any right to be.
The set up is that an evil genetics corporation was doing experiments on their space station using an illegal method of ‘genetic editing’. The process works, but this results in a giant savage rat killing everyone on the station, which destabilizes and burns up in the atmosphere, but not before the last surviving crew member manages to get some of the research off the station into an escape pod…which then also blows up, scattering the three capsules containing the research across the continental US. One lands in Florida, where it’s eaten by a crocodile, the second in Wyoming, where it affects a wolf, and the third in the San Diego zoo, where it affects an albino gorilla under the car of the Rock (frankly this is one of those movies where it’s not really necessary to remember character names). This causes the three animals to begin growing uncontrollably, experiencing accompanying bouts of uncontrollable rage and hunger.
Pretty Geneticist, who used to work for the evil corporation, sees a newscast of the station crash and the impact at the zoo, guesses what it means, and goes to offer her help because she hopes the gorilla can be evidence of the company’s illegal activity. The government, in the form of Agent Cowboy (best character in the film, by the way) gets involved, detains them both, and prepares to ship George to a secure location.
Meanwhile, Evil Businesswoman and her Loser Brother hire some mercenaries to recover the Wyoming capsule, and failing that, to kill and bring in the mutated wolf so that they can recover their research and sell it to the highest bidder.
So, the thing about this movie is that the premise is, of course, gloriously stupid: gene therapy that blends different traits and turns ordinary animals into uncontrollable, unkillable monsters. In addition to that, you have the extremely-astute gorilla who can carry on full conversations with the Rock involving jokes and abstract ideas conveyed through a few choice signs. All pretty absurd.
But, once swallow the premise and the rest of the film is…well, surprisingly solid. The characters, for the most part, react reasonably to the situation, taking logical steps toward their goal, not making glaringly obvious mistakes (e.g. there’s no Bumblebee situation of “let’s give the alien robots access to military satellites because they asked nicely”), and it mostly flows very well.
For instance, consider the chain of events after George begins to mutate. The Rock, an experienced zookeeper, follows procedure by immediately isolating the ape in a secure enclosure while running medical tests to try to figure out what’s wrong with him. He refuses to send for the authorities because he’s afraid they’ll put the gorilla down, but he acknowledges that they will have to do that eventually if they can’t figure out what’s wrong with him. Then when Pretty Geneticist shows up claiming specialized knowledge and accurately describing George’s symptoms, he lets her in on the situation because he has no other options.
And when George escapes, the only reason he is able to do so is because the cage naturally would not have been designed to account for his newfound power (contrast this with, say, Jurassic World, where the dinosaur gets out because they stupidly went inside the enclosure to look for it).
Or take Evil Businesswoman’s actions after the station blows up. She notes that they at least got some of the capsules containing the research off the station, and they know where two of them have landed. She doesn’t bother with the one in San Diego because it’s too public, so she hires a group of mercenaries whom she’s worked with before to get the one in Wyoming. When they find the wolf has already ingested the stuff, she sends them after it to kill it and recover its DNA, preferably before it mutates too far. She knows it’s a long shot that they’ll actually be able to bring the wolf down, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility so far as she knows, and she doesn’t care about human lives. So making the effort under those circumstances makes sense for a character like her.
Having failed that, she sets up a radio signal to draw the animals to Chicago, trusting that the military will be able to kill the animals and that this will bring them down in a predictable location. Again, given her goals and values, that’s a logical progression: first priority is to recover her valuable research before someone else does, and she knows now that the military are the only ones with the resources to kill the monsters. Since they’re bound to do so sooner or later, her best option is to try to narrow down where that happens and to pressure the military to get on it before they have a chance to investigate too closely.
The biggest flaw is, of course, what happens if they can’t. But even then, the two are preparing to bail out as the monsters get too close and they’re only too late because they were delayed by an encounter with our heroes. That, and the military might have been able to do the job, except that an unexpected third and far more dangerous monster shows up and overwhelms them completely.
In other words, Evil Businesswoman’s plan fails and she gets her comeuppance largely due to factors that she had no way of predicting (not entirely, but we’ll get to the stupid things later).
Likewise putting the gorilla on a transport plane seems like a monumentally stupid thing to do…except that the government guys actually do take every precaution by keeping the ape heavily sedated and even adjusting the dose to account for his growth and increased metabolism. And, in fact, the gorilla doesn’t wake up until an outside factor – the radio signal – intervenes, something the government guys couldn’t have predicted. Once again, the flaws in the characters’ plans mostly come about due to factors that they couldn’t reasonably have known ahead of time.
Something I realized is that the scientist getting the capsules off of the station was actually unnecessary, since from what we’re told they would have survived re-entry anyway. But the thing is, it’s unnecessary plot wise, but not from the characters perspective. Evil Businesswoman wants to be sure to get hold of the things, so she tries to get them off in the escape pod. We could have left that out and still had our movie, but it’s a completely motivated action from the character’s perspective (and it establishes her evilness while giving us a tension-filled horror-style opening and a cameo by Larry the Rat, a fourth monster exclusive to the Atari Lynx version).
I also love the fact that the authorities don’t just shrug off the accusations against Evil Genetics Company: they send the FBI in to do a full investigation. Likewise the bad guys are able to evade detection for the time being because they actually had the sense to keep the records of their illegal activities on a separate server from the rest of the company operations, so that they can appear to be fully cooperating without risk (unlike Iron Man 3, where Tony Stark can use a backdoor from Rhodey’s suit to remotely hack into AIM’s terrorist conspiracy).They then download all their incriminating data to a laptop and scrub the server the first chance they get.
Evil Businesswoman also takes steps to set up Pretty Geneticist to take the fall, which again, given her position and background isn’t that much of a stretch (she was heavily involved in the research and did time in prison), and since the authorities aren’t going to let something like this go without blaming someone, it gives her, Evil Businesswoman, a way out.
Now, I’m not trying to call this a smart film; it isn’t. This is basically a sci-fi channel original movie based on a video game that happened to get a big budget and a few big name actors in it. None of this is brilliant writing, but someone at least took the time to consider motivations, cause and effect, and that most of these characters are not complete idiots (again contrast this with Jurassic World, where Vincent D’Nofrio inexplicably thinks he can command a raptor because he saw Chris Pratt do it once). They put a lot more effort into this plot than they had to, and that’s something I really appreciate seeing.
Among some notable bits of stupidity that the film does have: if Evil Genetics Company has the money to run its own space program, would the profits of a device that turns ordinary animals into unstoppable killing machines really be worth all they go through? And why do the capsules survive atmospheric re-entry, only to spill their contents at the first touch? Also, in the climax the Rock gets shot in the side, which causes enough damage for him to pass out. A few minutes later he’s able to rescue the heroine and then engage in the final battle without any trouble. I’m not sure why the government arrested the Rock and Pretty Geneticist in the first place, but they have a much easier time escaping from the military base than they really should, even with the help of Agent Cowboy. The standard-issue hard-headed military comander really should have had the sense to listen to the only people in the room who have encountered / studied these creatures first hand. And Evil Businesswoman’s reasons for taking Pretty Geneticist hostage in the end really don’t make any sense, and Pretty Geneticist’s final gambit depends heavily on chance.
Other than that, it’s really just an enjoyable ride. It moves quickly (just over a hundred minutes) and the story flows logically from event to event for the most part. The characters are light, but enjoyable enough company. Again, Jeffery Dean Morgan (who I keep wanting to call Harry Dean Stanton, though alas, that fine actor is no longer with us) is the standout, with his government agent, who puts on a corny, non-stop cowboy act and who ends up becoming our heroes’ most valuable ally. Lightly sketched, but he has personality and consistent motivations, and it’s frankly surprising for a film like this to have the government spook throw in with the good guys. The Rock is the Rock, of course, being charismatically heroic (I like how his first instinct when the bullets start flying is to shield Pretty Geneticist, and the fact that he risks his life to save Agent Cowboy, even when the latter has been nothing but a jerk to him), and everyone else fills their roles adequately enough.
The monster action is pretty darn cool as well. It’s on a somewhat unusual scale of roughly 30-50 feet; typically monsters are either comparably human sized or building-sized. This gives a lot of chance for mayhem without putting them on a completely inhuman scale. Though it’s PG-13, the film gets away with a surprising amount of gore, especially in the sequence where Ralph slaughters the mercenary team. Lots of people get squished and/or eaten, lots of military vehicles are smash and thrown about, and at least one skyscraper is toppled (kudos also for the fact that this takes the three creatures a lot of effort). Then the climax is a three-way battle between the monsters, which is pretty well staged as these things go (though the Rock has far too much plot armor, and they do that really annoying thing that all modern monster films seem to do where the monster that’s been laying waste to whole armies inexplicably has trouble killing one specific guy).
That’s another thing; the movie does a fairly good job as an adaptation. As far as video games go, Rampage is about as bare-bones as you can get: there’s barely any story, and the gameplay is just ‘see how much you can destroy before losing all your health’. But what key elements there are, the film makes sure to hit: the three monsters, the woman in the red dress, etc. The final rampage in Chicago actually does play out like a session of the game, with the three monsters tearing up the city and working together to bring a particular building down. They even match some of the specific mannerisms, like when George tosses a victim into the air to swallow whole. And again, Larry the Rat has a cameo in the opening.
The filmmakers seem to have done their homework on classic monster films as well: George is obviously a King Kong or Mighty Joe Young knockoff (though his white fur actually calls to mind Son of Kong). Ralph the wolf was a giant werewolf in the games, and some of his action is a bit reminiscent of werewolf movies, especially the Wyoming sequence (which made me think of the superior Dog Soldiers). He’s also been given the power to glide like a flying squirrel, a nod to the Toho kaiju Varan. Lizzy the crocodile (never named in the film) was a Godzilla knock off in the game, but her design here draws more on Godzilla’s perennial ally Anguirus.
There’s also an almost undefinable sense of, well, fun to the whole thing. This movie has no illusions about itself and almost all the storytelling decisions seem designed to make the film as enjoyable as possible. Things like Agent Cowboy: there’s no reason to make him a faux cowboy, but it’s fun and makes the character more interesting. Or the Rock’s cheesily close relationship with George, or the many creatively horrible ways the monsters find to kill people.
The dialogue is mostly very corny, with characters tossing lots of random ‘the hells’ tossed in, like teenagers trying to sound tough. Though it gets the job down and there are some genuinely amusing exchanges, like when Evil Businesswoman interrupts her brother’s temper tantrum to specify that the crashing space station lost them tens of billions of dollars, “Plus twenty-thousand for the models you just broke.” Or Agent Cowboy’s response to Loser Brother’s trying to throw all the responsibility onto his sister: “Since when is complicity a crime?”
In summary, Rampage is one of those films where, it isn’t great, I don’t even know if I could call it strictly good, but it is much better than you’d ever expect it to be. It’s clear the writers and most everyone involved were really trying to make the best film they could, even though this is exactly the kind of movie the filmmakers like to phone it in for: the kind where the phrase ‘who cares?’ would be thrown around the set. If you like monster movies, you’re almost certain to like this, and really, if you just enjoy light, fun action with some surprisingly solid writing.