Saturday, April 21, 2018

"Rampage": review

[WARNING: Spoilers!]

I knew, going into "Rampage," that this movie was going to be stupid as hell. With the bar of my expectations set so low, I wasn't disappointed. I was also as entertained as I thought I was going to be: "Rampage" can be summed by the cliché "good, stupid fun"—because that's exactly what it is. This is a turn-your-brain-off-and-enjoy kind of movie.

Directed by Brad Peyton and starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, 2018's "Rampage" is yet another in a long line of action films based on video games. Johnson has gone this route before: you may recall he starred in the filmic version of "Doom" some years back. In "Rampage" the movie, we've got an evil corporation called Energyne (pronounced "enner-jean," perhaps to avoid phonetic associations with "vagina") that has been creating genetically edited freaks based on CRISPR/Cas9 tech in an effort dubbed Project Rampage. Energyne is at a stage where it has created a pathogen that acts as a mutagen on animal subjects.

When the movie begins, we find ourselves in an orbiting space station whose crew has been wiped out by a giant mutant rat. The station is in its death throes, sliding inexorably into the planet's atmosphere, and the lone female scientist is desperate to climb into an escape pod and head back to Earth, leaving the giant rat behind.* Mission control, based at Energyne HQ and managed by head honcho Claire Wyden (Malin Åkerman in full Evil White Woman mode), cruelly refuses to remotely open the door to the escape pod until the scientist has collected samples of the mutagen to take back to Earth with her. With the samples collected, the scientist boards the pod, but not before the mutant rat attacks and cracks one of the pod's reinforced windows. The window fails and shatters during reentry, killing the scientist, and the pod's (along with the space station's) debris field spreads across the entire mainland United States, with damaged mutagen containers landing in California, Wyoming, and Florida. In Wyoming, a wolf encounters the broken container and gets infected; in the Everglades, a gator swallows a mutagen container whole; in California, an albino gorilla named George, currently living in a San Diego wildlife preserve, comes upon a container and gets infected when it pops and sprays him.

Primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson) has established a loving relationship with the great apes under his care at the San Diego preserve; his team understands that Okoye, a loner, has a better relationship with animals than with people. One of the team comes to Okoye with bad news: George has broken into the bear paddock and killed a grizzly, getting clawed in the process. When Okoye finds George, the gorilla is hiding in a cave, and he's also twenty percent larger than he had been the previous day. Former Energyne scientist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) tracks Okoye down and tells him about the Energyne mutagen, which is based on her work—research she had done for benign purposes, but which Energyne repurposed for weapons development. The mutagen, we learn, supercharges an animal's bodily growth, heightens its natural abilities (senses, strength, agility, etc.), and multiplies its aggressiveness to frighteningly unnatural levels. Accompanying this freakish growth is, naturally, a burning desire to eat.

Energyne sends a paramilitary team out to deal with the wolf—now named "Ralph" by Internet nuts—but the wolf ends up wiping out the entire team, leaving only helmet-cam video behind to tell the tale. No one seems to notice the giant gator, which has over 700 square miles of Everglades to play around in. George, meanwhile, escapes the containment facility he has been placed in before being recaptured by government operatives led by the smug, cowboyish Agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, lately of "Walking Dead" fame). George escapes a second time while being airlifted: when Energyne broadcasts a signal that the animals are programmed to respond to, George wrecks the plane in midair, survives the crash, and heads to Chicago—the source of the signal—along with Ralph the giant wolf. The gator also swerves and makes a beeline for the metropolis, prompting the US military to go on high alert and begin the massive evacuation of a major US city. This is a pretty long and elaborate setup for what is essentially twenty minutes of video-game punchline. The thing we've all come to see happens during the final fifth of the movie: monsters massively fucking shit up.

"Rampage" takes its sweet time getting us to the real monster-movie portion of the story, but while I was watching the film, I thought it was a fun ride getting there. With just over 100 minutes of run time, "Rampage" is too short to wear out its welcome. Whatever the movie's many flaws—and we'll talk about those in a moment—no one can call this film boring. My hat is off to director Brad Peyton for, if nothing else, having a very good notion of how to pace an action film. Peyton keeps the energy level up.

Let's get the complaints out of the way first. I wasn't kidding when I said this is a turn-your-brain-off movie: "Rampage" has some big problems in terms of dialogue and story logic. The dialogue is some of the worst I've ever heard that wasn't written by George Lucas. Some of it is cringe-inducingly corny; some of it, like the line about there being no submarines in the Chicago area—is just plain dumb. Early on, for example, when George gets loose, Okoye yells, "Call 911!" to no one in particular. Then, when the police arrive, Okoye seems surprised that the cops are drawing their guns on the huge and growing ape. What the hell did he expect the cops to do in that situation? While we're at it: why did the astronaut-scientist need permission from the ground to enter an escape pod whose access door was remotely controlled?

But there's more. One huge plot hole is that the mutagen affects George differently from the way it affects Ralph the wolf and Lizzie** the alligator: Ralph and Lizzie gain extra body parts and abilities, but George simply grows bigger and angrier. This disparity is never adequately explained. If we focus specifically on Ralph the wolf, one question that pops up is why we know, early on, that the wolf can fly, but we don't see his flying-squirrel wings until very, very late in the movie. The membranes just magically appear out of nowhere—after several scenes in which the wolf leaps from skyscraper to skyscraper. Another problem, with both dialogue and story logic, arises at the end when the main human characters thank George—who gets an antidote that fails to shrink him but does return him to his normal kindly temperament—for saving so many lives after George turns against the other two monsters. It's as if the characters have forgotten that, only minutes before, that selfsame gorilla had been throwing around cars and stomping on people on his way to answer that radio signal. A bit like in "Man of Steel," massive loss of life in the city doesn't seem to matter much to the plot.

But the movie's virtues outweigh its faults, in my opinion, especially when it comes to humor. There's one moment, during the plane-crash scene, when Okoye saves the life of Agent Russell. Russell, who had been knocked out, wakes up to find himself having safely parachuted to the ground. He sees the plane's flaming wreckage, notes that he's still alive, and cries, "Holy shit!"—to which Okoye shouts back, "You're welcome," which had to be a callback to the "You're Welcome" song—sung by the Rock in his role as the trickster god Maui—in "Moana." Johnson also gets to utter a series of snappy one-liners that will remind older viewers of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his heyday.

In terms of characterization, one thing the movie does very well is establish, at the beginning, the warm, familial relationship between Okoye and George the gorilla, who knows sign language (including, hilariously, a whole set of vulgar gestures that the ape delivers with exquisite comic timing). The movie also imbues George with a lively, charming, believably simian personality that makes him arguably the most sympathetic character in the film. It would have been nice for some of the other supporting characters to have been as generously fleshed out, but the screenwriter apparently didn't feel it necessary to do so. As a result, we're left with a lady scientist (Harris) who comes off as a nagging feminist, forever rolling her eyes at all the macho posturing going on around her; a purely evil ice-queen antagonist (Åkerman) who is part of the corporate machine; her whiny little brother Brett (Jake Lacey), whose dialogue basically switches back and forth between "We're screwed!" and "Whadda we do now?"; and a US Army colonel who was borrowed straight from Central Casting. Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Agent Harris, while saddled with some of the corniest lines in the movie, is one of the few supporting characters whose arc at least slightly defies expectations.

As a spectacle, "Rampage" delivers, especially in those final twenty minutes. During the climax, I laughed and laughed until I'm pretty sure the other people in the theater thought I was nuts. There's the scene in which Ralph the wolf comes bursting through an entire building and leaps at his prey, wing membranes billowing. Those same wings provide a comic moment in which the wolf leaps away, then suddenly swoops back in a tight turn to continue the fight. The sight of all three mutant creatures climbing up the Energyne building was awesome in its ridiculousness, and the various copter-tossing homages to King Kong—of which there were many—were all worth some mad chortling. My only complaint, during these scenes, comes from the way the A-10 Warthog proves so ineffectual. In real life, an A-10 sports a 30-millimeter cannon with such a rapid rate of fire that it can split a tank in two on a single pass, as if the tank were butter. When the A-10 appeared in the movie, it should have sheared off some limbs. Then again, the movie explains that the mutagen gives an infected animal Wolverine-like self-healing abilities, so perhaps this is why the A-10 proved ineffective. I don't know. As I said: turn your brain off.

Viewers who saw "Jurassic World" will inevitably see parallels between Chris Pratt's Owen Grady and Dwayne Johnson's Davis Okoye, two ex-military men who are comfortable around dangerous beasts. "Rampage" has plenty of other derivative, formulaic, and predictable elements as well. But you know what? I didn't care. The movie was good, corny, silly fun. I enjoyed watching the monsters clobber each other in this movie much more than I enjoyed the kaiju-versus-mecha action in "Pacific Rim." "Rampage" is part "Jurassic Park," part "King Kong," and part everything else. As a video-game adaptation, it's one of the better ones, but don't expect it to win any Oscars or spark any profound thoughts. If you go see this movie, it's probably because you have fond memories of the original game (as I do) and because you're in the mood to watch Chicago's downtown get torn to rubble.

*I didn't know this, but Wikipedia trivia notes that a rat character—named Larry—did appear in an Atari Lynx version of the original video game. Other interesting trivia: the wolf character in the game is named Ralph, and that was the basis for the name Ralph in the movie "Wreck-It Ralph." How intertextual our world is!

**I don't recall whether Lizzie's name is ever mentioned in the movie, but the gator character in the video game is named Lizzie.

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