by Connor Fineran
I’ve started to view the film industry as a shapeless mess akin to the Blob. It finds new things to absorb, growing bigger and bigger as it digests new things to turn into movies. But one thing always goes right through it like prunes or laxative: video games. It’s ironic that games adapt quite a bit from film and are praised or at the very least acknowledged for taking “inspiration” from a “distinguished art form” such as cinema.
Video game films are an entirely different matter, gentle reader. In fact, I can barely name a film adapted from a video game that is a good film. I don’t think I need to name any as the issue has taken up quite a good deal of page space from past writers on the subject.
So it comes to as a surprise when Rampage comes along and makes me forget that its source material comes from a relatively plotless quarter muncher where giant monsters punch buildings to pieces and eat people. The solution? Basically being the movie equivalent of that.
Davis Okoye (America’s sweethunk Dwayne Johnson) is a primatologist and all-around animal lover who’s the closest friend to albino gorilla George. Disaster strikes, though, when a canister of mutation gas from an evil corporation’s space station lands in the gorilla enclosure and exposes George to its contents. Meanwhile, two other animals, a wolf and an alligator, are exposed as well and, like George, begin to grow in size, giving them the mother of all ‘roid rages in the process. Soon, the three monsters, George, Ralph (the wolf), and Lizzy (the alligator), converge on Chicago, destroying everything and anyone in their way. Okoye, a geneticist, and government agent must work together to stop the mayhem and hopefully save George.
This movie succeeds by doing the bare minimum required. I’ll leave aside the inaccuracies to the game as it’s not terribly important to the quality of the film. Rather, it tries to be a good monster movie first. Every piece is in play and mostly succeeds: Johnson is charismatic and a capable action hero like the modern Schwarzenegger that he is; Jeffery Dean Morgan is having way too much fun swaggering his way on screen as a cowboy G-man; Naomie Harris is perfectly fine as the “scientist” (read: exposition fairy); and Malin Ackerman is our designated evil CEO villain who gets one the best deaths ever. Every role is accounted for and played totally straight; there is no subversion or challenging of the monster formula. It’s straightforward, to the point, and moves at a brisk pace and thus never really feels sluggish or boring. Ordinary? Sure. Flat and very predicable? Definitely. But never boring.
And that is probably its biggest fault, in my view. It never tries anything else beyond the promise of “three giant monsters are going to destroy Chicago.” It’s so straightforward that it feels like a more substantial commentary or other deeper element would have sweetened the deal. There’s an attempt at satirizing corporate sociopathy with the rather ridiculous plot by the villains to lure the monsters to DOWNTOWN CHICAGO, at the TOP OF THE SEARS TOWER mind you, so they can collect a successful sample of their experiment. There’s greed, and then there’s just plain idiocy.
Which brings me to the jarring tonal shifts. The film in general feels like a less obnoxious Godzilla (1998) with its plethora of humorous dialogue and one-liners from the Rock, but then is surprisingly gory, particularly in a sequence involving Ralph picking off a squad of soldiers in a forest. In addition, there’s a huge body count when the monsters reach Chicago and the climax involves slightly uncomfortable allusion to 9/11. It ends up feeling like there was a darker tone, but somewhere down the line the film was drastically reworked to be less so and the gaps show.
However, I think the film’s success comes in the fact that it doesn’t demand much from its audience. It advertises itself as a creature feature, and that is what we come to see. It bypasses the curse of the video game movie by simply being a movie first. For two hours, I forgot Rampage was based on a video game and watched an adequately entertaining B-grade monster movie.
Films and video games are entirely different mediums, for sure. But the lynchpin that makes Rampage work is that it understands what worked about the game and translates it into a film. Rampage is about a giant ape, wolf, and lizard destroying a city. Thankfully there are plenty of films to draw from to make that work. It’s not complex or terribly smart, but it is incredibly entertaining.