This article was originally called “Rampage Proves that Video Game Movies Work Best When They’re Dumb Fun”, and it was about the challenges of adapting video games, but the title was too long, and I got sidetracked thinking about what makes giant monster movies are so appealing. Specifically, why the audience cheers when they watch a giant gorilla, giant wolf, and giant alligator eat Chicago. It looks cool, of course, there are explosions and debris clouds everywhere. But maybe there’s something deeper to it.
Giant monster movies are nothing new. Originating with the American King Kong (1933), but no doubt popularized by Kaiju culture from Japan, starting with the original Gojira (1954). Kaiju has become a genre unto itself- one where a giant monster appears and then either destroys a city, or fights another giant monster (usually in a city). Happily, Rampage has all of this and more.
The word Kaiju translates to “strange beast”. Japan has given us a number of famous ones aside from the aforementioned Gojira (Godzilla), such as his friends: Mothra, King Ghidora, and Gamera. Each with interesting designs and origins. They’re typically based off of existing animals and then have additional features added on- the most notable feature being “large enough to bite a skyscraper”.
King Kong was originally conceived as a typical jungle film, a trend at the time. An explorer would go into the African jungle and encounter a gorilla that was pretty big, and have an adventure trying to not get killed by it. This idea was scrapped due to the cost of sending a team to shoot in Africa, and at some point, director Merion C. Cooper repitched the idea, but this time the gorilla ends up in New York, and is also gigantic. The movie was a hit.
Gojira came about when an unrelated film by Toho studios was shut down and they scrambled to produce something else. Producer Tomoyuki Tanaka wrote an outline for a project called “The Giant Monster From 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, and teamed with writers to create the famous giant dinosaur we know today.
While the creators of Gojira weren’t the first to create a giant monster film, their work added new thematic elements to the format. The beast Gojira is a metaphor for nuclear destruction, making his first appearance within a decade of America’s bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His appearance is due to nuclear radiation, and his destruction of various cities and the panic he causes is reminiscent of the bombings still fresh in the minds of Japan.
Most giant monsters in American cinema are portrayed as foreign enemies- King Kong is from an exotic island, the Cloverfield monster is from either the depths of the ocean or another dimension, and the Kaiju of Pacific rim are from the depths of the ocean and another dimension. While there are still elements “man should be careful about how it treats nature,” they’re reduced, and emphasis is placed more on combatting or escaping the monster as an external threat. Japanese Kaiju films, on the other hand, place strong emphasis on the Kaiju attacks being a result of man’s actions. Thus, eastern Kaiju films warn us against playing God, and Western monster films tend to emphasize the strength of humanity over nature. Rampage, despite being a VERY American film shares more thematic traits with Japan’s Kaijus than America’s giant monsters.
Rampage opens with an astronaut-scientist trying to escape an exploding space shuttle. To make matters worse, the only other surviving creature on the shuttle with her is a human-sized rat monster, and mission control won’t open the door to the escape pod until she retrieves some scientific materials for them. She manages to get the materials into the pod, but the pod explodes and she dies, but the science juice flies down to Earth, splits apart, and crashes in a forest, a swamp, and the San Diego Zoo gorilla exhibit.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Dwayne Johnson’s Davis Okoye, a primatologist and former poacher killer, who we know immediately is the hero due to his ability to charm gorillas and ladies. He’s in the process of introducing a new gorilla to the enclosure, but first has to get the leader of the gorilla group, George, an albino, to agree to look after him. Davis and George engage in some sign language banter that ends with the two fist bumping, but not before George shows us his ability to flip the bird. It’s all an effective set-up to the relationship the two have, and leads us into further establishing Davis’ character. He likes animals more than people. In his words, animals don’t lie.
Tragedy strikes when George encounters the space science juice that has landed in the enclosure, and it kicks off his transformation from big gorilla to giant gorilla. The same thing happens to a wolf in the forest, and to an alligator in the swamp. The science juice also causes them to become uncontrollably aggressive. When Davis returns to check on George, he finds himself at a loss to explain George’s sudden growth spurt. That’s when the secondary protagonist, scientist Dr. Kate Caldwell shows up to explain things to him.
Their objective of peacefully controlling George is interrupted by a secret branch of the US government, headed by Agent Harvey Russell, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan who portrays him as a southern dandy, plays-by-his-own rules cowboy type. He seems to be having the time of his life in this role, where he gets to play his macho charisma off of Johnson’s in a number of testosterone-fueled verbal sparring matches. Eventually Russell, Davis, and Caldwell resolve to save George and take down the evil corporation that created the science juice.
Said evil corporation, Energyne, is headed by a sister-brother duo, played by Malin Åkerman and Jake Lacy. You don’t need to know their names or anything about them, other than the fact that they’re driven by greed, and self-preservation. Åkerman’s character is a cartoon supervillain, and Lacy’s is a weaselly coward. Together they watch the chaos unfold from the top floor of their company’s Chicago skyscraper. They hatch some bizarre plan to get all the monsters to come to them, for no discernable reason other than they somehow plan on getting the science juice samples back. This obviously puts many people in harm’s way, as George, the wolf monster (Ralph), and the alligator (Lizzie) monster take Chicago!
That’s when we get the classic giant monster/kaiju destruction that we’ve been waiting for, as the three creatures display their own unique methods of breaking stuff and eating people. It’s complete carnage, as the military steps in to try to take down the monsters. We see attack choppers snatched out of the sky and into the mouths of giants. Tanks are thrown across city blocks. The skyline of this iconic city comes tumbling down one building at a time.
And the audience cheers for it. The destruction is part of the draw. Of course we want the Davis to win out in the end and save the city, but the audience also roots for the monsters. Perhaps there is a part of us that shares Davis’ belief that animals are better than people. At one point, Davis explains George’s origins, how poachers hunted down and killed his mother in front of him so that they could sell her parts on the black market. Animals, Davis explains, just want to eat, and if they don’t like you, they will eat you. They’re honest. People lie. That’s made apparent by the villains who lie to both the public and the government about the nature of their company.
The bad guys sit at the top of an ivory tower, which would no doubt be made of real ivory if there were enough elephants left, and look down at the people beneath them. They stay there, even when the monsters come. They turned nature into a weapon and then paint cross-hairs on their own safe-haven. When they’re finally gobbled up by the monsters or crushed by the debris, we know they had it coming. It drives home the point of the movie. The money-hungry rich and their corporation are villainized, and their downfall is the result of their own actions.
Conversely, the heroes are an animal lover, an ethical scientist, and a wise-cracking government agent. Davis’ compassion tells us how we should act toward other living beings, and Caldwell’s adherence to ethics tell us how we should approach scientific discovery. And while the military is portrayed as ineffective, Agent Russell proves himself to be capable, in spite of some of his underhanded tactics. As far as this movie goes, government oversight comes off as a douchey but ultimately heroic older brother.
The heroes aren’t able to completely save the day until they cure George of his aggression. George and Davis team up to punch and shoot the other monsters to death. Davis proves that the best way to fight beasts is to tame them, and he tames George through love and respect, not violence. They tell us that those who attempt to rule over nature by playing God are the ones who deserve to be destroyed by it. By embracing the beast to save the city, Davis finally bridges the purity of animal instinct with the the spirit of human morality.
Rampage isn’t Shakespeare. It’s highly derivative of the kaiju and giant monster films that came before, and it’s all the better for it. It’s dumb, loud, explosion-filled fun, which is exactly why it succeeds as a film. And underneath all the noise is a message about our relationship with nature, and why we need to protect it.