Giant monsters are a part of my extended family. They’ve been around since I was a kid, and even if I didn’t see much of them during my years at college, they’d always come back into my life to provide support and wellness. Yeah, some are not that great and maybe I’d rather visit with them again, but the best of them will always be there for me.
Rampage is now a favorite second cousin. It’s no classic Godzilla flick (a godfather figure) or King Kong (a beloved sibling), but I look forward to hanging out with it at the next family gathering, ‘cuz it’s a real cut-up. And since Rampage arrived on home video and VOD platforms this week, I can now kick back with it whenever I need a pick-me-up.
And no one is as surprised at this new addition to my kaiju family as me. When 2018 started, I pegged my giant monster hopes on Pacific Rim: Uprising. The first Pacific Rim was a blast, and even if this sequel lacked the guiding hand of Guillermo del Toro, it still had the strong support of the original’s world-building. Rampage, an adaptation of a video game — rarely a positive sign — from the director of the dreadful San Andreas, didn’t have such promise. Dwayne Johnson was adding his welcome presence, but Dwayne Johnson was also in San Andreas and ended up helping that not a bit. I held out shaky hope that Rampage might be “okay” and looked forward to Pacific Rim: Uprising.
Pacific Rim came … and it’s okay. One hundred percent “fine.” A few spectacular Jaeger vs. Kaiju moves, an interesting twist on the villain, and a fun subplot about a plucky young heroine and her DIY Jaeger. I’m a sucker for young heroine stories; they give me a jolt of middle school enthusiasm. Otherwise, Pacific Rim: Uprising is a file-and-forget giant monster film I never plan to add to my permanent collection.
Then Rampage came … and it’s kind of amazing.* A perfect schlock popcorn movie, it connected with me on a Lifeforce level, even without space vampire girl nudity. It’s a giant ice cream sundae of weekend matinee zaniness, and the only video game adaptation I’ve seen that captures the actual sensation of enjoying playing a video game without resorting to an artificial Doom-style POV gimmick.
Rampage started as a coin-op arcade game from Bally Midway. It arrived at pizza parlors, donut shops, and Chuck E. Cheese locations in 1986, during a transitional period when arcade machines were losing ground to the second wave of home consoles that burgeoned with the NES. Rampage offered eager teens and tweens the chance to team-up three at once and smash the hell out of cities in the form of a giant gorilla (George), a giant lizard (Lizzie), and a giant werewolf (Ralph). Yeah, a giant werewolf — why not?
When I was fourteen, I loved playing Rampage because of its comic portrayal of 1950s and ‘60s monster movie cheese, its numerous visual gags, and the gleeful way it let players break and eat everything in sight. The game didn’t even require that much skill: each player seemed to lose energy at the same rate until their monster reverted into an embarrassed naked human (whom the other monsters could then eat, a great way to tick off your friends). Such shiny, innocent times.
Rampage the game hasn’t had a high profile since the 1990s, and the most recent version (Rampage: Total Destruction) was released over a decade ago. So why make it into a film in 2018? Because Rampage is one of the few classic-era video games that’s a natural fit for cinema. After all, it started as a parody of an evergreen movie genre. Since Warner Bros. was sitting on the rights to Rampage because of their 2009 purchase of Midway, there was no reason not to use the title as an excuse to create a new version of an old-school monster-on-the-loose flick. (Also, Dwayne Dwayne Johnson loves the original game and when Dwayne Johnson tells you to do something, you do it.) No need to worry about being “faithful” to the game mechanics. Do monsters smash up a city and knock down buildings? Okay, good enough. What about adhering to the game’s “mythology”? The mythology is already built in: a giant monster movie! So how to fit human protagonists into this mayhem? The Rock’s already onboard, and he’s almost a cartoon character himself. For the rest of the puny humans, add skilled character actors to play archetypes like Attractive Scientist (Naomie Harris), Greedy CEO Villain (Malin Åckerman), and Shady Government Type with a Cowboy Affectation (Jeffrey Dean Morgan).
What about the set-up for the rampaging monsters? Easy: ignore the video game’s human mutation background — there isn’t enough time to develop George, Ralph, and Lizzie as people before they transform into kaiju. Have some green mutagen chemical thingy (let’s call it CRISPR, that sounds cool) crash to earth from a space station and transform a gorilla, a wolf, and a crocodile into super-sized mutants with an unquenchable lust for destruction. To get the Rock involved, make him a zookeeper who’s also a special ops butt-kicker and expert helicopter pilot (he’s the Rock, people will buy it) who’s best buds with the gorilla. Now the Rock has to save his gorilla BFF and convince the gorilla to fight the other two monsters to save Chicago — or what’s left of it.
This is all preposterously dumb. It’s also a preposterous amount of fun and delivers a near-perfect last half-hour of giant monster lunacy. Smartly, Rampage plays the monster material and the science argle-bargle around it with a straight face. There are comedy characters and humorous dialogue — none of it that funny, none of it awful — but the filmmakers understand that the real comic relief is the monsters and the pandemonium they create. There’s no need to ironically wink at the audience or pretend the material is anything other than exactly what it is: a reason to show behemoths lay into the architecture, infrastructure, and transportation of a major city while explosive payloads crash uselessly into them.
And, by the gods, Rampage unleashes the beasts in the best way. The finale is the closest any video game movie has come to making me feel like a kid playing an NES on a Saturday with my friends while intoxicated on sugary soda. It’s a button-masher of an ending, where George and Ralph, eventually joined by Lizzie in her big entrance from the river, rip through Chicago and demolish everything in sight. Giant monsters usually don’t go out of their way to destroy things unless they’re attacked or something is in their way, but Rampage gives its trio of titans a serious case of ‘roid rage thanks to CRISPR so it has an excuse to go into overdrive. The monsters climb up and leap across buildings, hurl cars into the air, toss tanks at helicopters, smash product placement buildings (George hates Dave & Busters), and undergo a barrage of military hardware that does nothing but further annoy them.
How willing is the climax to go for broke? The monsters topple over the Sears Tower!** And the Rock drops down the side of the collapsing super-skyscraper in a broken helicopter and only gets a bit dusty for his trouble. Give me all of this!
The finale of the finale is the monster smackdown, which is something the original video game didn’t have much of. The game monsters could punch each other, but not much more. The movie makes up for this with a boisterous battle in the ruins of Federal Plaza with George and the Rock facing Ralph and Lizzie. For this situation only, I will consider the Rock an honorary giant monster.
The rest of the movie building up to the thirty minutes of kaiju Nirvana is a good amount of fun as well. George the gorilla and Dwayne Johnson are a charming screen pair, with George superbly played by mo-cap actor Jason Liles (who will play King Ghidorah in Godzilla: King of the Monsters). Making Dwayne Johnson an action hero who simply wants to save his buddy the gorilla is an excellent spine to hold together this sort of silliness. Johnson even gets to pour out some emotion with a story about how he saved a young George from the poachers who killed his parents. (“They shot at us. They missed. I shot back. I didn’t.”) There are other fun set pieces scattered around: George breaking free from his cage aboard a plane, and Alien-esque opening with a giant rat on a space station, and a tense, near-horror sequence where Joe Manganiello and his a corporate merc squad have a fatal encounter in the woods with Ralph.
Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Rough Rider Man in Black helps keep the middle from sagging too much. The only thing subtle about the character is that he didn’t slap on a Stetson cowboy hat to match the belt buckle and pearl-handled pistol. But if you have to get in Dwayne Johnson’s face, you don’t make “subtle” part of your arsenal.
I may have adored Rampage, but the rest of the public wasn’t completely convinced. Over its theatrical run, Rampage pulled in $425 million worldwide against a $120 million budget. A money-maker, but not an enormous one. There’s talk about making a sequel, of course, but no action yet. But if this is the only Rampage movie I get, I’m darned grateful and think that this can hold me over until Godzilla: King of the Monsters next year.
* And then Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom came … and it’s worse than Pacific Rim and Rampage. But I anticipated this from a long distance off. Yes, the Jurassic Park franchise has fallen below a video game adaptation.
** I refuse to call it “Willis Tower.” Get stepped on by a giant croc, Willis Group.
Ryan Harvey is one of the original bloggers for Black Gate, starting in 2008. He received the Writers of the Future Award for his short story “An Acolyte of Black Spires,” and his stories “The Sorrowless Thief” and “Stand at Dubun-Geb” are available in Black Gate online fiction. A further Ahn-Tarqa adventure, “Farewell to Tyrn”, is available as an e-book. His most recent publication, “The Invasion Will Be Alphabetized,” is now on sale in Stupendous Stories #19. Ryan lives in Costa Mesa, California where he works as a marketing writer. Occasionally, people ask him to talk about Edgar Rice Burroughs or Godzilla in interviews.