Saturday, August 25, 2018

Rampage: American Kaiju

When I first saw the trailer for the Dwayne Johnson/Brad Oeyton Rampage, I wasn't sure it was going to be a Kaiju film. As I've said before, giant gorilla films don't automatically fall under the kaiju umbrella, and they often have problematic subtexts. Giant gorillas are just big animals. But when I saw this picture...

Lizzie, the only serious kaiju in 2018's Rampage

... I realized I'd been wrong. And I reluctantly contacted my good friend and we went to the IMAX show of Rampage. And I had an amazing time.

Rampage is truly an American kaiju film. It's really an action film that happens to include giant monsters. And that's not a criticism. The Host is a crime film that happens to involve a huge mutated fish. And it’s a magnificent film. Rampage has all the elements of a typical action film: a hypermasculine action protagonist who manages to shrug off a bullet, the destruction of a lot of property. Come to think of it, I’m surprised that this hasn’t been done before. The action protagonist and sensibility is what differentiatsd this film from, say, Cloverfield, in which the protagonists are simply there to watch what’s happening. Protagonist Davis Okoye is there to solve plot problems, rather than watch the plot unfold. He also has a convenient background that allows him to perform a a lot of actions what would baffle the average person. He’s a primatologist who was Special Forces, so he knows how to fly a helicopter, when it becomes useful. Quite the Action Hero guy.

The other indicator of action film ethos is the large amount of gunfire. When the military shows up, they bring in s a lot of guns, including an A-10 Warthog. And unlike the standard kaiju film where the missiles and bullets just bounce off, the bullets that hit George, for example, make holes. By the end, despite his mutant healing factor, George is looking pretty rough.

George gets hurt.

Anyway, about the monsters. They are all exposed to a goofy MacGuffin, canisters with a genetic editing delivery system. It's been fascinating to watch genetic manipulation become the new way monsters are created. In the thirties, it was gland transplants, in the fifties and sixties, it became radiation, after that, pollution, and now genetic tampering. Anyway. George the gorilla, Ralph the wolf and Lizzie, who's either an alligator or a crocodile (I'm going to say croc for the rest of the post) are exposed and go on a… rampage. In Chicago.

There's no party like a Chicago party.

Our buy-in kaiju is George the gorilla. He’s Okoye’s best friend, the most human-like, and the least mutated by the MacGuffin. But like only the most recent Kong, Skull Island, this gorilla eats people. And he maintains sympathy, even though Kong: Skull Island cuts away from the giant gorilla actually eating the soldier, Rampage treats us to a long, beautiful shot of the woman in the red dress goes down George's gullet. In the original screenplay, George was to die at the end of the film, probably as penance for eating humans. More on this later.

George has a snack.

George is an albino, which was done because it's difficult to see bloody holes in dark brown or black fur. This differentiates him from Kong, but also lets the damage show. And that's the real thing about Rampage. Although the bullets and explosives aren't the plot solution, (I'm looking at you 1998 Godzilla) they do hurt the monsters. George, as the protagonist, gets shot, impaled, mauled, and really banged up. Unlike Japanese films, where the only thing that can really affect a giant monster is another giant monster, there’s a lot of things that can hurt George. It doesn’t actually slow him down, any more than being shot slows Davis down.

George feels oddly tired.

Ralph is the intermediate monster. He gets a fair amount of screen time early on, when a mercenary group is sent out to deal with this second giant monster. Ralph is at base a wolf, but in addition to mass, gains porcupine quills and membranes between his legs allowing him to glide like Varan the Unbelievable. Ralph also seems to instinctively know how these work, and controls himself well while in the air. But he’s ultimately the kaiju we spend the least time with. Although mammalian, he’s not humanoid, and doesn't present with a complex emotional life. Like George, we watch him eat people, but they're all bad people, mercenaries in the employ of ScumlabsEnergyne.

Ralph doing his Varan impression.

He also serves to show how monstrous Lizzie is, since she makes short, bloody work of him.

Ralph realizes he's made a mistake.

Lizzie, the mutated crocodile, is the real star, the real kaiju. Ralph the wolf is kind of near, but it doesn't have menace Lizzie does. Once she arrives, everything else is secondary. She has to be taken down. She is the most mutated of the trio, and nearly invulnerable. Where the gorilla and the wolf have soft, fleshy bodies, Lizzie is armored like a tank. She's developed gills, but these are not as vulnerable as is hoped, possibly as a nod to the 2014 Godzilla, where gunfire is ineffectively directed at Godzilla's gills. But they look pretty cool when frilled.

Lizzie, the serious kaiju of Rampage (2018).

Lizzie is what makes the film a kaiju film. She’s an engine of destruction, and a strange beast. George has a personal connection to Davis, and Ralph sort of only takes out bad people. Lizzie is there to wreck shit. And she does. Whoever thought of giving a giant croc a gecko’s ability to scale walls was a either a madman or a genius, because Lizzie looks frightening and amazing as she is climbing the Sears Willis Tower. Rampage uses the 2014 Godzilla's idea of echolocation, originally used by the MUTOs and applies it here. How you get creatures attracted to a signal, and for that matter how you mutate animals to receive radio waves from a distance of a thousand miles. But hey, it got all the monsters into Chicago.

Lizzie climbs a building.

In a trope that goes all the way back to the 1925 The Lost World, we see George, Lizzie, and Ralph trashing the most distinctive building in Chicago, the Willis Tower. Because of course the big evil companies lie Energyne need a tall tower to be evil in. Still, Chicago is a nice break from Tokyo, San Francisco, and New York.

Goodbye Chicago skyline.

Of course the military is called out to deal with the creatures. And they are treated with respect (another lesson learned from 1998 Godzilla). In fact just about everyone who's got a name is a competent character. There's friction between the non-military government agent. But the military is not obsessed with destroying the animals, and responds to setbacks with calm, rather than going to pieces. And that was greatly appreciated. Despite this, the screenwriters didn't do as much research as I would have liked. Like Shin Godzilla, the B-2 Spirit bomber is deployed. But the Shin Godzilla team did their homework better. The MOAB deployed in Rampage is too large to fit into the Spirit's bomb bay. It's designed to be deployed out the back of a cargo plane. Interestingly, the B-2 survives Rampage where the new Godzilla cuts them out of the sky.

Well get got one, might as well use it.

The end battle is brutal. While we don't get any shots of lines of people who have been hurt, the landscape is a dusty gray and filled with rubble. George and Davis really get knocked around, action hero style. It’s not quite too much, but a lot of the action had me wincing in sympathy. Also like Shin Godzilla, the Spirit Bomber provides us with a ticking clock. If Davis and George can't deal with the other two kaiju, the military is going to drop a bomb. Unlike Shin Godzilla, this time the bomb is non-nuclear. The fightthere fore is like watching a middleweight go a couple of rounds with a heavyweight in a fixed fight. George and Okoye lose and lose and lose until they win. And it should be said that similar to Kong: Skull Island this film loves

Incoming George!

the jumping

Incoming George!


Incoming George!

Jumping George solves the plot by putting a steel beam through the giant croc’s eye.

Apparently, the original script called for George to die, but Johnson himself campaigned for the giant gorilla to live. Which givesd the film a more upbeat ending, which it really needs, but at the same time doesn’t solve the plot’s giant monster problem. How much does George eat now? Will he get over his taste for human flesh? How the hell are they authorities going to dispose of two gigantic rotting corpses? Questions like these are part of why I like Pacific Rim so much. It looks at these questions, including kaiju excrement and body disposal, way beyond the usual kaiju film plot.

Incoming George!

Ultimately the film is engaging, although the violence is uncomfortably brutal. I suppose I'm used to the genteel 'weapons bounce off' feel of Japanese Kaiju films. Maybe it's more honest, but whatever. It's a movie in which people survive blatantly impossible things. But the human story is pretty good, the actors giving good performances in the human plot that interacts with the monster plot. It'sd not groundbreaking drama, but it's not supposed to be. It's an action film, like any of the Fast and the Furious or Transformers films, which happens to involve kaiju. the two go together surprisingly well.

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