Friday, April 13, 2018

Rampage: Nothing but noise

Rampage (2018) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, and quite generously, for violence, gore, destruction, dramatic intensity and brief profanity

By Derrick Bang

Art often responds to life.

Back in the 1950s, rising Cold War paranoia and atomic-era anxiety prompted Hollywood to uncork a series of “giant whatzis” movies: giant ants (Them), giant spiders (Tarantula), giant scorpions (The Black Scorpion), and even — I’m not making this up — giant grasshoppers (Beginning of the End).

With Chicago being demolished by a couple of extremely nasty monsters, can one man and
his faithful albino gorilla companion make a difference? This flick would like you to
think so...
These days, the night terrors are induced by misguided genetic editing and greed-driven corporate malfeasance. But the results are the same: giant whatzis movies.

And, frankly, Rampage isn’t much better than most of those 1950s clunkers.

Modern golly-gee-wow special effects can’t conceal the fact that this is a laughably inept flick fueled by a bone-stupid script that can’t even follow its own interior logic. (Actually, “logic” and Rampage are oxymorons.) Four writers take the blame for this kitchen-sink mess — Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel — and I’m amazed they had the collective chutzpah to demand credit for stuff they swiped from other films, and then stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster.

But, then, what can we expect of a movie “developed” from an arcade game?

I wish Mystery Science Theater 3000 still were around; the ’bots would have a great time dissing this dumb turkey.

In fairness, Rampage has one thing going for it: the incandescent presence of Dwayne Johnson. He may have rolled his eyes in private, when the script pages were delivered, but he nonetheless gives an impressively earnest performance. Those who doubt the power of “movie star charisma” need look no further than this misbegotten flick.

Director Brad Peyton certainly doesn’t bring anything to the party; he basically points and shoots, hoping that Johnson’s reasonably well-timed quips will compensate for the sins that sheer momentum can’t conceal. The two of them did the same a few years ago, when they teamed for San Andreas.

To cases, then:

During a prologue that’s a blatant mash-up (and rip-off) of Gravity and Life, we learn that Chicago-based Wyden Technologies, via their Energyne genetics lab, has been conducting naughty — and highly illegal — experiments in an orbiting space station. Things go awry; three small canisters containing Bad Stuff hurl through our atmosphere, meteorite-like, and plow into different parts of the United States.

One lands in the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary’s ape habitat, home of — among others — a rare albino silverback gorilla named George. He’s best buds with resident primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson), who raised George after rescuing him, as a young orphan, from poachers.

We’ve already met Davis and his three human colleagues: inconsequential flypaper characters who serve no purpose, and aren’t seen after a few clumsily written verbal exchanges intended to “explain” Davis’ instinctive aversion to people.

The canister’s contents have a startling effect on George: He begins to grow — a lot — and succumbs to a berserker rage.

Elsewhere, the second canister lands in the woods of Wyoming, resulting in a giant wolf. The third, in Florida, produces an immense crocodile. But here’s the additional catch: These two mutant critters also have the ability — here I’m quoting from the press notes — to absorb “volatile DNA” from other species. Ergo, we get a giant ravenous wolf that appears to have been crossed with a bat and a porcupine; and a giant crocodile that seems to have inherited ancient stegosaurus DNA.

Funny thing, then: Size aside, George remains plain ol’ George. One wonders why.

Another funny thing: George’s “big size” seems to fluctuate as the film progresses, given the dramatic demands of one scene to the next. One wonders why.


Such beasties can’t help attracting attention, both from the U.S. military and a cagey, black-ops government “fixer” named Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, also engaging). The latter apparently has been long suspicious of Wyden Technologies CEOs Claire (Malin Akerman) and her brother Brett (Jake Lacy).

Both play their roles as the epitome of giggling cartoon sociopaths. Claire, the brains of the duo, is a laser-focused, self-serving paragon of evil and ego. Brett, in turn, is a blend of greed and whining cowardice. One wonders why Claire hasn’t killed him yet.

Granted, they’re both a hoot. Akerman tears up the scenery in costume designer Melissa Bruning’s sharp-edged power suits; Lacy is a goggle-eyed sniveler.

Okoye gets a resourceful ally in the form of geneticist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), who — a few years earlier — tried to blow the whistle on Wyden Tech’s dangerous activities, and wound up discredited and jailed for her troubles. Caldwell seeks payback; Okoye is just the guy to help her achieve it.

Meanwhile, though, the three beasties — including Okoye’s good buddy George — are destroying everything in their path while being drawn to Chicago, where Claire believes she has the means to control them. 

And then what, we can’t help wondering.

Questions, questions, questions ... and no answers.

It might — might— be possible to dismiss (or embrace) all this stuff ’n’ nonsense as a revved-up funhouse ride, were it not for the film’s distasteful mean-spiritedness. Hundreds of civilians, soldiers and mercenaries (well, the latter may deserve it) get chomped, smashed, pulped and devoured during the course of this film, and quick cutaways don’t erase the images of severed limbs and gory entrails.

Imagining what’s happened to the riders in a bus that gets demolished by the mutated croc, as Peyton lingers long enough to drive the point home, is wholly out of step for a vicarious popcorn flick. Frivolous, live-action cartoons shouldn’t have such a body count. “Collateral slaughter porn” has become more common ever since 2009’s 2012 (also PG-13) wallowed in such gratuitous excess, and that’s a highly disturbing trend.

But exploitative bloodshed is more of a philosophical issue. This film’s larger problems lie with sloppy plotting, dumb dialogue and Peyton’s enthusiasm for spectacle over anything remotely approaching a realistic human element. As with the recent Pacific Rim: Uprising, Rampage is just a noisy waste of time.

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