Friday, 11 May 2018

Movie Review: Rampage (2018)

The plot: In an alternate present where gene manipulation has become a prized asset in the development of medicine and biological weapons, a space station housing a number of mutated specimens has crashed into Earth… and had a rather monstrous effect on the animals that got near them. As Energyne corporate leaders Claire (Malin Åkerman) and Brett (Jake Lacy) race to recover the valuable specimens, primatologist Davis (Dwayne Johnson) is brought into the equation after one of the specimens affects George (Jason Liles), an albino gorilla in his care. It’s up to George and medical engineer Dr. Caldwell (Naomie Harris) to get to the bottom of this calamity before the overgrown George and the other affected animals reduce Chicago to rubble.

Dwayne Johnson has gotten to the point where he could be in a buddy-cop action flick with The Brave Little Toaster as his sidekick and audiences would still buy into it; the man has that much charisma. His energy on-screen here definitely checks out, he absolutely sells the action scenes thrown his way and his scenes opposite George even manage to tap into emotionality. Making the audience take him seriously as the best friend of a giant gorilla; such is the power of the Man Formerly Known As The Rock.

Harris works out well as a counterpoint to Johnson’s initially isolated view of the world, working just as well opposite her co-stars as she does on her own. Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the cowboy in government spook’s clothing not only is ideal casting but he manages to sustain that grizzled charm through every bit of dialogue he delivers. Åkerman is incredibly fun as our not-even-trying-to-hide-it villain, ditto for Lacy as her brother and rather skittish accomplice, and I got way too much of a kick out of seeing them converse in their lair about what’s happening in the plot… with a Rampage arcade cabinet in the background of their office. Next to an ornamental suit of samurai armour. Because remember when big movie bad guys were fun? And then there’s Jason Liles as the mo-cap actor for George, and it really says something about his talents when George comes out as the most fun character here. I have a bit of a thing for non-vocal characters with a healthy sense of humour, and Liles certainly gets that across to great effect.

What helps with his performance is the effects work that brings him to life. One look at how well-defined that ape face is and it should be obvious that we’re once again dealing with those crafty Kiwis over at Weta Digital. Between King Kong and the recent Planet Of The Apes trilogy, these guys have had plenty of time with rendering primates and that definitely pays off here. Whether he’s calmly talking with Davis or smacking a giant crocodile in the face, George never feels out-of-place with the integration of CGI and live-action footage. But that’s just the main initial example of how well Weta did here, as the visual quality stays consistent throughout the entire film. The individual set pieces involving helicopters, tanks and giant scientific monstrosities are quite thrilling from how indelible the textures appear, and when it comes time for the third act, it creates absolute carnage. This is some of the best city-destroying action that’s been on our screens in years, with Weta’s attention to detail in mapping out the Chicago Loop meaning that we get a lot of rubble-rousing excitement out of seeing these structures get crushed.

Knowing what happened last time Dwayne Johnson and director Brad Peyton teamed up with San Andreas, it’s a bit of a surprise that this is not only entertaining, but I don’t even need to advocate for watching it ironically to make it worth anyone’s time. Peyton and DOP Jaron Presant show a lot of skill in how they frame this film, with a particular liking for dramatic reveals of characters. Introduce the character, follow them from the back, from above or at least keep them in silhouette, and only reveal their face at a particularly dramatic or funny moment in the scene; this happens a few times in the film, like with how Davis and Joe Manganiello’s mercenary Burke are introduced, and yet it actually works each time it is attempted. The camera work also keeps consistent during the action scenes, employing just enough hand-held motion to tap into the chaos in-frame but held back enough so that we can actually see what’s going on. It’s kind of sad that I actively have to point that out, but then again, being able to make out the action in an action film seems to escape some people (looking at you, Michael Bay).

One of the weirder things I picked up on from Peyton’s San Andreas was the jarringly realistic way it detailed actual emergency procedures and plans, making the patently-ridiculous story feel like a once-removed PSA for proper survival tactics. In retrospect, I’m glad I picked up on it because it goes some way to making sense of how serious this film can get around certain issues. Issues like environmentalism, genetic experimentation and animal poaching. That last point in particular ends up creating an unprecedented amount of drama early on, as character history connected to it ends up informing a lot of the bigger developments we see from our leads. Doubly so in how it depicts animal poaching and the black market sale of the catch for the rather scummy activity that it is. Here’s where things get interesting, though: Unlike in San Andreas, this film’s attempts to add realism to the narrative actually pans out. Not only pans out, but doesn’t feel at odds with the patently ridiculous premise. Instead, by some form of black magic otherwise known as competent storytelling, it adds nicely to the overall production and creates yet another reason why switching one’s brain off isn’t necessary to get the full experience.

But what about its cred as a video game adaptation? I mean, going through the entire history of mainstream live-action films based on video games, I can count the number of decent ones on one hand. And even then, the better ones still have a myriad of problems (for reference, Assassin’s Creed is still one of the few better-than-awful efforts in the sub-genre). This seems to be a major exception to that in a lot of ways, with both critics and general audiences taking note and making this the best-received video game flick to date. Now, at a glance, this distinction feels a bit pointless. I mean, the games this film is based on are only marginally indicative of the finished product. We’re dealing with animals being mutated into giant hodgepodge variants, not humans who turn into the giant monsters in question as it is in the game canon. However, that might actually be a positive in this film’s case, since that means that this film has only one real impossibility to get past the audience: The extent of genetic editing and manipulation. Said impossibility is explained quite succinctly before the opening credits have even started, and everything else put into the production helps sell both it and the resulting fallout of that impossibility. It doesn’t bog itself down in lore or placating ravenous fanboys of the source material; it just focuses on being a good movie and accomplishes exactly that. Knowing that that very need to please everyone is what ends up burying a lot of video game movies, it’s nice to know that someone actually cracked the code and, hopefully, paved the way for others to do likewise.

All in all, we finally have a consistently good video game adaptation on our hands; the day is finally here! The acting checks out across the board, from Dwayne Johnson’s font of charisma to Jason Liles’ mo-cap bringing George oh-so-endearingly to life, the effects work from Weta Digital makes the mutations and city destruction equally well-rendered and tangible, the direction and camera work get the most of the action setpieces on offer, and it even takes time out to offer a bit of food for thought concerning animal welfare and some feels between Davis and George.

It ranks higher than Maze Runner: The Death Cure, as Rampage is less of a death knell for its sub-genre as Death Cure was as it is a potential push for its sub-genre to actually succeed for once. With gaming properties like Dynasty Warriors and Five Nights At Freddy’s slated to get the big screen treatment in the next few years (I have deep personal attachments to both series), I really hope that this film gives the right people the idea that video game adaptations can be both good and profitable. However, since this is still just a really well-done popcorn flick, it doesn’t register as highly with me as I Can Only Imagine, which may have been a lot less even but offered far more emotional resonance that, likewise, shows what its respective sub-genre is capable of.

1 comment:

  1. Great cast but its another mindless, heartless giant monster flick destroying the city and trampling everyone. I wonder why the latest Godzilla movie got a bad rap but glorified B-movies like this and Kong Skull Island gets applauded. The monsters are obvious cgi hiding behind dense action sequences, the evil corporate guys are stereotypes from other monster, sci-fi movies we have seen a thousand times before and the military OF COURSE are worthless fodder. > Reviews Rampage 2018 Tiny humvees closing in on very fast gigantic animals firing their machineguns knowing previously how that worked out, Apache helicopters firing at close range at a giant wolf's face with his worthless cannon instead of using guided rockets from a distance, and soldiers go out of their way to be squished like bugs (ala Kong Skull Island style). Its that kind of thing you would see a child playing in his sandbox and destroying his toys. I would have understood if it was a child that made this movie.
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