There was a time when blockbusters had the power to not only thrill and awe us, but to move us as well, an intoxicating mix that saw films like Die Hard, Independence Day and even Alien/s and Terminator not only clean up at the box office, but find a fairly long-lasting place in our collective hearts.
Somewhere along the line, the emotional resonance got sidelined, and bombastic, bravura spectacle took over, leaving us with films that held firm to the “thrill & awe” side of the equation but felt empty and uninvolving.
The idea that Rampage, a film based on a 1980s game of the same name by Bally Midway – now owned by Warner Bros. which is aiming to leverage the hell out of game-playing nostalgia – would be the standard bearer for a renaissance, limited though it might be, for blockbusters that simultaneously seize the eyes and the heart, would not be the first assumption you’d make about a movie starring a giant mutant wold, alligator and albino mountain gorilla.
Nothing about that concoction, which screams destruction and death on a CGI-rampant scale but not emotional connection of any kind, sounds like it would be the recipe for a lean, mean, unexpectedly-sophisticated blockbuster but indeed it is, with writers Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel, and director Brad Peyton, surprisingly delivering up something quite special.
It’s obvious very early on in a story that eschews verbosity and bloat for elegance and economical narrative that this is not going to be blockbuster business-as-usual.
In one of the first scenes, which looks like it’s playing out in a remote jungle somewhere, but is really just the large naturalistic enclosure of the mountain gorillas at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary, primatologist/ardent conservationist/ex-special ops guy, Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson) takes his students to meet George, an albino male gorilla he has raised after rescuing him from poachers in Africa, and with whom he enjoys a quite unorthodox relationship.
Having taught George to sign, and eschewing human contact in favour of animals who are much more uncomplicated in their love, Davis is both parent and brother to George who is possessed of a cheeky sense of humour, a love of pranking and a ribald wit that extends as far as flipping the bird at the most humourously-perfect moments.
It might sound impossibly cheesy, but Johnson and Jason Liles who acts as the motion-capture inspiration for George, make it work and work brilliantly well, investing the back-and-forth between the two with real warmth, friendship and understanding, crucial elements that will have significant bearing on Rampage‘s story as it progresses.
What Johnson and George are unaware of is that while they are sharing real warmth, humour and connection, canisters are rocketing to earth containing a DNA-altering pathogen cooked up by geneticists aboard a space station owned by Energyne that is capable of changing its hosts’ cells instantly and profoundly, investing them with qualities like speed, agility and aggression, all harvested from a vast and bewildering array of animals.
It’s all gleefully over-the-top and full to the brim with scientific hokum, but by making the scene aboard the station Athena-1 more akin to a harrowing prologue to a horror film and ramping up the intensity to 11, Peyton imbues Rampage with a seriousness and gravity you don’t expect it to have.
The ability to make the laughably weird and the idiosyncratically excessive work almost as a drama continues on through the film which plays everything with a straight face, lending credence to the ridiculous and dressing the film in clothes of gravitas, emotional resonance and meaning.
To be honest, it’s shocking at first, especially when you have walked in expecting a lobotomised blockbuster devoid of anything resembling pathos and palpable tension only to be served up a film that actually matters dammit.
And matters, it most certainly, and beyond all expectation does.
As a mutated grey wolf from Wyoming, and George close in on Chicago where a radio signal broadcast from atop Energyne’s headquarters, in which wait sibling CEOs Clare and Brett Wyden (Malin Åkerman and Jake Lacy respectively), and a giant, Stegosaurian alligator weaves its way up waterways to the same destination – kept out of frame and narrative till it can make the maximum impact – your concern is almost solely on the welfare of a changed George and Davis’s desperate attempts to save him from harm.
It grants Rampage, which is equal parts King Kong, Pacific Rim, Godzilla and any disaster movie which results in wanton, wholesale destruction – let’s just say that developers in Chicago will clean up big time in the aftermath – an emotional accessibility that is beyond the reach of many of its more vacuous contemporaries.
You are rooting the entire time for George to be okay, and while it looks like that may be a wish too great, a narrative bridge too far, so invested are you in his welfare, thanks to the time taken to build the bonds between Davis and George, that you hope against hope that the sweetest gorilla in the world, and yes you will fall in love with him, odd though that sounds, will make it through the inevitable battle royale between all three beasts unscathed.
Beyond the emotional resonance of Rampage, the film gets a whole lot of other things right.
The story is just long enough for you to remain interested and not have your mind wander off to the post-cinema activities awaiting you, the characters are fleshed out way beyond the usual cardboard tropes we’re used to in blockbusters – although let’s not get carried away; fun though they are to watch, Jeffrey Dean Morgan as government agent Harvey Russell (basically a nicer Negan) and Dr Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) are not walking, talking Shakespearian creations nor is Johnson, impressively likeable though he is – the special effects are top-notch, and even the cheesy dialogue sings more than it deserves thanks to the casting of actors who know how to deliver it just so.
Throw in some sterling music, courtesy of Andrew Lockington, and an economy of scale that means the cataclysmic final showdown and serving out of just desserts does not overstay its welcome, even for a second, and you have one of the most impressive blockbusters of recent times that leaves you hankering for the fine old days of big cinematic treats when films of this ilk were commonplace.
Balancing taut, edge-of-your-seat action, relationships that actually make the action matter and a crisp no-nonsense approach to story delivery, Rampage is that unexpected gem that against every last expectation in your movie-loving body – and the expectations of my friend and I were low to infinitesimally non-existent; in fact, we had our critical knives sharpened for a scathing post-film takedown – delivers on just every single count.
But what you will remember at the end, and the film’s diligence in building and sustaining the relationship between George and Davis, the beating heart of this most uncharacteristic of modern blockbusters, continues right to the closing credits (and what a moving, hilarious final scene it is!), is how one man, full of charisma and a gorilla possessed of cheeky charm manage, in record time, to find a place in your heart, from which they will not be easily dislodged.
Move over John McClane – you’ve got company.