Rampage (2018)

Despite the conventional wisdom, I believe the video game adaptation is a strong template for a deliriously fun B-picture. Much like how novellas & short stories often make for better literary adaptations than lengthy novels because they invite filmmakers to expand rather than condense, the video game medium (particularly in vintage examples) tends to only carry vaguely sketched-out lore & world-building that affords filmmakers a lot of freedom to create in extrapolation. In theory, the Rampage arcade game should have been a prime candidate for an entertainingly absurd action movie, since it’s basically a blank-slate, plot-wise. In the game, players assume the avatars of three cartoonish kaiju—a gorilla, a wolf, and a lizard—earning points by destroying buildings & eating helpless citizens one city at a time. There’s no progression to this initial setup, just more buildings & people to populate an eternally resettable scenario. Unlike the better examples of video game adaptations that use these blank-slate launching pads to create absurdly preposterous worlds, the film version of Rampage instead exhausts itself trying to imagine a plot where its resettable videogame scenario could be at least somewhat plausible. The Super Mario Bros., Mortal Kombat, and Resident Evil movies accept the over-the-top absurdism of their source material as a matter-of-fact conceit; Rampage instead goes out of its way to reduce its premise to the most unimaginative action vehicle possible, one it already feels like we’ve seen Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson star in before. A better-realized Rampage adaptation would have just started with the monster attacks destroying a major city and worried about the reasoning behind their origins after the fact (there are literally dozens of Godzilla pictures that teach that lesson). This adaptation instead dulls down its entertainment potential by laboriously working towards that payoff in a too-late third act turnaround.

The Rock stumbles into this picture wearing a khaki-colored composite costume of every single ex-military jungle adventurer character he’s played before. In this particular case, our impossibly handsome, charismatic hero is defined by his relationship with an albino gorilla named George. With a rapport established through sign language and sex jokes, this Buff Zoologist & Brilliant Gorilla supercouple are seemingly best-bros-for-life until a nearby satellite crash infects George (along with a wolf & an alligator) with a “genetic editing” pathogen. Designed by an Evil Corporation for military weapons purposes, this pathogen causes the three beasts in question to grow exponentially larger, more aggressive, and more resistant to harm. Teaming up with a rogue scientist (Naomie Harris) who helped develop the pathogen, The Rock must race to cure George with an antidote before the military strikes him down and to destroy the other two monsters before they destroy Chicago. And because the movie delusionally believes the monsters need a reason to work together to destroy Chicago, there’s also a broadcasted signal attracting them to the Evil Corporation’s headquarters that must be shut off before it’s too late. Beyond the too-few scenes of monsters destroying buildings (and a few villainously hammy performances from what-are-they-doing-here actors Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, and Joe Manganiello) there’s nothing distinctive about Rampage as a disaster epic, not even its deployment of three separate kaiju. The movie could have made better use of its satellite crash opening by taking its monster fight to outer space or used its inciting pathogen to create Dwayne “The Giant Boulder” Johnson or anything over-the-top enough to suggest that it fully embraces the absurdity of its central conceit. Instead, it almost outright apologizes for being built on a silly video game foundation by exhaustively explaining a scenario where a giant wolf, gorilla, and reptile might team up to destroy a major city as a team, when that should have been its first act starting point—no explanation necessary.

I was left exactly this cold by last year’s giant ape monster movie Kong: Skull Island, which also hosted just enough monster action & hammy performances to call into question how the sum of its parts could possibly be so aggressively bland. Rampage is a total MoviePass decision, an unenthused picture that’s only worth your attention if it has a convenient showtime in a directionless afternoon you’re looking to kill. No amount of helicopter-tackling wolf action or Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s cowboy cop quipping things like, “When science shits the bed, I’m the guy they call to clean the sheets,” can make up for the grey mush that surrounds them. Even the novelty of the glorious creature feature Alligator being blown up kaiju-size is only worth a fleeting smirk. The only moment of pure so-bad-it’s-great bliss at hand is a spectacularly awful Kid Cudi remix of “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” that the film unfortunately buries deep in its end credits, where it’s meant to not be heard. It’s ashamed of that cheese just as much as it’s ashamed of its video game roots. Cut the wolf out the the kaiju trio and there’s no point in passing this movie off as a Rampage adaptation at all; it might as well be San Andreas 2 or Journey 3 or a sequel to any number of The Rock’s disaster epics. The green screen/mocap animation, closely cropped shaky-cam action (which is a really weird choice for a film about giant monsters), and cornball stepdad humor are entirely indistinct & interchangeable within the context of the modern Rockbuster. It’s a total shame, because the gleefully trashy arcade game the film chose as a starting point should have been an easy layup in delivering something fun & memorably absurd. Instead, five no-name screenwriters ground it down into a shapeless, unremarkable orb carried on the back of a bored-looking Rock.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla 2000: Millennium (2000)

The 2016 theatrical release of Shin Godzilla was an incredible experience for varied reasons: it was an excellent course corrective for a series that hit a slump with Gareth Edwards’s lumbering 2014 Godzilla film; it packed a surprisingly acidic taste of unexpected political satire among its kaiju action; Godzilla himself is always exciting to see on the big screen no matter the vehicle, etc. Most significantly, though, as an American audience, I appreciated the chance to see a Japanese Godzilla production faithfully translated in its original tone & intent on the big screen, which is a frustratingly rare experience. From the original 1950s Godzilla to the 1985 American-Japanese coproduced sequel to beyond, the standard for most Godzilla imports is for them to be heavily re-edited & altered in translation in their American dubs. In the case of Godzilla 1985 (titled Return of Godzilla in Japan), many of the scenes not involving the monster itself were swapped out with inserts of war rooms packed with American actors, completely altering the story. There’s no telling to my English-language ear what might have been lost in translation in Shin Godzilla’s journey to America, but I highly doubt that anything so egregious transpired there. It’s something I appreciated even more in retrospect when recently watching Godzilla 2000: Millennium for the first time. While the American dub of Millennium doesn’t quite substitute entire scenes with American actors like Godzilla ’85, it does drastically alter the tone & intent of the original Japanese script in a show of bad faith for the attention spans of American audiences and the inherent appeal of the original work. Shortened by nearly ten minutes and punched up with intentionally campy dialogue not included in the original script, the American release of Godzilla 2000 is yet another example of the typical fuckery this long-running franchise is subjected to in its trips across the ocean and the language barrier.

Luckily for Americans, there’s a baseline enjoyability to all Godzilla movies that transcends these bad faith translations. As the 24th entry in the franchise and the start of its own “Millennium” era, you might suspect hat Godzilla 2000 would find it necessary to change up the basic formula to keep itself fresh. Instead, this is largely the same kaiju action vehicle all Godzilla movies are, just with updated effects. Chronologically a sequel to the 1954 film, Godzilla 2000 finds its titular lizard beast returning to the shores of Tokyo to battle a mysterious UFO that has been terrorizing its people & buildings (mostly the buildings). While different organizations argue over whether Godzilla needs to be subdued or destroyed, the monster busies himself by attacking the mysterious UFO with his kaiju fire-breath, to no avail. For its part, the UFO attempts to absorb Godzilla’s DNA to steal his regeneration powers, making it possible for the alien species to adapt to life on Earth. This culminates in the UFO transforming into the (new to the series) kaiju Orga for a classic big-beast battle among Tokyo’s fragile skyscrapers. The fight is played 100% seriously, but the Humorous Dialogue surrounding it can be try-hard goofy in a way that’s difficult to earn a genuine laugh. There’s enough physical humor & basic absurdity inherent to the original Japanese cut that there’s no need for these additional wisecracks, which include a military general bragging that his missiles will “go through Godzilla like crap through a goose.” Har, har. I’m not entirely opposed to the idea of making a Godzilla film that’s shorter & campier than the series’ dead serious nuclear origins (Godzilla vs. Hedorah is my favorite in the franchise, after all), but the joke-writes on Godzilla 2000 do seem especially hokey, outside maybe the brilliance of the “Get ready to crumble” tagline. Either way, they didn’t cut any of the sweet monster action in the American release, which is a universal pleasure that can never be truly lost in translation.

As frustrating as it likely was to have its Japanese cut goofed-up for its domestic release, I’m sure it was still a massive joy to have a Godzilla picture back in American theaters in the year 2000. The few previous Toho-produced Godzilla films were straight to video affairs (I’m guessing the 1998 Roland Emmerich Godzilla picture gave the series enough of a popularity-boost to transcend that) and kaiju movies are obviously meant to be seen as big and loud as possible. That’s largely because special effects are their main draw, whether or not films like Godzilla ’54 and Shin Godzilla back them up with Big Ideas. Special effects-wise, Millennium offers an exciting mix of the old and the new. Godzilla & Orga are still actors in rubber suits stomping around hand-built miniatures. That original-flavor special effects recipe is spiced up with a more current influence, though, particularly the matte painting & set piece spectacle of the early Spielberg era and the shoddy CGI of post-Spielberg disaster pictures. Godzilla 2000 arrived long after the 90s disaster epics wave of titles like Twister & Independence Day (not to mention Godzilla ’98’s own participation in that aesthetic), so it shouldn’t be so jarring to see Toho’s tried & true brand of Kaiju action mixed with that influence. Still, the visual references (to Twister & Independence Day particularly) are too specific and too plentiful not to stand out in this context. I’m sure that the Japanese cut of Godzilla 2000 is the superior piece of writing (and I probably should have watched it before filing this review) but even the goofed-up American version of the film retains enough visual spectacle, both in classic kaiju action & in its 90s disaster epic aesthetic, to be well worth a look. That was likely especially true for those who caught it on the big screen in its initial theatrical run. It would have been vastly preferable for Millennium to be afforded the Shin Godzilla treatment of a faithful American translation, but this is still a badass monster movie where Godzilla lays an extensive beatdown on a sky scraper-sized UFO beast. It would be near-impossible to ruin that.

-Brandon Ledet

Geostorm (2017)

I was saddened to hear from early critical response that the ludicrous environmental thriller Geostorm does not contain nearly as much geostorming as the marketing promised. Indeed, Geostorm features an official “Countown to Geostorm” at its climax that Gerard Butler’s alpha male hero cuts off early all by his lonesome to save the world from the titular global disaster, thus blocking the audience from receiving the payoff promised. There’s plenty of cheap CGI simulations of extreme weather leading up to that anticlimax, however, so it’s not like Geostorm cheats its audience on climate change action entirely. What most surprised me when I finally caught up with the movie, though, was that its over-the-top fretting over extreme weather was not at all what made it entertaining. Geostorm‘s entertainment value doesn’t lie in its titular threat at all, but rather in its Info Wars/Alex Jones style paranoia about governmental control over the daily lives of self-sufficient macho men.

From Geostorm‘s opening vision of a climate change-riddled 2019 in which the world is nearly destroyed by a series of floods, droughts, landslides, and so on, you might expect the film to be a kind of left-leaning warning to change our ways along the lines of a The Day After Tomorrow or 2012. Instead, this “extreme weather” dystopia is more in line with the Individualist, Conservative fantasy of Michael Bay’s Armageddon. An international team of scientists & a UN type coalition of governments are reported to have worked together to invent a satellite network that can control the weather to prevent this global crisis. Geostorm has no interest in celebrating this international collaboration & governmental triumph. Instead, it pits a tough guy American badass (played by a sleepwalking Butler) against the Big Bad Government, who he suspects of weaponizing the satellite system to create extreme weather events in a bid for world domination. Butler barges in to take over command of the international crew, stopping at nothing to get to the bottom of which US government entity (because America is all that matters) is threatening to destroy the world. Skepticism of surveillance, beaurocracy, and even the President of the United States swirls to such a ludicrous crescendo of Info Wars/Coast to Coast AM-style, conspiracy-minded paranoia that you almost forget the main draw of the film was supposed to be video game-level CGI simulations of manmade “Natural” disasters.

As amusing as Geostorm‘s Armageddon-style politics can be, the film is desperately lacking the collective charisma of Armageddon‘s cast, which featured outsized personalities as wide ranging as Bruce Willis, Steve Buscemi, Owen Wilson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Peter Stormare, Ben Affleck, Live Tyler, William Fichtner, etc., etc., etc. By contrast, Gerard Butler is a cardboard cutout of a leading man action hero, with exactly none of the charisma needed to carry the film on his back. The rest of the cast has a kind of CSI Miami vibe in their aggressive forgettability, underselling what could potentially be some fun, over the top dialogue. The space alien wording of “That I am calling bullshit on,” & the understandably incredulous “Hold on, what now?” response to the first utterance of the term “geostorm” (which is then amusingly defined at length) tickled me in particular, but could have been much more fun in sillier hands. Gerard Butler’s black hole of a personality is far more damaging to the entertainment potential of Geostorm than its deficiency of geostorms. The movie could have been a much better time with an action star like Schwarzenegger or Stallone in the lead role.

Butler is undeniably a bore as the film’s leading man and there certainly could have been more onscreen global disaster to help pass the time, but I still found Geostorm to be an adequately silly time at the movies. Its right-wing political paranoia, scenes of scientists dodging fireballs in Smart Cars, and basic premise of a weaponized, weather-controlling satellite network all help cover up the boredom threatened by its cast of non-characters. Watching Geostorm in New Orleans, where it was filmed, even has its own built-in entertainment value. The exact two buildings where I work being passed off as Washington, DC and the Superdome being blurred out in the background of a sequence set in “Orlando” were pleasant distractions from the placeholder dialogue they were decorating between whatever paranoid rants or monumental disasters bookended them. “Cheaper, dumber Armageddon” obviously isn’t everyone’s idea of a fun time at the movies, but I was at least moderately sated by the oddly geostorm-deficient Geostorm, Butler warts and all.

-Brandon Ledet

San Andreas (2015)

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three star

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There’s really only one reason to see San Andreas and it ain’t to watch The Rock act outside of his comfort zone. If you really wanted to watch Dwayne Johnson push himself as an actor, I highly recommend checking out Southland Tales or Pain & Gain. If you want to watch buildings fall over and crush countless nameless people while The Rock just happens to be there, San Andreas is the movie for you. The Rock is in full Hercules mode here, just sort-of coasting on his natural charisma as a mediocre film crumbles around him. San Andreas may not be the best possible Johnson vehicle, but it does have something Hercules was missing: incredible visual spectacle. As soon as San Andreas leaves the theaters it’s going to be a forgotten by-the-90s-numbers natural disaster pic, but as long as it’s huge & loud on the silver screen it’s got an impressive 3D spectacle to it that I found myself genuinely wowed by when I wasn’t chuckling at the clichéd dialogue that broke it up (like the earthquakes that break the movie’s California coast into pieces).

Since it’s unlikely that you’ll enjoy San Andreas for its storytelling prowess or emotional resonance, I guess I’ll detail what it has going for it in camp value. First of all, its aping of 90s disaster pics like Daylight & Volcano is so accurate that the whole endeavor feels ludicrously old-fashioned. In a lot of ways, it’s only a half-step up from the corny script of last year’s horrendous Left Behind, which is really saying something. Unlike Left Behind, however, San Andreas is consistently dangerous-feeling from the get-go, almost to the point of sadism. Buildings are ripped in half, people wander around bleeding in a daze, floods & fires complicate the rescue missions, etc. San Andreas knows it has little more to offer than sheer spectacle, so it pushes how much constant carnage it can get away with without devolving into a complete cartoon, something it just barely gets away with. As for traces of camp in The Rock’s performance, he does have a pretty great one-liner when he expertly parachutes onto a baseball field with his estranged wife (“It’s been a while since I’ve gotten you to second base”) and it’s pretty amusing how quickly & without inner conflict he abandons his post as a helicopter-rescue pilot to focus on retrieving his own wife & daughter as millions of other earthquake victims suffer. Other than that & a few amusing scenes in which a cowardly business dude pushes people into immediate peril to save his own ass, the movie doesn’t offer much else camp-wise outside the impressive 3D spectacle of a city collapsing.

With a larger budget, San Andreas could have looked even further back than its 90s-disaster-movie roots and assembled one of those sprawling casts from the days of Big Studio disaster films like Towering Inferno & Earthquake. I’m not saying that they should’ve recast The Rock’s helicopter pilot or Paul Giamatti’s befuddled scientist. It’s more that they felt like a small part of an absent larger whole. If San Andreas were a near-three hour epic overstuffed with every Hollywood star imaginable, but with the same level of impressive special effects it could’ve been something really special. As is, it’s going to lose its significance as soon as it hits VOD & home video, so I suggest seeing it in the theater while you can if you have any interest in it at all.

-Brandon Ledet