by Derek May
I’ve always believed that a movie should be judged on its own merits, and by its own internal logic, and Rampage couldn’t be a more perfect case in point. Giant albino gorillas and massive mutated wolves destroying a major city isn’t any more automatically bad than it is automatically good. It solely depends on how seriously (as in conviction, not tone) the filmmakers take the material. And I’m delighted to say that the creators here delivered a pure popcorn delight that not only satisfies our visual appetites, but carries us along on a well-defined journey that even manages to infuse some real emotion alongside the chaos.
There’s no doubt in my mind that the main reason this movie works is Dwayne Johnson. As his star rises, so does his influence. His motto is “always be the hardest worker in the room,” and given his daily Facebook updates and recent string of successes, I genuinely believe he lives up to that mandate. Rampage, based on the 80’s arcade game of the same name, isn’t going to win any Oscars outside the technical category, but Johnson and company seem to have taken the care to make sure it still works as a story. The plot is kept simple and direct—evil corporate sharks use benevolent science to create monstrous weapons they end up unable to control, heroes must stop them—and that’s a smart move. Over-complication doesn’t necessarily equate to a better story, and the rest of the time is better spent developing characters and their relationships, or just having monsters tear through armies and skyscrapers.
And I think this is where Rampage really earns its stripes. I think by now there’s little question about The Rock’s charisma, his ability to make just about any character shine. I think the key to that is his unique ability to infuse whichever muscle-bound badass he’s playing at the time with something uniquely vulnerable and endearing, and actually pull it off. In this case, that vulnerability is his character’s love of animals, even to the exclusion of most people. We don’t just get the requisite line or scene saying, “This is who X is,” we actually get a little bit of development over the course of the film, though never in excess (it’s a popcorn action movie after all). It’s enough to set the parameters and offer a little insight before we get to running again with the real stars—the animals. Each of the main characters in turn receives the same care, from Naomie Harris’ Dr. Caldwell (someone you’d actually believe might be a geneticist in way over her head) to Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Russell, chewing every scrap of scenery he can find in a Neegan caricature while still somehow believably balancing a government hardass with an empathetic moralist. But the biggest (pun intended) development is with George, the poor ape who falls victim to the horrors of unethical science. There’s enough early development of the relationship between George and Johnson that you genuinely care when George is threatened… even when he’s doing some threatening of his own. It’s the throughline that really drives the film and sets it apart. No matter what, Johnson is going to help his friend, and we are rooting for him to succeed all the way because we care about them both.
In and amongst all this is a little action. Ok, a LOT of action. We’ve got our story, and we have as much character development as we need, so now’s it time to smash things. The effects are up to par with the latest quality, leaving little doubt we’re seeing chimeras the size buildings rip apart downtown Chicago. Many of the scenes feel organic and progressive, a testament to good story plotting. Each action beat follows the previous in a logical ascension, taking us from the local zoo, to the skies, to the forests, and eventually the city. It’s really a breath of fresh air after seeing so many disposable and interchangeable action scenes in recent films.
But I think the best effect is with George during the smaller, quieter scenes. Given the advances we’ve seen in motion capture in the Planet of the Apes series, we expect a high level of humanity to shine through these CG-characters. George is expressive in every nuance, and it adds incalculably to our connection and desire to see him come through this safely. Add to that a genuine personality written into the scenes and you’ve got the final ingredient for your winning formula.
For far too long studios have increasingly and erroneously believed that audiences will swallow any visual candy they throw onto the screen. And for a time they may have been right. But vacuous spectacle wears thin fast, and if a movie is to have any legs in this era of weekly blockbusters, it needs some tangible substance. Rampage is a product of that pendulum swinging back where it needs to, offering just the right balance of sheer thrills with a smartly written story and some likable, sympathetic characters. You’d think that it’s be a simple formula to recreate, but alas we have to settle for taking our solid, silly flicks when they come. Don’t let this one pass you by.
YANG: I KILL GIANTS
This touching tale by first-time feature director Anders Walter upholds the grand tradition of coming-of age-stories while venturing into the psychological depths of denial and loss. The graphic novel it’s based on by Joe Kelly (who also wrote the screenplay) uses metaphorical monsters to help a young middle-schooler named Barbara come to terms with a life in chaos. And with today’s advances in special effects, even a modestly budgeted indie is able to bring these giants off the page in all their CG-glory.
The film is essentially one long allegory, told as a slow burn as we get to know more about Barbara. Her awkward, acerbic nature and ostracism could be easily chalked up to the trials of tween-age development, but through her eyes we see a world hidden from common view, that only Barbara has the fortitude and skill to save us from—the world of evil, devastating giants. The exposition moves full steam ahead once Barbara finally makes a friend, a new girl in school from Leeds named Sophia. Like her, we find Barbara a little off but ultimately intriguing, enough to tag along on her outlandish adventures. But as more truth is revealed, the darkness that is either the coming giant attack, or something more mundane but equally horrendous, creeps ever closer, and we—like Sophia—start to fear for Barbara’s mind as well as her body.
What this all adds up to is a journey through the psychological manifestation of compensation for a trauma Barbara is unable to face. Walter takes our hand and gently guides us through her impressively elaborate world of diversion, at first characterizing it as a bit of harmless fun, but ultimately revealing it as a rabbit hole that if not escaped, may lead to far greater physical and mental destruction. The film remains consistently honest in its progression toward ever-darker motifs and revelations, but never veers too far into any extreme. By the time Barbara is forced to face her trauma, we, like her, are emotionally ready for the release.
But without actually spoiling the ending, I’ll say that how Kelly and Walter resolve such a complex investigation is undeniably impressive. The ultimate message sidesteps any trite platitudes about stiff upper lips or time healing all wounds, and instead argues that making the most of the time you are given, with the ones you love, can lead you toward healthy acceptance. It’s a powerful, and deftly delivered opinion that gives the movie a unique resonance.
None of this, of course, could have been accomplished without a stellar cast of actors both young and grown. Madison Wolfe effortlessly maneuvers Barbara through a cascade of emotions and circumstances that’d give Meryl Streep a run for her money, covering silliness, anger, confidence, intelligence, betrayal, isolation, and more. It’s impressive for an actor of any age, much less so young, but given her already substantial experience, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing much more of Madison Wolfe for a long time to come. Equally up to the task is British thesp Sydney Wade as Sophia, who does her best to effortlessly steal her scenes away from Madison (no small feat!) and damn near does more often than not. She provides a wonderful ground to Madison’s eccentricity, and while the characters seem to share little in common to bind them, we totally buy into their friendship and support, even through the rough patches. Imogen Poots continues to impress as the elder sibling struggling to hold a fraying family and job together, but it’s really a surprise turn by ostensible action star Zoe Saldana as a somewhat over-her-head guidance counselor cautiously trying to steer poor Barbara through her difficult time. Saldana wears her emotions on her sleeve, and imbues her character with far more story than her limited screentime suggests. It’s a strong resume performance that proves she’s got the range to do just about anything.
All in all, I Kill Giants is one of those little gems that has far more going for it than you think, and leaves you feeling far more than you expect. A very clever mix of serious trauma-drama with a unique slant on fantasy adventure. A perfect amount of heartstring-tugging with standout performances and astute insight into the inner workings of our emotional turmoil. Don’t let the kids fool you, this one’s got plenty going on for everyone.