Movie monsters have always symbolized our hidden fears and desires. It’s impossible to dissociate the hulking behemoth of Godzilla from the atomic bomb and Japan’s perception of the good ol’ U.S. of A. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula represented our fear of foreigners in the early ‘30s; the pod people of 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers our fear of conformity or Communism; the Thing From Another World (1951) our terror at advancements in technology. These perceptions change over time — the Gill Man of 1954’s Creature From the Black Lagoon, a horrific hybrid of man’s primitive and modern sensibilities, can transform into the sympathetic outcast of Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 feature The Shape of Water;Francis Ford Coppola can change Dracula into a representative of the exotic mystery man. Warner Bros.’ new creature feature, Rampage, walks the same road as its brethren before it, using the monsters (and the villains at the center) as thinly veiled allegories to our own current political regime.
Based on the video game of the same name, Rampage follows hulked-out animal trainer Davis Okoye (played by Dwayne Johnson) as he attempts to save his albino gorilla friend George after he’s been exposed to “genetic editing” and is growing at an alarming rate. George and the other genetically altered creatures are pulled into events through forces outside their control after a spaceship, carrying test samples of “weaponized DNA,” crashes to Earth. What they’re exposed to is controlled by a malicious energy company called Energyne whose goal is to create weapons for military purposes. George represents the sleeping giant, drawn to aggression as a means of survival. It’s the ultimate manifestation of the adage “never poke the bear.” The movie presents a literal upset of nature, one that has long-term consequences and massive destruction. As Dale Doback says in Step Brothers, “When you oppress people, they rise up in a fiery anger,” and that’s what the creatures in Rampage do. George and crew stand in for a variety of different issues in the U.S. today, from the masses protesting gun-control to the rising antipathy towards immigrants. Or are they just everyone currently feeling like the world has gone mad and we’re an inch away from a nuclear bomb — or a giant flying wolf — killing us all?
Davis and the rest of the human cast members are ‘80s stereotypes (fitting, as the game was released in 1986). In ‘80s action-adventures, men were men, and governments (usually foreign) were the enemy. With that in mind, Rampage looks not toward distant horizons but inwardly. So the ‘80s-esque commandos rocking scars, Mohawks, and big guns are presented as wildly ineffective and downright stupid in their underestimation of the situation. They’re big, dumb bohunks who end up turning into wolf chow. The rest of the military men in Rampage are equally unaware. Large-scale military forces fail to understand that emptying a clip into these creatures doesn’t work, and more often than not random bystanders could be dying from indiscriminate gunfire. When Davis and Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomi Harris) attempt to explain the situation to a government liaison in Chicago, the man’s response is to send them away. The government would rather bomb Chicago entirely and contain the situation than listen to experts who offer a peaceful resolution.
Davis, Kate, and rogue government agent Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) end up working together. (A rogue agent working to unveil a conspiracy? Are we sure Russell shouldn’t be named Mueller?) The creatures aren’t the villains from an audience standpoint. The true evil is in the sister-and-brother founders of Energyne, Claire and Brett Wyden (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy). It’s so easy to deduce who the Wydens are that you’re surprised their names aren’t just Clavanka and Ron, Jr. Like her real-life counterpart, Claire is a calm, cool woman who wears A-line dresses and has impeccably straight hair. She takes care of her brother’s screw-ups and has no problem acting evil in private while presenting a straight (and helpful) face to government officials. Brett, as the Donald Jr. surrogate, is a polo-shirted bumbling idiot who has only made it through life based on his associations with Claire. He has no intelligence or business sense. Driving the point home, Russell tells Brett, “Since when is complicity a crime?” a stabbing critique of our current White House brother/sister duo.
Rampage’s critiques aren’t new. Fifties sci-fi and horror were all critiques on the fear of Communism, and with the ‘80s back in a big way, it’s unsurprising how Rampage attacks the era’s mentality of “shoot first, ask questions later.” In the ‘80s a big, strong man was all you needed. Today, there are more factors at play and Rampage envisions a world of cooperation, a unification between creature and average Joe. Film is part of the dialectic which fuels our culture. Our culture fuels how directors approach films. It’s impossible not to see Rampage as a criticism about our current government and vice versa. Rampage won’t go down as a classic in the creature feature canon, but it makes you think far more than it should.