‘Rampage’: A Muddled Mess with a Big Gay Heart

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Rampage has all the ingredients of a terrible movie. There are ho-hum special effects which are neither special nor effective. We’ve seen them all before. That’s because even though the film is based on a video game, it’s actually a remake of King Kong, Jurassic World, and a shit-ton of Godzilla movies. A coven of screenwriters are credited with the script (four officially), but who knows how many other Hollywood hacks worked their dark magic behind the scenes. The story certainly shows all the hallmarks of too many cooks in the kitchen. The plot is a mess. The tone shifts wildly. Some characters spout pseudo-scientific bullshit about the gene splicing, mutations, and CRISPR while others talk like they’re in a Coen Brothers Western. Military personnel spit out perfunctory call sign jargon that fails to rise to Roger Ebert’s threshold of entertaining ‘niner talk.’ The villains are cartoonishly villainous while Dwayne Johnson as hero Davis Okoye is the Rock at his utmost Rockness. Rampage would have benefitted from picking one tone and consistently sticking with it, whether that tone was the intelligent fun of the National Treasure films or dead serious in the vein of Alien.

Most problematic, though, are the muddled racial politics of the film. Rampage presents an ethnically diverse cast that doesn’t blatantly pander to the Chinese movie marketplace. In addition to the mixed-race Johnson, the highest ranking military officer in the movie is black while the highest ranking FBI agent is Asian. This is to be applauded. Then there is Naomie Harris as a black genetic engineer who earned her doctorate from Stanford. Together with Johnson, she is tasked with saving Chicago and killing monsters. Casting her is a progressive choice, one which is made even more progressive when her race and gender are never questioned. She exists as a human being and somebody we root for not because of her race or gender, but because she is presented as intelligent person worth caring about.

Unfortunately, all these smart casting choices are undercut by the central conceit of the movie. Forget the corporate technologists who are seeking to profit from mixing species and weaponizing the resulting hybrid animals. Rampage has far more insidious undertones. It white-washes the slave narrative that made the original King Kong so compelling and enduring. Instead of a black simian who is shipped to America in chains, kept in a cage, made to perform in a minstrel show and falls victim to a government-sanctioned lynching for the ‘crime’ of looking at a white woman, we are given George, a rare albino gorilla who the United States military has rescued from murderous black poachers in Africa. Curious George comes to America not in bondage, but as a refugee. Instead of being a source of entertainment like Kong, the white George is used to teach black gorillas how to behave. Even after George is genetically altered and goes on his rampage, killing scores of people including his de facto creator, he is given the chance to live, unlike Kong or the other darker yet equally innocent monsters in Rampage. The message: White lives matter. Black lives don’t.

And yet, in spite of these glaring flaws and the general inanity of the movie, Rampage is strangely enjoyable to watch. While the movie is well cast and well-acted in spite of the seismic shifts in tone, it’s Johnson who holds it together and carries it on his massive shoulders. The number one message he learned from being a professional wrestler is to please his audience. He knows how to send us home happy and he always delivers.

Central to his performance in Rampage is perhaps the strangest cross-cultural romantic partnership in the history of cinema. For Johnson’s mixed-race Davis Okoye is clearly in love with George the albino gorilla. At the very beginning of the film, Johnson quickly shuts down the sexual advances of a female colleague. He’s not worried about fucking a subordinate he works with; it’s made clear he’s not interested in women at all. In fact, he’s not interested in humans. He would much rather spend time with George.

When Johnson partners with Naomie Harris’ character to save Chicago, he never once considers her in a sexual manner as is wont in most movies, especially action-comedies. They exchange little flirtatious dialogue. They barely touch and never kiss. Instead, all the key emotional scenes in Rampage are played out between Johnson and the white gorilla. Like partnered couples everywhere, Johnson and George have their own special way of communicating — they use sign language to express their affections. They make googly eyes at each other and because theirs is a love that dares not speak its name, they fist bump as a form of intimate contact. Don’t be fooled by their comical banter and they way the flip each other off. Their relationship is not a cross-species bromance. It’s as romantic as any Nora Ephron movie.

In flashback, we see they literally met cute, if not traumatically. We get a close up of young George’s face and his big blue eyes as Johnson rescues him from the deadly poachers. Johnson subsequently adopts George. Lest we forget, before gay men were allowed to marry, one way for a gay couple to legally live together was to have the older man adopt his younger lover. That George is an ape and not a twink certainly adds an unique twist to this tactic, but does not diminish their deep devotion to each other. At one point, George crudely signals that Johnson might want to stick his penis inside Naomie. The suggestion is played for laughs. We know it’ll never happen. One of the most iconic images from the original King Kong is when Kong lovingly holds Fay Wray in his giant hand. It is a tender moment, filled with pathos, awe, and sexual longing. Rampage recreates this scene with George’s giant hand lovingly holding Johnson.

Clearly, too many writers and other creative voices worked on Rampage for the cross-species interracial gay love story to be overtly intentional in the way the male romance was the focus of Call Me By Your Name. Rather, Rampage is a perfect of example of what happens when a movie inadvertently taps into the cultural zeitgeist of gender fluidity, Black Lives Matter, the white nationalist resurgence, gay pride, genetic manipulation, and the animal rights movement and represents it on screen all at once. You get an entertaining mess. You get America.

Eric Coyote earned his Master of Arts degree in critical theory from the University of Southern California. He writes about movies, Hollywood, and culture.

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