RAMPAGE is Exactly What You Think it is

RAMPAGE is a deeply silly movie, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The movie is based on a series of arcade games that started in the 80’s. I never played any of them but from what I can tell they’re mostly plotless, and are simply concerned with letting the player control giant monsters and wreck lots of stuff.

This is totally fine, but presents problems for an adaptation, because there is no plot. The movie invents a plot that is profoundly silly and wildly implausible, and makes for a movie that is absolute tons of fun. I had a blast with RAMPAGE, despite its many obvious flaws. This is one of those movies where I was having so much fun that the movie’s problems didn’t bother me at all.

Images: Warner Bros.

Here’s my attempt to explain the ludicrous plot. The movie invents an evil corporation called Energyne which is run by two complete dipshits who are conducting some kind of genetic research that is so dangerous it has to be carried out in a space station. This inevitably goes horribly wrong (“The test subjects have gotten loose!” is one of the first lines of the movie) and canisters of dangerous experimental goo end up falling to earth. This is a movie where plot devices LITERALLY FALL FROM THE SKY. And wouldn’t you know it, various wild animals find those canisters and begin to transform into giant mutant creatures. This leads to the titular RAMPAGE, and yes, I will be capitalizing the word RAMPAGE every time I write it, so you might as well get used to it.

One of the animals exposed to what I will call the Genetic Goo of Doom is an albino gorilla in the San Diego zoo named George, who is best friends with Davis Okoye, played by none other than DWAYNE “THE ROCK” JOHNSON, one of my favorite actors. I freaking love the guy. He’s got charisma for days.

His character Davis is a former special forces soldier turned primatologist, which is a resume that I’m pretty sure no actual human being has ever had. The man is a true pioneer. He rescued George from poachers when he (George) was a cute l’il baby gorilla, and the two are best friends. They communicate using sign language, and some of George’s language is a bit, shall we say, colorful. By which I mean that he is rather fond of flipping the bird. As with every animal specialist in every movie ever, Davis gets along with animals better than he does with humans.

So when Davis gets to work one day and discovers that George has grown several feet and killed one of the zoo’s grizzly bears, something is obviously awry. Meanwhile, a wolf elsewhere in the United States has discovered one of the canisters of the Genetic Goo of Doom, and promptly slaughters an Energyne security team sent to bring him in. There’s also an alligator in the Florida Everglades who gets exposed to the Genetic Goo of Doom, although the movie keeps this particular creature mostly offscreen until later in the film.

Soon, George breaks out of the zoo and is apprehended by shady government agents, among them an agent named Russell, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan from The Walking Dead, who says things like “Assholes like us gotta stick together” with a Southern accent. He’s pretty great, because he’s initially positioned as an antagonist but ends up having more to do than being a generic government bad guy, and gets several funny moments.

There’s also a disgraced geneticist who used to work for Energyne, and whose research is largely responsible for creating the monsters. She’s played by Naomie Harris, a very talented actress whose talents are largely wasted in the movie. She does her best but there’s not much to her character. One thing I noticed is that she always has utterly flawless hair. Even right after she wakes up in the morning, hell, before she’s even had time to put pants on, her hair is absolutely gorgeous. That must be some kind of superpower.

Then there are the two evil corporate dipshits I alluded to earlier. They’re siblings whose names escape me. One of them, and the only one who has any brains, is played by Malin Akerman, an actress perhaps best known for playing Silk Spectre in Watchmen (a movie which Jeffrey Dean Morgan also starred in). The other is some idiot played by some guy, whose incompetence and stupidity are mainly used as sources of comic relief. They’re both soulless and shallow characters, whose only concern is money.

They activate some kind of beacon designed to lure the monsters to their corporate headquarters in Chicago so that they can capture them and, uh, make money off them somehow. The movie isn’t super clear on this, nor is it clear why they think that luring three giant unpredictable creatures to their corporate headquarters in the middle of one of the most highly-populated cities in America is a good idea. Clearly, critical thinking is not something these two are particularly good at. They also have actual RAMPAGE arcade machines in the middle of their office, which is something I’m sure that rich CEOs do all the time.

I talk a lot in my movie reviews about tone and the tone of RAMPAGE is all over the place. There is a tremendous amount of violence for a theoretically family-friendly movie, much of which is played for laughs. People are squashed, trampled, blown up, swallowed whole, and chucked off buildings. I admit I did find some of this funny, which is probably due to my own rather warped sense of humor, but parents with small kids might want to think twice before taking their kids to see this one.

The movie was directed by Brad Peyton, who previously worked with Dwayne Johnson in the movies San Andreas and Journey 2 The Mysterious Island. Peyton does a good job with the destruction scenes and the special effects are quite good, and it’s a lot of fun to watch the trio of monsters climb buildings and create mayhem, even if the considerable amount of collateral damage is glossed over. The entire movie is so insane and over-the-top that I couldn’t help but find myself swept away in its tidal wave of monsters and mayhem, anchored by a characteristically charismatic performance from my good pal Dwayne Johnson. He’s such a badass that getting shot partway through the movie doesn’t seem to bother him at all.

I’m not going to lie, RAMPAGE is a very dumb movie. It is also a very enjoyable movie. It’s surprisingly violent for a PG-13 rated blockbuster, and can even come off as a bit mean-spirited at times. But I had a ton of fun watching it and would happily watch a sequel.

Also, the wolf flies. Because of course it does.

Next week is going to be good, with the return of HBO’s Westworld on Sunday and Avengers: Infinity War on Friday. Expect posts about both of them very soon.

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More Thoughts about The Last Jedi

When I started writing about The Last Jedi, I had a whole list of things to talk about. About 2200 words into writing about the movie, I figured it was time to wrap up the post, only to glance at my list and realize that I had only covered around half of the items on it. I decided to end the post anyway because I didn’t want it to become too long and cumbersome, and I figured I had hit the most important points.

Be that as it may, I have a lot more to say about The Last Jedi. So, I figured I would do something I have never done before and write about the same movie for two weeks in a row.

Let’s start by talking some more about good old Luke Skywalker. Specifically, there was one other big question regarding Luke that I have been pondering since I re-watched the movie.

Images: Disney/Lucasfilm

Namely, why does Luke die?

Think about it. He can’t be that old. The new trilogy is set thirty years after Return of the Jedi, and Mark Hamill was in his early 30’s when that movie was released. Assuming Luke was around the same age, he’d be in his sixties in the new films. That’s not old. So he couldn’t have died of old age. He also hadn’t sustained any fatal wounds, or any wounds at all for that matter since he wasn’t actually on the planet Crait when he had his final showdown with Kylo Ren and the First Order, having projected himself there from the planet he had exiled himself to (the name of said planet escapes me).

I think the sheer exertion of projecting himself across such a vast distance was too much strain for him. Force projection is not an ability we’ve seen utilized in any other Star Wars movie, so presumably it’s not used very often. Maybe that’s because it’s such a huge energy drain that use of it could prove fatal, especially since Luke is using it project himself across such a vast distance, from one planet to another. I like this idea because if that is indeed the case, it would mean that Luke knew using it might kill him. But he did it anyway, sacrificing himself so that the few remaining rebels could escape.

I like this explanation because it would provide redemption for Luke, and a way to help assuage his guilt over having screwed up with Han and Leia’s son and subsequently shutting himself off from the rest of the (metaphorical) world. The problem with this explanation is that it is all rampant speculation on my part. I have no idea if any of this is accurate with Star Wars lore, but it’s an explanation that makes sense to me so I’m going to go with it.

On the subject of rampant speculation, there’s another small moment at the very end of the film that’s worth mentioning. In it, one of the kids on the casino planet who helped Finn and Rose escape picks up a broom and stares hopefully at the sky. But if you pay close attention, you can clearly see that the broom moves into the kid’s hand before he touches it. Is the kid using the Force here? If so, is he even aware of it? I really don’t know what to make of this. Talking about the potential significance of a kid picking up a broom strikes me as ludicrous, but you never know.

I mentioned Rose in the previous paragraph, who is a new character I didn’t have time to talk about in my previous post. She’s an absolute sweetheart, but I wish she had a more interesting subplot than that casino planet nonsense. Rose is played by Kelly Marie Tran, who is also a sweetheart. There’s a really charming story on the internet about how she was in a pub and listened to people at a nearby table talk about the movie in minute detail for an hour, and then walked over and introduced herself. She is a cool person and I hope her breakout role in Star Wars leads to a lot more acting gigs for her, she stole the movie in my opinion. I also hope Rose gets more to do in Episode IX, and doesn’t get stuck with another extraneous subplot.

I talked about Snoke a lot in my previous post, but one thing I didn’t talk about was the actor who plays him. Snoke is played by Andy Serkis, a true chameleon of an actor. Serkis’ most famous role is probably Gollum from Lord of the Rings, but he also played Caesar the ape in the recent Planet of the Apes movies and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. He’s played loads of other characters, and recently played a villain in Black Panther. On the Blu-Ray of The Last Jedi, one of the more interesting special features is a few of Snoke’s scenes from the film that are just Serkis wearing a motion-capture suit.

Snoke is a fully CGI character, and it’s amazing to see Serkis’ performance without the special effects. His facial movements and gestures and body language are so expressive. Even though he’s wearing a goofy-looking motion-capture suit and is covered with electrodes and cameras, he’s ACTING the absolute HELL out of that character, and I highly recommend anyone who bought the Blu-Ray to check out that feature.

Another thing about this movie that stands out to me is the color red. Blood red is all over the movie and is the dominant color in most of the posters. From Snoke’s red throne room and red Praetorian guards to the vivid red colors during the final battle sequence on Crait, red is all over the place. It’s an interesting color choice for a variety of reasons, one of them being that red is of course the color of the dark side, and every dark Jedi throughout the series wields a red lightsaber. It gives the movie a unique look that I really like and sets it apart visually from other entries in the series, and other sci-fi movies in general.

I also want to address one more thing that bothers me. This isn’t a criticism of the movie, but of the response to it, which has been frequently toxic. The movie was critically acclaimed but got a much more mixed reaction from fans, which is understandable. What is not understandable is how absolutely awful some people were about it. I read comments on the internet by arrogant idiots stating that if you like the movie, then you’re not a “true fan” of Star Wars.

Words cannot describe how much I loathe that appalling statement.

If you liked the movie, that’s totally fine. You are still allowed to be a fan of Star Wars and are not beholden to some random jerk’s definition of what a “true fan” is supposed to be. This is emblematic of a lot of toxic fan culture these days. If your opinion is different then you “just don’t get it,” which is stupid and is a total cop-out. I could go on for a long time about this but I don’t want to because it makes me angry. I just wanted to say that if you like this movie that’s completely fine. You are still a good person.

After having had a chance to watch the movie again and put down my thoughts about it, I like the movie more now than I did after the first time I saw it. I still have a lot of issues with it but writing about it has helped me sort out my feelings about it. In many ways this has been one of the most difficult movies I’ve ever written about, so thank you for coming on this journey with me. Next week’s post is going to be about RAMPAGE, with Dwayne Johnson and a bunch of city-destroying monsters. See you then.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is as Frustrating as it is Exhilarating

Like many people, I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi when it was in theaters, and like many people, my feelings about it were mixed to say the least. Now that the movie is on Blu-ray and I’ve had the chance to watch it again, I figure the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired and it’s time for an in-depth discussion. There’s a lot to talk about so let’s get started. There will be spoilers aplenty, so if by some bizarre circumstance you want to see it and haven’t yet, go see it. Love it or hate it (or both), it’s worth a watch just to see what all the fuss is about.

My thoughts on The Last Jedi are complicated, but can be boiled down to one basic summary: the movie is beautifully directed, but poorly written. The Last Jedi was written and directed by Rian Johnson, who is a very smart guy and a very talented writer/director, and his twisty 2012 time travel thriller Looper is one of my favorite movies. His Star Wars movie looks amazing and the action sequences are among the best of the entire franchise, and there were times watching the movie when I thought, this is why people got excited about Star Wars in the first place.

Images: Disney/Lucasfilm

Unfortunately, I also have a LOT of problems with the movie.

Let’s start with one of the big ones: Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke was one of the biggest mysteries in The Force Awakens: who is this guy? How did he become the Supreme Leader of the First Order? How did he lure Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia and nephew of Luke Skywalker, away from the light side of the force and into the dark? In the leadup to the release of The Last Jedi, I was looking forward to getting some answers to these burning questions.

And then the movie came out, and did not answer a single one of these questions.

The movie does not address Snoke’s background at all. He’s as much a mystery at the end of Episode VIII as he was at the end of Episode VII.

Now, I get that there is a lot going on in The Last Jedi, and there is not time to provide a detailed backstory for every single character. But I don’t care that much about Snoke’s background, I care about how he was able to turn Ben Solo to the dark side and make him become Kylo Ren, and cause him to hate his parents and his uncle to the point of trying to kill all of them (and actually succeeding in the case of Han Solo in The Force Awakens).
The conflict between Kylo and Luke is arguably the most important plot point of the entire sequel series, since it provides the reason for Luke’s self-imposed exile and his abandonment of the Jedi Order, which presumably helped give rise to the First Order. Giving no indication whatsoever as to how this happened leaves a gaping hole in what should be the emotional core of the entire movie. All we’re told is that Luke could sense Ben being led to the dark side, and a misunderstanding between Luke and Ben, as well as a moment of weakness on Luke’s part, led to Ben destroying Luke’s new Jedi Order, Luke’s exile, and so on. That is simply not enough.

I also don’t buy that Luke would completely turn against the teachings of the Jedi Order as quickly as he does. The entire original trilogy sets up Luke as being the one to bring the Jedi back, and then he makes one mistake and just gives up? Says screw it, I’m done? What kind of way is that to treat one of the greatest and most influential sci-fi protagonists of all time? I like Rian Johnson, but what the hell, man???

This is my biggest problem with the movie. Snoke is just the tip of the iceberg, because his actions are key to the story and knowing nothing about him damn near kills a crucial plot point. And now he’s dead, and who the hell knows what will happen in Episode IX.

But we’re just getting started. My other biggest problem with the movie, and the best example of how sloppily written it is, is embodied in the character of Admiral Holdo. Holdo is played by Laura Dern, who I’m sure is a very nice lady but her character makes not one but two of the most bafflingly stupid decisions I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The viewer spends a large portion of the movie thinking she’s evil, or that she must at the very least be a First Order spy who is deliberately attempting to sabotage the rebellion’s escape attempts. Her behavior is so blatantly suspicious that it’s obvious to the viewer (and the other characters in the movie) that she’s bent.

And then she isn’t.

Yes, it turns out that Leia and Holdo had an escape plan all along, and Holdo was simply carrying out that plan. But here’s the problem: why the bloody hell would she not tell anyone that??? What is the freaking point of having everyone think you’re evil? Why would you not tell everyone what the plan was? Why would you not just say hey, here’s what we are going to do? Can’t you see you’re just causing more problems?

But Holdo’s inexplicable stupidity doesn’t end there. After the escape pods are loaded, Holdo stays behind on the mothership to lure the First Order away, only for the First Order to promptly begin blasting the escape pods to smithereens. And then Holdo just stands there watching and DOES NOTHING!!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING, WOMAN!?!?!?! YOUR FRIENDS ARE GETTING ANNIHILATED AND YOU’RE JUST STANDING THERE!!!

WTF?!?!?!

Whew. Sorry about all the capitalization and punctuation marks, but I needed to get that out of my system.

Holdo does eventually redeem herself, at least partly, by crashing the Rebel mothership into Snoke’s flagship at lightspeed, which cripples the First Order’s fleet and is one of the most spectacular special-effects sequences I’ve ever seen. When the First Order’s ships break apart and it’s all completely silent, you could feel everyone in the theater holding their breath.

It was amazing, but why the hell did Holdo not do this as soon as the Rebel escape pods left the mothership? I get that sacrificing yourself is not a decision to be made lightly, but the entire reason she stayed on the mothership in the first place was to lure the First Order away, which presumably would have ended with them killing her anyway. So as soon as it became apparent that that plan wasn’t going to work and the First Order begins blasting the Rebel ships into nothing, why does Holdo wait so long to do anything about it?

I have absolutely no idea.

I also have no idea what the point of the stupid casino planet subplot is. Finn, the reformed former stormtrooper from The Force Awakens, goes on a mission to a planet called Canto Bight to find a codebreaker who can get him onto Snoke’s flagship so he can disable it, but the entire subplot feels inconsequential. Why couldn’t the movie just have had Finn go directly to Snoke’s ship himself? What’s the point of the codebreaker character and subplot? Removing it would have made the story much more streamlined. The entire sequence set at the casino on Canto Bight feels like a waste of time.

What it really feels like to me is an attempt by Disney to generate more merchandise for the film. There are tons of weird creatures and whatnot at the casino, and the obvious effort put into designing and creating so many different characters is impressive, but that effort could have been better spent elsewhere. The entire subplot feels like filler in a movie that doesn’t need filler. Get rid of the filler and focus on the stuff that matters, like the Snoke/Kylo/Luke story. This is Star Wars, there shouldn’t be any filler. I just can’t help but feel like the Disney overlords told Rian Johnson to make the movie as merchandisable as possible, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said okay.

It also doesn’t help that I’m not that invested in Finn as a character. He’s fine I guess, but I care a lot more about Rey, who is more important to the overall story anyway, and I’m not just saying that because I have a crush on Daisy Ridley, who is really great in the role. One of the other biggest mysteries left over from The Force Awakens was the question of Rey’s parentage, and why they left her alone on a backwater planet in the middle of nowhere. Fan theories abounded, one of the most convincing being that Rey was the daughter of Han and Leia, and therefore Kylo Ren’s sister.

But, nope. The only scrap of information that we get from The Last Jedi is when Kylo tells Rey that her parents were nobodies. It’s hugely anticlimactic, and feels like another tease from the previous movie that the makers of this movie just didn’t care about. Also, how does Kylo know who Rey’s parents were? Did he use Space Google? There’s always the possibility that he’s lying and is just trying to manipulate her, but for now it feels like another big plot point that the movie doesn’t care about.

On the Blu-Ray of the movie there is featurette called Balance of the Force, in which Rian Johnson talks about how in the original trilogy, the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father is the worst thing that could have happened to him, since it turns out that the evil he’s trying to fight is a part of him. Similarly, the revelation that Rey’s parents were nobodies is the worst thing that could have happened to her, because it denies her the answers she’s looking for.

One of the most compelling aspects of The Last Jedi is Rey’s search for answers about her role in everything that’s going on. For me, the most moving scene in the film is when she tells Luke, “I need someone to show me my place in all of this.” As someone who has yet to find his place in life, this resonates strongly with me. Johnson’s argument that her parents were nobodies is the worst thing that could have happened to her is compelling from this standpoint, since if she had turned out to be Luke’s daughter or Han and Leia’s daughter or something like that, it would have helped give her a sense of purpose and identity, and denying her that means she’ll have to keep looking.

I like this explanation, but it still feels like Johnson is pulling the rug out from under the viewer’s feet. The entire Balance of the Force featurette on the Blu-Ray strikes me as odd, since it’s mostly Johnson explaining some of the more controversial aspects of the story. It feels like an attempt on the behalf of the filmmakers to cover their butts and explain away some of the aspects of the story that understandably angered fans.

The movie is also tonally uneven. There are too many attempts at humor, many of which feel out of place and detract from the drama of the moment. This is best exemplified with porgs. Porgs are cute little creatures that are like a combination of a puffin and a guinea pig. They may be cute little buggers, but the movie relies on them too much for comic relief and cuts to them at odd moments. For example, during the final battle on the mineral planet Crait, when Rey and Chewbacca swoop in on the Millennium Falcon to provide some much-needed help to the Rebels, there’s a damn porg on the Falcon that keeps screeching. Seriously Chewie, just bite the damn thing’s head off already! Why Johnson is so obsessed with the bloody porgs is yet another mystery that the movie leaves unsolved.

Despite my laundry list of problems with the movie, I don’t hate it. It didn’t ruin Star Wars for me. There are sequences in the movie that are some of my favorites in the entire series. I love the opening space battle, Rey and Kylo’s epic fight against Snoke’s crimson-clad Praetorian guards, the fight between Finn and Captain Phasma on Snoke’s burning command ship, and the epic final battle on Crait (aside from the porg, anyway). The movie looks absolutely stunning and the acting is top-notch. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher both give soulful performances in iconic roles, and Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are both excellent as the two most important characters in the new series.

But the movie has crippling problems that I can’t ignore. There’s plenty of material I didn’t cover in this post, so there might be a follow-up at some point in the future, since I don’t want this post to become too long and unwieldy. But I’ve hit the most important points, and it feels good to do so, since all of this has been swirling frantically around in my head ever since I saw the movie. The Last Jedi was an extremely divisive movie, and it’s not hard to see why.

What will the future hold for Star Wars? Only time (and JJ Abrams) will tell.