It is strange to realize the kinds of things you take away from a movie. Between the written script, the entirety of what’s captured on camera, and the artist’s intent, there is an infinite spectrum of interpretation between film and viewer. Part of my purpose as a writer is to bring others onto my wavelength within that spectrum, in the hopes of revealing a new understanding that they would have otherwise never considered. In turn, it is my responsibility to explain and defend my conclusions as lucidly as possible. While there might not be a “wrong” way to interpret movies, one must be able to back up their claims, for even the most dubious and outlandish take can hold weight if reasoned well enough.
And so I find myself alone with my thoughts after seeing Rampage, a big budget special effects-laden blockbuster, based off of an old arcade game, starring Dwayne Johnson. My goal here isn’t a review—as we already have a lovely piece for that—so much as it is a philosophical exercise. I went into Rampage expecting a broad, silly, moderately fun spectacle, and for the most part, it delivered. However, I was taken aback by what I perceived to be very subtle and at times overt metaphors at play, with story elements that seemed to be sorting through real world issues while also somehow addressing other recent movies and the themes they present.
We’ll be getting into SPOILERS from here on, so be forewarned.
What if you took the calculated fury of Erik Killmonger in Black Panther and the coldblooded rage of Koba in the new Planet of the Apes trilogy, and processed that pain through a Big Dumb Heartfelt blockbuster starring the most electrifying action superstar on the planet?? To my mind, you get Rampage. This strange observation was unearthed in part because of recent movies that affected me deeply, as well as the latest news headlines etched into my mind.
Recently in Philadelphia, there has been a controversy about two black men wrongfully arrested at a Starbucks café. The incident has brought to light ongoing discussions about racial profiling and more specifically about the woeful power dynamics at play when white people call the police on black people, putting their lives in immediately grave danger. I couldn’t help but put bring this to bear in the first act of the movie, where Dwayne Johnson’s character pleads with police while his hands are raised high in the air to not shoot his terrified friend. Perhaps this frame of reference is skewed by experience in living in this era. Nonetheless, the metaphor for black fear and rage certainly seems to fall in line with the original giant ape blockbuster King Kong, not to mention the more overt racism allegory in the original Planet of the Apes films from the 1960s and ‘70s.
That device is expanded upon even further in the recent rebooted Planet of the Apes series, in which the intelligent ape Caesar’s quest to keep his people free and safe from the tyranny of humanity seems to track with the struggles and differing philosophies of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. The tragic villain figure of Koba is integral to this understanding, but not just because of his kill or be killed/by any means necessary attitude. One of the most astounding elements of Dawn of The Planet of The Apes is where Koba has to literally shuck and jive for the man, at first to escape death, and then using monkey shine tomfoolery to enact his deadly revenge. Still, I was always somewhat bothered by these very apt metaphors, because their central conceit runs parallel to (and intertwines with) a very hurtful and disgusting insult that has long been used to dehumanize us: monkeys are stand-ins for black people.
There is a way forwards of sorts in this conceit within Rampage, in that the giant Gorilla feels like an avatar, a Stand (in the Bizarre Adventure context) for this black pain, while still having Dwayne Johnson fully represent these struggles as a person of color in his own right. The Rock shares lineage with a renowned Samoan family and that of Black Nova Scotians. In his movie roles, his intangible charisma and nondescript complexion make him difficult to pin down in regards to our stereotypical views on race. More bluntly, it isn’t clear what race he really is, which allows him unique fluidity within our narrow conceptualizations of what white and black action heroes are supposed to be. He is neither Wesley Snipes nor Arnold Schwarzenegger; he exists in a continuum that is apart from yet beyond those confines.
In Rampage, however, for the first time in a long time I got the impression that for all intents and purposes, friend and foe alike see Dwayne Johnson as a Big Black Guy. His character’s name is Davis Okoye. There is no ambiguity in this; he is a child of Africa. It is interesting to note that he shares a name with a hero from the worldwide phenomenon Black Panther, as Danai Gurira’s knockout performance as the brave and stalwart Wakandan general Okoye has won the hearts of moviegoers worldwide. Moreover, I found there were even more similarities between the stories that bolstered my viewing experience. Erik Killmonger is a hardened assassin trained by the US government but spurned on by his own hatred of past wrongdoings. The depths of his atrocities know no bounds in his quest for vengeance, as he explicitly acknowledges: “I killed in America, Afghanistan, Iraq… I took life for my own brothers and sisters right here on this continent!” I was surprised to find this also explicitly acknowledged in Rampage as well, where we learn that Okoye is a former Special Forces operative with many clandestine missions under his belt. More significantly, we find that his breaking point within his service came when he killed a band of African poachers in order to save the life of a young Albino Gorilla that would come to be his closest friend.
Here too, names are significant. Okoye’s gorilla buddy is named George. This is a simple and cute enough word association to other famous characters like Curious George, the loveable monkey of children’s books, or even the cartoon character George of The Jungle, a play on the Tarzan stories of old (and we certainly know The Rock has been all about jungle action throughout his career). However, that name also has other historical connotations tracing back to past racist transgressions. As mentioned in this article, George was also a slur used by high-class whites in the early 1900s to address black Pullman train car porters so that they didn’t have to learn their names.
Perhaps a wild coincidence, perhaps a far reach. But I wonder how many white film critics and audiences would even have that frame of reference. I say that not to demean other writers or deride them antagonistically. Again, this is all about the infinite spectrum of analysis and finding a new way to look at a movie. For my part, the racial subtext was enough to latch onto, but my military service once again allowed for deeper resonance with material that others may not have considered.
It is fascinating to see that a former world-weary soldier finds comfort and solace in the company of animals rather than the bottom of a bottle, a dingy underworld, or some other type of unhealthy self-medication. Even more noticeable is how Rampage treats other aspects of our modern military industrial complex. Joe Manganiello plays another former soldier who makes his way as private military contractor, leading his team of hyper-macho badass operators on a mission to kill or capture the giant monsters. The movie firmly paints these tacticool mercenaries as the bad guys who get their comeuppance, but the movie surprisingly isn’t worried about trying to show the standing Armed Forces in a positive light either. The National Guard troops sent to fend off the giant monsters are gleefully stomped on, smashed, exploded, and eaten, the movie leaning into its source material about wreaking havoc to score points. It’s a far cry from the military worship of other blockbusters such as Michael Bay’s Transformers series. Stranger still is the case of Agent Russell, played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. We at first perceive the CIA agent as completely reprehensible, but he eventually becomes an integral part to Okoye’s success. This may perhaps be putting too sudden and positive a spin on the likes of an agency known for its nefarious deeds throughout the world, but it at least states plainly that cooperation is the key. The swaggering cowboy learns to listen to and trust the big black zookeeper, in turn ensuring the day is saved.
The racial aspect is consistent throughout the film, notably in its diverse casting. For one, it was a pleasure to see Naomie Harris as an intelligent and courageous black woman, key to saving the world from the deadly monsters with plenty of agency and narrative purpose. The commander of the National Guard forces is a black man, hard edged but also showing a glimpse of compassion. The FBI agent in charge sent to apprehend evidence and suspects within the Bio-tech company responsible for the monster outbreak is Korean (always great to see Will Yun Lee in anything). And if nothing else, it’s certainly fun and empowering to see the comically whitebread billionaire CEO siblings played by Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy as obvious parallels to the Trump kids getting their just deserts, eaten by a giant monster or smashed by the falling debris of a skyscraper.
Some may find the 9/11 imagery played out or unconscionable, but I couldn’t help belt feel like it was working towards a certain kind of catharsis. In 2005, Steven Spielberg famously grafted the psychological terror of the 9/11 terrorist attacks onto H.G. Wells’ classic tale that caused real world hysteria back in its day with his utterly darkly disturbing adaptation of War Of The Worlds. That movie was very much the work of an artist trying to process our collective trauma by putting us back into that head space with a heightened sense of reality, like a type of mass media immersion therapy. I think blockbusters like The Avengers and Rampage are continuing in that therapeutic discussion, with their portrayals of great calamity that focus on heroes rescuing people and trying to save as many lives as possible.
The location of all this mayhem holds considerable importance as well. Rampage could have taken place in New York like King Kong or a west coast city like San Francisco, as seen in the 2014 American adaptation of Godzilla, but instead it chooses Chicago as its battleground. Once again, this feels beyond mere coincidence. In the American social consciousness, Chicago is ground zero for one of the greatest epidemics of our day: gun violence. Right wing hawks looking to curtail gun control often tout the high murder rates of “Black On Black Crime” as proof that people will get guns regardless of laws. In reality, Chicago and its surrounding areas are the epitome of the failures of proper legislation and porous regional gun control boundaries. It also reflects the legacy of communities deprived of basic services and the history of racial segregation via redlining, severely impacting the quality of life and the very psyche of people struggling in destitution.
So Rampage is gonna blow it all up.
I gotta tell you, I’m having a lot of fun extrapolating these crazy ideas out of this entertaining B-movie, but I’m also quite serious about how my frame of reference and experiences define my outlook. Rampage is a fun popcorn blockbuster full of one-liners and big smashy set pieces. And it is also about an aggrieved Black veteran coming to terms with the relationship between institutionalized violence and humanity in order to fight the byproducts of the military industrial complex’s corporate greed, which profits from death, by using his strength, the oversized projection of his rage and America’s misconception of misunderstood Black masculinity, and the bravery, intellect, and compassion of a Black woman to save the day. The movie is basically only a few degrees removed from Chiraq, minus a Sam Jackson appearance or two (though you can’t blame him, he was busy fighting another giant gorilla). I was expecting an enjoyable if forgettable evening at the movies, but instead I came away with a thought provoking experience that will stay with me for years to come. Others probably wont have that same experience, and that’s okay. In the end, what matters is we recognize this power that movies have over us, and in turn recognize the importance of each other’s experiences in a way that only the magic of movies can elicit. And if happens while watching a giant wolf with flying squirrel wings shoot porcupine quills out of its spine at an Apache helicopter, all the better.