Monster Movie Double Smash: Pacific Rim Uprising and Rampage
You, as a patron of the Toilet, are a high-minded connoisseur of art and culture. You eat the finest foie gras, attend openings at the Met, and listen only to orthodox black metal. But here’s the thing; I’m going to need you to set your epicurean palate aside for the next two hours because we’re talking giant monster movies.
We live in a surprising rebirth era of kaiju eiga. It took well over a decade for the American public to come back around to monster flicks after the disappointment of Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla in 1998, but 20 years on, we’ve seen Cloverfield (2008), Pacific Rim (2013), Godzilla (2014), Colossal (2016), and Kong: Skull Island (2017) win crowds over once again.
Within the last two months, not one but two giant monster movies have graced our big screens. The first is the much-anticipated (to certain audiences, anyway) sequel to a surprisingly good, tongue-in-cheek blockbuster. The other is a self-aware video game adaptation of some extremely narratively-thin source material. Depending on your taste for cheese, both are worth watching.
Pacific Rim Uprising is the successor to Guillermo del Toro’s whimsical Giant Robots x Giant Monsters ho-down, and though it features less monster action and less winking absurdity than the original, there’s plenty here that fans of kaiju and mecha will enjoy. Uprising picks up ten years after the original left off. The monsters are dead. The Pan Pacific Defense Force is secure. The world is safe. Or is it?
Without giving away too much of the highly telegraphed plot, the central drama of the film hinges on a re-drafted Jake Pentecost (played by the ever charismatic John Boyega), son of Pacific Rim hero Stacker Pentecost, facing off against the looming threat of drone Jaegers (the Pacific Rim-verse’s giant, human-piloted robots), rogue mecha, and the perpetual fear that the Precursors, the alien masters of the giant beasties sent to our world to terraform it to something more hospital to their weirdo reptilian bodies. Along the way, Jake inspires young Jaeger cadets, tangos mano-a-mano with a rival Gypsy Danger wannabe (painted black so you know it’s a bad guy), and generally learns how to be a hero.
He also, unfortunately, faces a (to be generous) wooden co-pilot, bratty children, and stilted writing that comes off far more ham-fisted than ham-in-cheek. Yes, just like Del Toro’s original, it’s a big ham sandwich, but it’s got a lot of weird dressings and some funky cheese on it, so only the most dedicated fans of ham and cheese are going to be able to gulp it down.
The chief issue with this film, aside from the generally groan-inducing cast (minus the always delightful Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), is director Steven S. DeKnight’s pivot to a more mecha-centric film. There are only 3(ish) kaiju in the whole movie, and they don’t really do much more than act as a showcase for the offputtingly flexible and anime inspired mecha in the final act. Unlike the clunky, diesel-powered tractor-men of Del Toro’s original, the Jaegers in Uprising are sleek and acrobatic, sliding, flipping, and rolling around the kaiju rather than standing and taking the blows like real men (robots). This fact, combined with the unnecessarily bright setting (monster fights are way cooler in the dark, dammit), just makes Uprising feel too often like a cheap (but not cheap enough to be whimsical) Bayformers also-ran.
But wait, didn’t I already claim this film is worth watching. Yes, and I stand by that, with one minor caveat: this film is worth watching for genre purists. The kaiju are still big, menacing leather boys. John Boyega is still a commanding presence (especially when he leans into the silliness of the film’s premise and riffs about his dad’s speech in the previous movie), there’s a genuinely cool, very Hideaki Anno-esque easter egg for true believers in the film’s major twist (that astute readers will likely have already predicted), and even when the hot robot-on-robot action slums down into Bay territory, it never feels as misguided and ill-intended and bad-stupid as the Transformers flicks. Sure, there’s some bad ham, but the good ham elevates the bad ham into a genuinely edible ham if you like ham. Plus, the films’ climactic battle against the big bad boss kaiju, especially the wonderfully surreal resolution to that conflict, is almost enough to astroturf over its myriad other problems. To whit, allow me to quote a hypothetical response from Glen Weldon’s excellent review over at NPR.
Do I agree that you shouldn’t see it? I very much do. I mean, listen to yourself. You expressly do not count yourself among the cohort of giant-robots-fight-giant-monsters potential filmgoers, safe to say. So clearly you shouldn’t see it… It’s goofy and ridiculous in a knowing way that the Transformers films, for example, are very, very not and never could be.
Before I break bread with Rampage‘s very good ham, allow me a slightly indulgent aside on the difference between good-stupid and bad-stupid. Kaiju films tend to work best when they drive securely within one of two lanes: 1) allegorical horror for the monstrousness of mankind (Gojira, Rodan, Shin Godzilla, The Host), or; 2) willfully, gleefully absurd (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, The Giant Claw, Kong: Skull Island). A pretty damn good way to tank your giant monster movie is to careen between these lanes; that’s the domain of bad-stupid, and it’s the reason most of the Showa-era Gamera films are firmly bad-stupid. The first Gamera film features a convincingly creepy introduction to the monster as another misbegotten bastard of mankind’s atomic rape of mother earth, but then it pivots to a kid who really likes turtles, forever damning Gamera to a life of being a friend to all children until the nineties. That’s bad-stupid.
A few more examples:
1. Good-stupid: The characters in The Giant Claw repeatedly referring to the monster as “as big as a battleship.”
2. Bad-stupid: George Lucas-levels of subtlety when making in-genre references, like the soldier in Reptilian yelling, “Compared to this guy, Godzilla is a pussy!”
3. Good-stupid: The Chinese Jaeger’s triple-arm attack in the original Pacific Rim.
4. Bad-stupid: These got dang children yelling to Gamera in Gamera vs. Zigra
5. Good-stupid: The spooky SUPER SCIENCE that sets the scene for Behemoth the Sea Monster.
6. Bad-stupid: The lame-ass mutants fighting the giant monsters in Godzilla: Final Wars
Look, I know it may seem to the discerning film critic that I’m splitting hairs here, but there is a distinction. If the kaiju film prominently features children or people with super powers or robots doing flips, it’s probably bad-stupid. If the kaiju film features painfully earnest dialogue, contrived scientific machinations, and gratuitous scenes of giant beasties smashing stuff, it’s probably good stupid. And friends, Rampage is LOADED with good-stupid. It’s a big, stupid, cheese & ham sandwich that joyfully embraces the sheer ridiculousness of its premise. It is, as Frank Zappa would say, the good kind of cheap.
For the video game illiterate in the crowd, Rampage is a loose (very loose) adaptation of Midway’s 1986 arcade hit Rampage. Astute readers and avid volcels may note that there isn’t a whole lot to work with in the original game’s premise; three humans are transformed by the insidious Scumlabs corporation into giant monsters, who then go on a rampage (Oh my gosh, he said it!) across city after city. That paper-thin plot is actually a bit of a boon because it unfetters Rampage the film from the typical burdens of attempting to make a super-powered and stoic protagonist relatable to an audience within the context of a story that’s both fresh and faithful. There’s no way to make a story about giant monsters that isn’t ridiculous to at least some degree, so director Brad Peyton, to our benefit, just leans into the surrealism of it all.
With one minor change, that is. The monsters – giant ape George, indestructible reptile Lizzie, and ravenous wolf Ralph (so christened in the film by weirdos (like us!) on the internet) – aren’t irradiated humans. They’re just animals unwittingly exposed to a genetic modification pathogen created by an evil corporation engaging in evil SUPER SCIENCE. Different beginning, same destination: monsters rampaging (WOOOOH, he did it again) across the country.
Yes, an evil corporation headed by malevolent moguls whose characterization is so thin as to be nigh-translucent infecting animals all conveniently located in the US, and then luring those monsters all to one location so that they can do something evil and super sciency to those monsters, all while good scientists and wise-cracking government types try to stop them, is stupid. But it’s good-stupid! Delightfully, perpetually good-stupid!
All of the actors lean into their absurd roles with gusto and relish. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson shrugs off bullets and chokes out soldiers and generally does stupid, absurd things that no real person would do if a city was actually being torn to pieces by three giant monsters, but it works because Johnson does it all with the swagger and bravado he’s crafted through years of tongue-in-cheek and self-aware entertainment. Jeffrey Dean Morgan, whom some readers may know as pee-pee-pants-baseball- bad-guy from that one TV show everyone seems to hate but still watches, overacts THE HELL out of his cowboy-turned-federal agent role, and it’s a sight to behold. The rest of the cast, though relatively nondescript (sorry, Naomie Harris) does an admirable job of letting the train run itself off the rails, and we’re all the better for it.
Even the monsters themselves, the true highlight of the film, lean into the sheer absurdity. Ralph the wolf can fly! Lizzie, an alligator-thing, can climb buildings! And our sweet albino boy George makes sex jokes in sign language! It’s great and perfectly fits the crass irreverence of the source material. It’s these absurdities that make the scenes where the monsters fight alongside each other against the military and then against each other great. These fights are violent and dire and absolutely hilarious as Ralph ricochets off the side of buildings and George slides under bridges and Lizzie grabs helicopters out of the sky in a way that should make everyone involved with the Lake Placid series blush. It’s all great, and even when the stakes are high, the tone is still sufficiently light and surreal to make sure that you don’t feel bad about sweet, friendly George getting locked into a fight for his life. You’re just here for the thrills, and that’s exactly what Rampage delivers.
Honestly, as a giant monster movie aficionado, I have zero complaints about Rampage. It’s a big-budget, brain-dead action blockbuster that doesn’t ever take itself seriously and stays continually locked into the tongue-in-cheek lane of absurdity, happily driving down that explosion-pocked, monster-rubble-strewn lane behind some of the all-time genre greats. If you love films like Reptilicus or Gorgo or the absolute cluster of a time travel flick that is Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah, you owe it to yourself to plunk down a few bucks for a matinee. And if this all sounds terrible to you, it might actually do you some good as a person to dislodge your rectal stick, turn your brain off, and just become one with Zappa and Dali and the rest of the world floating in the Dada film ether. Now excuse me while I go back to my atonal dissonant progressive avant-garde death metal and free-trade artisanal coffee.
Both Pacific Rim Uprising and Rampage are currently in theaters now.