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Thom Barker: Rampage: How to judge a movie by its trailer

Thom Barker
Thom Barker - Contributed

Some movies you know are bad without even seeing them.

In this category I include most disaster movies, perhaps the absolute worst of which is “The Day After Tomorrow”. Rarely—outside obvious parodies of the genre such as the Sharknado franchise, which are good-bad, i.e., good for being intentionally bad — has a film twisted the science as egregiously as “The Day After Tomorrow”.

There are, of course, exceptions that prove the rule. Usually, even those, such as the new “Planet of the Apes” series, have to go through some pretty credulity-challenging scientific contortions to get to the compelling aspects of the story, but their overall redeeming qualities allow even scientifically-discerning viewers to suspend our disbelief.

More by Thom Barker:

Summertime and the living is… get away spawn of Satan!

To fish or not to fish is not the question

A Muslim ban by any other name

The undocumented features of living in the north

Civilization stinks: Or how I spent my summer vacation

On the basis of the trailer alone, I am putting “Rampage”, the new Dwayne Johnson action-adventure flick, in the bad-bad category.

Johnson himself is a bit of a conundrum. He is a massive star, a great personality has become a pretty decent actor, and is capable of getting some pretty good roles. For example, although a simplistic ethics-versus-corruption tale, the “Standing Tall” remake was entertaining. I also enjoyed the recent “Jumanji” reimagining.

On the other hand, he chooses to do a lot of real crap. The never-ending “Fast and Furious” sequels leap to mind, apologies to my wife who loves that franchise. And “Tooth Fairy”? Just wow, not in a good way. I’m still shaking my head over that fiasco.

Rampage is the latest example of the evil-scientist-creates-monster trope. I’m not against that plotline on principle. “Frankenstein” is, of course, a classic and “Jurassic Park” effectively and entertainingly explores scientific and corporate ethics without being heavy-handed, even if it is a little thin on the plausibility of the scientific premise.

“Rampage” does not hold any of that promise.

In a nutshell, Energyne, a genetic engineering company led by principle antagonist Dr. Claire Wyden, creates a pathogen on a space laboratory. After a rat ingests the pathogen, the animal inexplicably mutates into a monster that goes wild, manages to destroy the space station and send its remains hurtling toward Earth. A canister containing the pathogen somehow survives re-entry to the atmosphere and falls to Earth infecting a rare albino gorilla, who is the best friend of primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson’s people-hating character). I won’t even start to dissect all the credibility problems with that sequence of events.

Suffice it to say, chaos ensues giving licence to director Brad Peyton (who also directed the horrible blockbuster San Andreas) to CGI the hell out of downtown Chicago.

As if reading the synopsis was not enough to put me off, there is one line in the trailer that permanently spiked this one off my list of ways to kill a couple of hours.

“We’ve created the next chapter in natural selection,” says Wyden.

This suggests the producers, despite having a big budget to work with, didn’t have the decency to consult an actual scientist. Any scientist, even a villainous one such as Claire Wyden, knows the difference between natural selection and artificial selection, much less would not recognize the vast gulf between natural selection and what this is, genetic manipulation on a completely unbelievable scale.

Trying to explain it to Okoye—who inexplicably is apparently unfamiliar with the latest in biological science despite being a biologist—discredited former Energyne employee Dr. Kate Caldwell says: “Are you familiar with genetic editing? Changes will be incredibly unpredictable. It increases strength, speed, agility.”

Ugh. That is not how genetic editing works.

Even copious explosions, flying wolves, giant crocodiles and Dwayne’s expert delivery of pithy remarks cannot save this unfortunate waste of celluloid. And, it would seem, the critics agree, even if test audiences don’t.

I know, I know, my mom taught me not to judge a book by its cover, too, but what the hell is a trailer if not a cover by which to measure a movie?

But, Thom, one may ask, what’s the harm in a little mindless entertainment?

Well, nothing, in principle, but one of my biggest pet peeves is lazy writing, and this has that written all over it. Movies are a vehicle for telling compelling stories independent of genre. A good movie is one in which the story stands on its own. If story does not transcend genre, if a film relies entirely on stunts and special effects, if the very premise strains credibility, it is not for me, because it can easily be done better.

Rampage had a budget of $120 million. Don’t tell me the producers could not have hired some scientists to take the kernel of accuracy in the genetic editing premise and tweak the plot into something plausible, or, at the very least, make the dialogue consistent with the professional credentials of the characters.

Given Dwayne’s track record of indiscriminately accepting roles, and Peyton’s history of making garbage, it is highly doubtful the laziness does not infect the entire film.

I’m going to give “Rampage” a pass.

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