Dwayne Johnson’s latest action vehicle, Rampage, directed by frequent collaborator Brad Peyton (San Andreas) offers all of the city-wide destruction and monster mayhem that the big-screen can contain. Loosely based on the arcade game of the same name, Rampage sees Johnson’s primatologist, Davis Okoye, contend with the effects of a chemical agent that mutates the genes of several animals – a gorilla, a wolf, and a crocodile, increasing their size and abilities. Much of the film is a means to witness Johnson’s charisma set against an expensive backdrop of helicopter crashes, building scaling, and races against time, each defying the laws of science. While Johnson is the film’s biggest draw, the film balances his star power, with an equally impressive draw: giant monsters, or as the Japanese coined them, kaiju. Rampage may be primarily concerned with entertainment and its popcorn movie expectations, but it is firmly set within a much larger cinematic history that speaks to the immediate concerns of the era.
Gordon Douglas’ Them! (1954), a film that preceded Japan’s first entry into the realm of the kaiju film by several months and serves one of the earliest examples of the giant monster movie, contextualized our fears of the atomic age through massive insects. At the end of the film, Dr. Harold Medford (Edmund Gwenn) somberly stares out at the burning carcasses of the oversized ants that plagued America’s Southwest region and delivers the final lines: “when man entered the atomic age, he opened a door into a new world. What we’ll find in that new world, nobody can predict.” This sentiment, and the theme of atomic irresponsibility continued through the American horror films of the ’50s and ’60s as giant ants gave way to larger and stranger mutations, a result of nuclear tests and radiation experiments. In many of these films, there is a lack of direct blame. It’s science and curiosity that cause these things, but rarely if ever human evil, or governmental evil, that audiences can put faces too. Even Oppenheimer becomes a mythic figure, a poet consumed by misguided intentions and regret, rather than someone of questionable morals and unquestionable guilt. This oversight allowed for what were originally intended to be horror movies to become more entrenched in the world of science fiction escapism. Joe Dante’s Matinee (1993) best captures this era as the threat of the Cuban Missile Crisis and school bombing drills are juxtaposed against the thrill of big-screen monster movies that served as escapism while being based in the very threats we were meant to confront.
While the giant monster movies of Hollywood focused on the fears born of secrets buried in the desert or hidden away in laboratories, across the sea,…
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