"We shouldn't' be afraid of the sharks. They are the ones who should be afraid of us!" a weather-beaten captain declares in a deliberately preposterous accent at the beginning of the deliberately preposterous film “Sharknado” (2013). The captain has a point; while flying windblown sharks leaping out of tornados may be a good example of nature red in tooth and claw, humans, it turns out, are even redder, and their claws are sharper. The poor rubber sharks flopping around on land as humans ruthlessly shoot, bomb and chainsaw them are a pitiful spectacle. In the end, it's humans who stand triumphant amidst the shark guts, with nature lying in pieces all around them.
The new nature apocalypse film “Rampage” goes even further than “Sharknado” in acknowledging that humans are the real monsters. But predictably, Hollywood is unwilling to go in for the kill. Humanity doesn't pay for its follies; nature is tamed. And, despite the entire plot of the film, humans taming nature is seen as a happy ending.
“Rampage” goes even further than “Sharknado” in acknowledging that humans are the real monsters. But predictably, Hollywood is unwilling to go in for the kill.
Primatologist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson), at least, should know better. Throughout the film he points out that humans lie and cheat and steal to get what they want, which is why he prefers to form emotional attachments to other critters. And, sure enough, the CGI-created, albino, sign-language fluent gorilla George is cuter, kinder and has a wider emotional range than Johnson, or any of the other humans in the film. If it's George vs. us, you'd have to choose George — a truth that “Rampage” finesses, but never really refutes.
The plot of “Rampage,” such as it is, involves a nefarious corporation led by Malin Ackerman wearing a suit and a sneer. The corporation has (for obscure reasons) developed a pathogen that makes animals grow to become huge and invulnerable killing machines. The pathogens are developed on a satellite that inevitably explodes, spreading samples across the globe. They infect a wolf, a crocodile and Davis' friend, George. Due to the pathogen’s design quirk, the monsters all converge on Chicago, culminating in a Godzilla/King Kong pastiche in the Loop.
So, yes, “Rampage” is preposterous even by the standards of “Sharknado.” And yet, the science-gone-haywire high-concept has an uncomfortable core of plausibility. In fact, watching “Rampage,” you get the sense that the ever-escalating absurdity of the nature apocalypse genre is part of an effort to keep up with an increasingly implausible and inconceivable reality.
Rather than focusing on earthquakes or tidal waves or disease epidemics, a genetically enhanced breed of nature-run-amok movies imagines humans intervening in the natural order to bring about barely imaginable catastrophes. Zombie films are one example. Another is the “Jurassic Park” series, in which humans bring back Tyrannosaurs and Velociraptors to unleash toothy chaos. A third is the brainier “Annihilation” from earlier this year, in which a mysterious, possibly alien area spreads across the earth, rewriting the natural world as it goes.
Or there's “Life” (2017), in which scientists on a satellite discover a cute little alien, which grows into a terrifying monstrosity. “Annihilation” ends where “Rampage” begins (spoiler); with the horrifying unnatural nature thing escaping the satellite to wreak havoc on earth.
In all of these narratives, human beings meddle with nature, a la Victor Frankenstein. And in every case, the meddling leads to global consequences beyond any that Frankenstein could have feared.
In all of these narratives, human beings meddle with nature, a la Victor Frankenstein. And in every case, the meddling leads to global consequences beyond any that Frankenstein, with his corpses and test tubes, could have feared in his most neurotic nightmares.
“Sharknado,” in its, clunky, B-movie way makes the metaphor explicit: Sharks are being lifted up in waterspouts and blown into flooded coastal cities by global warming. It's human intervention that has made nature grow teeth. But while sharks in the air aren't going to kill us all, carbon dioxide in the air might. Similarly, “Rampage's” flying super-wolf, who can destroy helicopters and survive missile attacks, strains credulity. But as a metaphor for global warming, it's not so far-fetched. You can't shoot climate change. All you can do is try to evacuate the city and clean up the wreckage.
Pushing this metaphor a bit further, the idea that the world is becoming cluttered with animal corpses isn’t so crazy. The combination of global warming and human habitat expansion is creating a massive extinction event. Humans, "are a kind of plague, that will scrub the earth clean," as Michael Crichton puts it in his dinosaur attack novel "The Lost World." Even prior to his infection, "Rampage's" George the gorilla was imperiled by human poachers who kill his mother before he is rescued by his protector Davis. But George isn't really saved. The whole film is about how humans don't need bullets to butcher wildlife.
George smashes airplanes and buildings and throws people around like dolls, but Davis, and the film, never stop worrying about his health and safety. It's humans who poisoned nature, not George. He's not really the perpetrator of the destructive forces that have been unleashed; he's the victim. We're rooting for him.
Hollywood doesn't want you to have to make tough choices, so “Rampage” makes sure you can root for George without wishing death on all the humans. As in “Jurassic World,” the denoument of “Rampage” imagines that the beasts we've worked to destroy will generously come to our aid. We've done our best to crush nature between our paws, but nature still cares for us, and it won't let us suffer the consequences. No matter how many corpses we pile around us, the planet will forgive us.
Nature apocalypse films almost always end with humans triumphant and order restored — which is either an overly optimistic ending or an overly pessimistic one, depending on how you look at it. Offscreen, after all, it isn't gorillas who are rampaging across the earth. It's humans. We're the sharks in the hurricane and the zombie tyrannosaurs risen from the dead. Nothing can withstand us — least of all us. “Rampage” is a goofy, mediocre film. And it's at its goofiest and most mediocre when it suggests that the ongoing battle between humans and nature is going to result in a happy ending for gorillas, humans, or anyone else.
Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book "Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948."