Geeks today don’t know how good they have it. When I was a kid, there was just one Star Wars movie every three years and the only choices for sci-fi on TV were episodes of “Doctor Who” on public television that looked like they were made for $5.32 or “Star Trek” reruns five days a week, which meant you practically watched the entire series three times a year. Oh, every so often you might catch “The Twilight Zone” if your parents let you stay up and every so often you’d hear about this thing called “The Outer Limits,” but that and the weekend Creature Feature on one of your local stations was about as good as it got. I mean, when I was eight years old the biggest box office hit in America was “Kramer vs. Kramer” and there were no Dustin Hoffman action figures.
What I’m getting at is if you wanted a steady diet of geek entertainment back in the day you had to swallow an enormous amount of garbage because the culture simply didn’t produce enough quality material. Now? It’s more surprising when there isn’t some sci-fi/comic book/fantasy blockbuster topping the weekly box office and an entire cable channel is essentially propped up by a show about zombies. Yeah, you young geeks don’t have any idea how lucky you are.
Think I’m exaggerating? Well then, take a trip with me into this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown and compare what we used to have to put up with if we wanted to watch giant monsters beat each other up with the today’s options. It’s “Invasion of Astro-Monster” (1965) vs. “Rampage” (2018) in a battle that will teach you not to take simple competence for granted.
"When a problem comes along...you must whip it!"
“Invasion of Astro-Monster” is the sixth film in the Japanese Godzilla franchise and the fact they were six movies in and still didn’t think putting “Godzilla” in the title was essential tells you exactly how much esteem the character had in late 60s America. The story concerns the wildly over complicated machinations of the people of Planet X, a hidden world outside the orbit of Jupiter, as they attempt to take over the Earth. They plan to trick the humans into letting them take the giant monsters Godzilla and Rodan back to Planet X to fight off the three-headed King Ghidorah, then return all three of the brain-washed beasts back to Earth to wreck up the place. The only ones who can stop this alien race of techno boy band enthusiasts are one astronaut (Akira Takarada) who looks like the poor man’s Japanese version of Robert Wagner, another incongruously Caucasian astronaut named Glenn (Nick Adams), a nerdy inventor (Akira Kubo), and an old guy (Jun Tazaki).
Seriously. There’s like no one else in the entire nation of Japan who can do anything besides these four.
There’s a whole lot of staring at cheaply put together miniatures, a director with a weird fetish for hand gestures, a female character who would make any diehard feminist remember how fortunate she is to be an American, and a weird digression that presages the dystopian flicks of the 1970s about the dehumanizing impact of computers and where Nick Adams suddenly starts acting like he’s in a serious drama and not something where guys in rubber monster suits pretend to be professional wrestlers. As for the giant monster fights themselves, their brevity is surpassed only by the insanity of watching Godzilla dance an Irish jig. This motion picture genuinely spends more time on giant monster feet smashing buildings than the monsters fighting each other and when the behemoths do finally lock up, the audience gets to admire Godzilla’s boxing footwork and Rodan’s awesome flappiness as they beat the snot out of an opponent who doesn’t have any arms.
"I'm telling you, I asked for more padding in our helmets and this is all they could give us!"
“Invasion of the Astro-Monster” is terrible. Badly written, badly directed, and badly dubbed. It’s the sort of movie anyone with any self-respect walks out on before it is halfway through. Yet it’s exactly the sort of things geeks would go out of their way to see and then convince themselves it was something other than the cinematic equivalent of spending a day in a special ed class because that’s how slim the pickings were if you wanted to watch anything like this.
But in 2018, geeks not only have instant access to nearly every giant monster movie ever made but there’s four new major releases in the genre coming out this year. Second out of the gate is “Rampage” (2018) and if any movie should have sucked and sucked hard, it was this one. It’s a big screen adaptation of a mid-1980s arcade game that was never better than a third- or fourth-tier distraction and has no actual plot or story of its own. I mean, at least Donkey Kong had a love triangle but you slammed quarters into Rampage to mindlessly watch a giant ape, a giant wolf, and a giant lizard smash screen after screen of buildings. There’s no goal or rationale. I don’t even know if there was even a particular strategy or technique to the game. It was just reflexes and button-mashing.
But if Hollywood can turn the game Battleship in an alien invasion movie, it shouldn’t surprise anyone they’d do the same with Rampage…and I’ll be damned if they didn’t do a thoroughly competent job of it. The film concerns an outer space science experiment that falls to Earth and mutates a wolf, a crocodile, and an albino gorilla named George who was saved from poachers as a baby and raised by the globetrotting ex-military primatologist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson). When a couple of evil corporate bigwigs set off a radio signal to attract the three mutates as part of a plan that even the movie knows doesn’t make any sense, Davis has to team up with the down-on-her-luck scientist who helped create the mutagen (Naomie Harris) and a black-suited government agent (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who appears to think he’s in some sort of prequel to “The Walking Dead” because his character couldn’t have been more Negany if he tried) to save George and stop the other two monsters from devastating Chicago.
"Does it bother me that this movie is kind of stupd? Dwayne, have to seen season 8 of 'The Walking Dead'?
That’s a more promising premise than “Invasion of Astro-Monster” but not by a lot and with a screenplay credited to four different writers and a director whose resume includes “Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore” (2010) and “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” (2012), “Rampage” could have been an utter debacle. But it isn’t.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a good movie. “Rampage” is an action-comedy with a terrible sense of humor. There’s maybe one legitimately funny gag in the whole thing and the rest of the alleged jokes flop around on screen like dying fish. “Rampage” also has a bizarrely large amount of mild profanity. There are no F-bombs but so many S-words and references to what the S-word comes out of that this film is truly inappropriate for younger children. And the climactic fight scene does devolve into the big screen version of the sort of button-mashing you did with the arcade game.
Considering the entire production started nothing but the phrase “three monsters smash a lot of buildings,” however, it is amazing how not awful “Rampage” actually is. The screenwriters managed to slap together a plot that makes a decent amount of sense for the first 3/4ths of the film and they give the supporting characters enough personality for the actors to make them feel like more than nails waiting for The Almighty Plot Hammer. They even manage to come up with a movie-plausible explanation for how the monsters are created and why they have such a lust for property damage.
"KING KONG AIN'T GOT NOTHIN' ON ME!!!"
Director Brad Peyton deserves a lot of credit as well. The dilemma of giant monster flicks is that viewers want to see a lot of the giant monster but the more they see of it, the less impressed they are with it. Familiarity does breed contempt. Peyton takes that challenge head on and doesn’t try to get cute. He doesn’t go to silly lengths to hide the monsters but manages to find ways to present them differently on screen so the viewer isn’t bored with them long before the movie ends. Peyton also manages to thread the needle of PG-13 violence quite well. A lot of motion pictures with that rating produce scenes of R-rated violence but remove all the blood and vicera. I don’t know why that satisfies the ratings board but it does and the result is frequently cartoonish in a rather off-putting way. But besides Davis Okeye getting shot in the stomach and treating it like a paper cut, “Rampage’s” action sequences are exciting without being either too graphic or too neutered.
“Rampage” takes this Throwdown. It doesn’t deserve any awards, other than a nomination for “Motion Picture That Doesn’t Make You Feel Like You’ve Been Scammed Out Of The Price Of A Ticket,” but it has a clear sense of its modest goals and puts in a good faith effort to achieve them. If they had brought in a fifth screenwriter who knew the difference between funny and a hole in the ground, “Rampage” might have been pretty good. What it is, though, remains a thousand times better than “Invasion of Astro-Monster” and reminds geeks to be thankful instead of jaded. They should enjoy the smorgasbord of entertainment available to them and not pour scorn and mockery on anything that doesn’t live up to expectations.
After all, was “The Last Jedi” really that bad?
Wait…I need a better example, don’t I?
Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965)
Written by Shinichi Sekizawa.
Directed by Ishiro Honda.
Starring Nick Adams, Akira Takarada, Jun Tazaki, Akira Kubo, Kumi Mizuno, Keiko Sawai, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Takamaru Sasaki, Gen Shimizu, Kenzo Tabu, and Yoshifumi Tajima.
You thought I was kidding about the jig...didn't you?
Written by Ryan Eagle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, and Adam Sztykiel.
Directed by Brad Peyton.
Starring Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Marly Shelton, P.J. Byrne, Demetrius Grosse, Jack Quaid, Breanne Hill, and Matt Gerald.