Ever since the big guy whom locals call “Kong” had the nerve to kick open the giant doors guarding their homes, Hollywood has had an illustrious, and somewhat checkered, relationship with giant monsters and the movies they stomp on. From 1933’s King Kong to this weekend’s Rampage, the proverbial elephant (or gorilla) in the room has been the big monsters… and how to get them to connect with a contemporary audience.
Indeed, Rampage is the latest Dwayne Johnson high-concept that features him versus the forces of Mother Nature (good luck, mama, you’re going to need it). Yet it is also another chapter in a larger narrative about Hollywood in the 21st century trying to resurrect a gargantuan fantasy of the 20th. Because while Rampage is technically based on a video game in which gamers got to see their humanoid avatars turn into great beasts, the actual influences on that game (Kong, Godzilla, and even the original The Wolf Man plus a growth spurt) are entirely cinematic. Yet notably, one of those films was Japanese and over 30 years old when Rampage hit arcades in 1986, and the other two were from a proverbial Hollywood Golden Age that was now several generations past. Even then.
Nearly a century after the original Kong, Rampage continues in the footsteps of Pacific Rim, and both American Godzilla and King Kong remakes from the last 20 years: It tries to bring back a fantasy that is literally treated as “foreign” by North American moviegoers.
That is because while giant monster movies have their roots in being one of the original pure Hollywood fantasies of yesteryear, the days of Merian C. Cooper and Ray Harryhausen fell by the wayside as Boomers and their children’s interests in the 1970s-onward grew a little more grounded. Arguably the last widely popular Western giant monster movie prior to Steven Spielberg’s famed walk in the park was Harryhausen’s One Million Years B.C., which was a) technically a British film; b) released in 1966; and c) is largely popular due to Raquel Welch’s cavewoman-chic attire.
The monster movies that have really worked for Hollywood in the last 25 years all began their titles with Jurassic and ended them with either Park or World. This is because Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton realized if you included a pseudo-scientific explanation (even if it was as plausible as Raquel Welch’s get-up), American audiences would more readily submit to the carnage that followed. And more than Pacific Rim or Kong: Skull Island, Rampage is aware of that fact.
Hence why this weekend’s newest blockbuster might be the smartest one featuring giant monster fights this spring (sorry, Pacific Rim: Uprising). Because in Rampage, they try to offer just enough reassurance of “yeah, this could really happen” as a giant crocodile tries to snap its jaws around the 200-foot wolf with bat-wings. It’s like a documentary, man.
When we asked director Brad Peyton during our Rampage set visit last year if he had any interest in adapting the concept of the game (in which, inexplicably, Dwayne Johnson would transform into George the Giant Ape), the director laughed, “That was a solid no. Let’s just say I said no to Rock-zilla… That sounds really not grounded at all. It’s like a Saturday Night Live skit a little bit, so that’s going to be a hard pass for me.”
Similarly, and perhaps more tellingly still, producer John Rickard told us during the same set visit:
“Every time I heard it, you couldn’t buy it, honestly. It’s too much to buy, and I think at that point, I realized [a route] by sci-fi is the best way to go. And I think [audiences can understand] that creatures can grow from what they were and become something else, but from human to animal to—it was just one step too far.”
This is a smart move by Rampage, whether it ultimately works or not. Because the giant monster movie can see the writing on the wall: Godzilla underperformed in 2014 and Kong: Skull Island made less in 2017 despite being a better film. Meanwhile, the only reason we have a second Pacific Rim is the Chinese box office.
Indeed, the giant monster movie brand is back in the 21st century, but not for as organic a reason as superhero movies. Arguably, superhero movies’ popularity exponentially grew in the last 20 years as a reaction to a national anxiety in the American zeitgeist. (The first modern superhero box office extravaganza, Spider-Man, opened about eight months after 9/11 and had New Yorkers teaming up against the supervillain). Also it was informed by generations of American children being raised on these fantasies, and special effects finally catching up enough to match the comic book panels.
Giant monsters are in fact, a rather engineered reaction (studio-powered, not genetic) to the superhero’s success. As superhero movies grew to dominate the box office, alongside Harry Potter and other built-in audience brands like the brief YA dystopia explosion after The Hunger Games, studios have become obsessed with replicating the success of familiar IPs. Any IPs, really. Which is why we’re seeing giant monster intellectual property continue to get second and third chances in Hollywood.
At the moment, WB and Legendary Pictures are building to a Godzilla vs. Kong movie. Presumably, there will be an audience for it that’s hopefully larger than the ones for each of their last individual American films. This is because the only King Kong vs. Zilla film (not counting this weekend’s Rampage) is to date a Japanese one made in 1962. It is an IP that should theoretically be popular, and almost certainly will be in Asian markets which still celebrate giant monsters (or kaijus) in their mainstream cinema. But in the U.S., it continues to be a relatively tricky proposition.
The only mega-hit giant monster movie with American audiences in this century, we would argue, is Jurassic World. Opening at deafening $208 million in the U.S. (then a record), it went on to make over $650 million domestic. However, this is informed by the familiar influence of nostalgia—in this case for Millennials who grew up with Spielberg’s original Jurassic Park on rotation—and popular IP. The first Jurassic Park didn’t make them giant monsters, CRISPR-enhanced or otherwise, nor did it feature mythological beasts. They were technically dinosaurs (or what Steven Spielberg imagined dinosaurs to be), who were brought back to life with a scientific method that isn’t that far off from alchemy. Yet it was convincing enough for the fantasy.
Jurassic World continued that, and the emphasis on genetic engineering, which even further continues in Rampage: a giant monster movie that just doesn’t expect you to believe there is an island out there with a giant ape. In this one, an evil corporation grew it. This one concession to “reality” is a shrewd one by Rampage filmmakers, but it’s unclear if that or the Rock’s undeniable charisma is enough to fully elevate Rampage into being the first giant monster movie that modern North American audiences are finally ready to go bananas over.