Rampage is a real head-scratcher: Either it’s the dumbest movie I’ve seen in a while, or it’s secretly a work of genius.
Or, I guess, why not both?
“Based” on an arcade game from the 1980s that was later ported over to home video game systems, Rampage stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a primatologist at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary who finds himself trying to save the world when his best buddy, an ape named George, gets infected by a fast-moving gene modification that turns him into an enormous, rage-filled, deadly killing machine.
It’s both a blindingly predictable pastiche of an action movie — absolutely nothing happens here that you haven’t seen in a movie before, with the possible exception of some crass sign-language humor from a giant gorilla — and weirdly charming. To the extent Rampage succeeds, it does so specifically because it knows it doesn’t have a single original thought in its head, and it’s not even going to try to convince you otherwise. It’s a movie about smashing things, and things getting smashed, and also it has The Rock.
If that sounds like an appealing thing to watch at the end of a long day, then this is the movie for you. Go knock yourself out. You’ll have fun — and it’s possible you might leave the theater with something to think about too.
Rampage puts a twist on the arcade game, but not on the action movie formula
In the Rampage game, players picked one of three monsters and tried to reduce various cities to rubble, over and over again, while eluding military onslaught. In the movie, our heroes are trying to keep that from happening.
This twist results in a movie with a synopsis that reads like something most people would cook up if they were asked to sketch out a generic action movie plot in 20 minutes. In the prelude, a research spacecraft transporting some kind of huge, fierce creature blows up, but not before a scientist on board escapes in a pod with the “samples.” Then her pod blows up, and the samples survive and land on Earth — one in Wyoming, where a wolf finds it, one in the Everglades, where an alligator locates it, and one in the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary, where good-natured George stumbles across it.
The research has to do with genetic modification, and it is, of course, both kind of illegal and being conducted by a Big Bad Corporation headed by a sibling pair: dim-but-pretty Brett Wyden (Jake Lacy) and his considerably more cutthroat sister Claire (Malin Akerman), who have a big office at the top of a building where they stalk about making evil plans and peering at screens, as befits a pair of villains.
Meanwhile, Davis Okoye (Johnson), the primatologist who raised George from birth, finds that his friendly, funny gorilla friend has been subsumed by a raging monster. The movie centers on his quest to keep George safe, which leads to him teaming up with a scientist named Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), who used to work for the Wydens, and eventually a sardonic government operative named Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), who delivers quips with a drawl. As a radio frequency emitted by the Wydens draws the rapidly growing, destructive creatures to Chicago, the trio follows in hot pursuit, and the military starts closing in as well.
And so, yes, this movie has it all: greedy corporate villain, smart scientist, strong and sensitive hero, big monsters, impending destruction, and a very modest message, not pushed too hard, suggesting that it’s humans who are the real animals.
That’s not exactly a strike against it. Action movies like this are meant to be explosive and loud and cathartic, and maybe a little funny. Sure, Rampage has some plot holes, but it definitely doesn’t care, and you really don’t need to either. This is a movie based on an arcade game; the goal is to get to the big fight.
It’s also shot in a clear and coherent way; you pretty much always know where you’re located spatially during the long climactic action sequence, which is more than can be said for, say, the Transformers movies, or even a great many Marvel movies. It’s oddly comforting to watch huge fight sequences that feel this straightforward — rather than trying to make you dizzy, they just want to make you cheer.
Dwayne Johnson headlines Rampage, but the script doesn’t seem to realize it
Most importantly, Rampage has Dwayne Johnson, one of the few remaining movie stars who can open a movie just because he’s in it. (His last movie, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, has made so much money that it recently became the highest-grossing Sony release of all time.) The best parts of Rampage are his scenes with George, which are genuinely funny; the gorilla has an excellent sense of humor. But — is this weird to say? oh well — the pair’s chemistry is also great, and the movie’s only truly touching moments result from their relationship.
But while Johnson is the movie’s greatest strength, he’s also, curiously, its weakest link. Someone appears to have made a miscalculation when writing Johnson’s character. People are constantly accusing Davis of being a bit of a misanthrope — of preferring the company of animals over people, of “not liking” people. That’s his defining characteristic as a person: He doesn’t like people.
Except Johnson absolutely cannot telegraph a dislike of people. He’s affable and polite, with a winning smile, and we never see him be anything other than kindly toward human or animal unless they deserve it. Certainly he prefers the company of animals — I mean, he is a primatologist — and sure, his best friend is a gorilla, but it’s impossible to see him as antisocial or unfriendly. If you have Johnson in your action movie, you rewrite the screenplay around him. Davis would have been much more convincing as “shy” than “curmudgeonly,” but even that would have been a stretch given Johnson’s megawatt charisma.
But that’s a minor quibble. Rampage wants to be a smash-’em-up action movie, and it does that just fine. And if you (like I) want to overthink it, there’s a possibility that it might actually be brilliant.
Okay, but what if Rampage is actually incredibly smart?
The movie’s setup is that DNA from a variety of creatures is being spliced into one package that can be delivered to a single animal, which then takes on some of the others’ characteristics. (So a wolf, for instance, might not just become enraged once infected, but also develop the capabilities of both a porcupine and a flying squirrel.) And, importantly, it also becomes extremely large, and just keeps growing larger and larger.
In a weird way, this works as a metaphor for the film itself. Rampage was a fun arcade and video game with a simple conceit (SMASH THINGS) and not much more. But infected with cinematic DNA, it becomes this weird hybrid monster, taking on characteristics that feel lifted from any number of other action movies ranging from King Kong to Pacific Rim.
And besides being just a lot of movie, it’s one that’s filled with destruction. The most unnerving part of watching Rampage is that you’re not sure how you’re supposed to feel about all this destruction. By the end, presumably millions of people have died and whole sections of cities and buildings have been flattened. The destruction is unthinkable.
But it ends on a cheery upbeat note anyhow — you wouldn’t want to dwell on the chaos and destruction too long because it might just kill the mood — which is both completely predictable for a movie like Rampage and, well, kind of disturbing. Seeing people die in digital projection is not exactly like seeing an 8-bit city get flattened.
And yet the movie’s only social critique, if it has one, is the suggestion that the cruel genetic modification of animals will lead to chaos and death of humans. While Rampage is almost certainly not some kind of stealth critique of big, loud movies full of senseless violence, it almost works on that level anyway, the movie’s plot as a metaphor for the movie’s genre.
As I say: There’s almost no way that’s what Rampage is up to. It is, by all appearances, not a movie with highfalutin aspirations, and that’s why it’s pretty fun. But it’s hard not to wonder, just a little, if Rampage is secretly much smarter than it pretends to be.
Rampage opens in theaters on April 12.