Dwayne Johnson must really want to be president. The artist formerly known as “The Rock” has hinted at those intentions previously, but now with Rampage he has finally made a film almost as crazy and disastrous as anything Donald Trump has done. Wild abandon of reason worked so well once, so maybe this will be the ticket for Johnson; it’s worth a shot. Unfortunately, Johnson is the only person who might see any benefit from Rampage. For the rest of us, it’s more likely to suck our souls out through our eyes than provide any real entertainment.
Most of Rampage is a celebration of chaos and destruction at its most visceral, but the film starts off more like a horror movie than an action flick. A space station is careening toward the Earth, with trails of fiery heat as it begins to enter the atmosphere. On board is a single scientist (Marley Shelton); her former colleagues have been reduced to eyeless corpses and dismembered floating limbs. And what kind of creature has unleashed this destruction and gore? We’re prepared to see something along the lines of the xenomorph from Alien, but it turns out to be much more horrifying: it’s a giant rat. Just the regular ol’ kind of rat, one that might have gamely dragged a slice of pizza down the steps of the New York subways to enjoy its cuisine in private — just made bigger now. The Golden Retriever-sized creature destroys what’s left of the space station, causing the last bits of its research to snow down upon the planet below.
On Earth we’re introduced to Davis Okoye (Johnson), a primatologist. He works at a gorilla sanctuary in San Diego, where he cares for George, an albino gorilla whom he rescued from poachers. Okoye has taught George fairly detailed sign language, and even human mannerisms. At one point, he frightens a visitor to the sanctuary, then starts to gruffly chuckle like a human — it was just a practical joke. Of course, there aren’t any gorillas (or other apes) that have been taught this kind of behavior (just simpler sign language), but Rampage doesn’t acknowledge those fantastical elements.
Everything starts to fall apart when the remains of the space station rain down on Earth, including three capsules of some kind of gas that changes the genetic material of whatever animal is exposed to it. One capsule lands in George’s sanctuary, where he’s unlucky enough to sniff it. Another lands in Wyoming (a state with more cows than people), where a wolf is infected. The third shows up in the Everglades, right next to an alligator. The infected animals grow to astonishing sizes, sometimes developing unnatural abilities along the way. All three creatures are also filled with an unquenchable rage. Somewhere along the way, Naomie Harris shows up as a scientist who helped create the serum but was fired by her evil corporate bosses for having a heart.
Up to this moment, Rampage has been a mostly acceptable science fiction film, with bits of action and some comedy from Johnson and the cartoonishly evil owners of the rampage serum, played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy. After the animals are infected, however, the movie reveals its roots as a video game. The arcade staple didn’t have much to it — you played as one of the three giant animals, and punched buildings until they crumbled, slurping up any unfortunate humans along the way. The movie version’s finale is startlingly similar to the original game — there’s not much going on besides rampant destruction.
It seems clear that director Brad Peyton and the film’s many screenwriters (including Lost’s Carlton Cuse) were aiming to create a movie that was arch and comic. There are moments that hint at that, like when George tries to joke around with Okoye, or when the giant wolf is nicknamed “Ralph” (a nod to the video game). Yet, the film doesn’t go far enough toward the zany for this idea to ever really succeed. Akerman and Lacy’s evil bosses aren’t even really all that far off from regular corporate CEOs (after all, history tells us that corporations aren’t particularly squeamish about being involved in atrocities).
The failure to go all out makes the final scenes of destruction particularly nauseating. As the giant monsters lay waste to Chicago (it’s at least nice to give New York and Los Angeles a rest), they kill hundreds of people unfortunate enough not to have been evacuated fast enough. Rampage could have turned this all into something absurd, but the filmmakers instead shift into action mode and completely misjudge the material. Rather than allowing the audience to revel in meaningless, low-stakes destruction, Peyton turns up the suspense and instead makes his film callous and heartless. Not every movie needs to be tasteful, but Peyton’s inappropriate tone makes it actively disgusting.
Rampage tries to ride on Dwayne Johnson’s charisma, which has worn thin at this point. There are some unconvincing stabs toward giving him a bit of heart with his affection for George, but Johnson can’t really make himself vulnerable. His dramatic chops are mostly nonexistent, and his comedic skills haven’t developed to the point of letting him make fun of himself. Instead, the joke just seems to be that he’s a former wrestler in an untraditional, less masculine role. (Compare this to John Cena’s truly funny performance as an overbearing father in Blockers — he knows how to make fun of himself.) A greater crime is committed against Harris — as in Oscar-nominated Naomie Harris, who starred in Moonlight, one of the best films of the current century. She lacks her usual charisma, and is shackled to a poorly conceived origin story built around a family tragedy. The movie tries to tack on a bit of romance at the end, but her character has absolutely no connection to Johnson’s.
If there’s a part of Rampage worth keeping, it’s the interactions with George before he turns into a frothing monster. George, who’s modeled after the albino gorilla Snowflake to avoid King Kong comparisons, is played by Jason Liles through motion capture. Liles studied with Andy Serkis and Terry Notary of the recent Planet of the Apes films. His work as George is surprisingly subtle and sometimes moving. Perhaps it’s a sad comment that the fakest part of Rampage is also the best part of it. Liles’s signing simian is most directly inspired by Koko, the famed star of Barbet Schroeder’s 1978 documentary, Koko: A Talking Gorilla. Instead of wasting your time with Rampage, seek out a copy of Koko and be amazed by a real talking gorilla.