Keeping in mind that those most excited about seeing Dwayne Johnson’s big screen video-game adaptation of Rampage have little interest in reading any kind of lengthy analysis or film critique longer than a few sentences, let’s go straight to the heart of the matter. Rampage is an awful film. Really. If all you want to see are giant monsters destroying buildings, then go ahead, have at it. The computer imagery is, as always expected in today’s world of CGI, excellent, and the last act of constant destruction never seems to end, so you’ll certainly get your money’s worth. Visually, it’s undeniably great.
But technology and fantastical imagery have created a laziness in the storytelling. Unleashing mutated monsters in major cities is an old fashioned, fun idea, that will never grow old – we’ll always enjoy seeing things blown up or knocked down; it’s in our moviegoing DNA – but there still has to be a decent reason for things to happen. Rampage had four writers working on the screenplay; two worked together, the other two individually, presumably correcting what the previous writer had done and adding a little extra nonsense of their own in the process. But between the four of these knuckleheads they still couldn’t come up with something that, at the very least, gave the impression of someone trying to tell a story.
During the development period, director Brad Peyton was quoted as saying that the film would be a lot more emotional, a lot scarier, and lot more real than we’d expect. He got the scary part right. During the screening it wasn’t hard to observe a few parents quickly scuttling their little ones out of the theatre during the first act. But in their favor, at least they didn’t pay for the tickets. Parents going to see it after the film’s theatrical opening won’t be quite so lucky. The amiable Dwayne Johnson may have developed a family friendly audience with his voice work in Disney’s Moana, and more recently in the hugely popular adventure, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but Rampage is not the same thing.
It might be PG-13, but in early days, when youngsters were perhaps less hardened to visual, violent monster horrors, it might have earned an R. As for calling it more real, or even emotional; yeah, right. Among all the human bodies killed, ripped apart, or munched upon, the only character for whom you’ll feel any emotion is the golden retriever, the one that’s about to become lunch for the mutated wolf.
The film is loosely based on the mid-eighties video game with the simple premise. Because of problems in the research laboratory, a human transformed into a giant monster escaped and went on a rampage. The idea was to knock down as many buildings as possible. The film goes in the other direction. Johnson’s job as a primatologist is to stop the creatures from knocking down those buildings.
The film’s villains – not the mutated creatures, the human ones – are Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman) and her idiot brother, Brett (Jake Lacy). They’ve invested in research so dangerous that it had to be performed on a space station worth billions upon billions of dollars, far away from Earth. We know it cost billions upon billions because the idiot brother tells us so. But it all goes wrong, and a giant, mutated rat kills everyone on the station except for Dr. Kerry Atkins (Marley Shelton). She tries to escape in a pod, but the pod bay doors won’t open. “Either you don’t come home with my research,” the evil Claire tells the doctor over a radio intercom, “Or you don’t come home at all.”
At great personal risk, the good doctor grabs a canister of the gaseous research and lets the evil Claire know that she has what the dastardly CEO wants. The pod bay doors open, the doctor with the canister climbs in and escapes into space, just as the space station blows. But the escape pod has its own problems, and blows once entering Earth’s atmosphere, causing chunks of that research to fall in three different parts of the US. There’s a grey wolf in Wyoming who becomes infected, a crocodile in Florida’s Everglades, and an albino gorilla in San Diego. Interestingly, while the wolf and the crocodile develop into giant mutations of their former selves, sprouting all kinds of pointy things with killer, giant jaws (and in the wolf’s case, wings) the gorilla just gets bigger and angrier, no pointy things.
Had the film kept to some good, old-fashioned horror roots and, just like the game, had humans turn into mutated monsters, things might have become more interesting, but it doesn’t. Instead, the story tells of a couple of greedy and incredibly, over-the-top villains who, with the help of a radio signal, lure the creatures to Chicago so that they can extract the DNA from their bodies, then sell it to the highest bidder, caring nothing for the millions who will die or the city buildings that will crumble. Thus, the giant wolf runs from Wyoming, the croc swims from Florida, and the likable gorilla escapes from San Diego, and they all meet up in Chicago. What adventures they had crossing the country, state to state, city to city, in order to get to Illinois is never seen, but their timing is impeccable; regardless of the varying distances the creatures travel, they all arrive in Chicago at the same time. Go figure.
The idiocy of the whole thing is down to the brother and sister bad guys. If they already had billions upon billions in their accounts to spend on a private space station, exactly how much more do they need? I know that for the greedy rich, enough is never enough, but come on. And how were either of these two ever going to extract the DNA from the mutated creatures once they arrived in Chicago? Wouldn’t someone, somewhere ask, now, wait a minute. Who’s responsible for all of this? I know, I realize nothing plausible was ever intended, but surely there was a better reason to be found to get these giant creatures to go on a city rampage. Akerman’s CEO is so unbelievably evil with a total disregard for doing anything that actually makes sense, give her a twirling mustache and she wouldn’t look out of place laughing at the body stretched across a train track in a silent movie, as long as she made a profit.
The situations and the last second escapes are skull-scratchingly dumb, characters introduced at length in the first act inexplicably disappear for the rest of the film, and the continually absurd dialog has to come from the school of the painfully obvious. “They can’t stop them,” declares Johnson’s primatologist. “We’ve gotta get that antidote!” Though admittedly, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s secret government agent with the good ol’ boy drawl, who talks whimsically of things his gran’pappy used to say, is a welcome hoot.
Johnson himself is his usual likable persona. Plus, he’s now big enough to survive the occasional cinematic bomb, as long as there’s another Jumanji or Moana on the horizon. But one thing that might cross your mind throughout Rampage is this: For a film that warns of messing with the DNA of larger than life creatures, isn’t it pause for thought that the central human character is also oversized from the norm? To call Johnson mutated would be an insult (and I wouldn’t dare) but with his unnatural, bulking frame, muscles that look as though they might burst out of his stretched, tight skin at any moment, and an overall look of a body by Bowflex, you can’t help being amused at the thought that maybe at some earlier time, this primatolgist himself might have got a small whiff of some of that experimental gas.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 107 Minutes Overall Rating: 4 (out of 10)