The original 1986 arcade game Rampage had a simple, satisfying premise: pick a monster to play, then use it to smash everything in sight. Soldiers with guns, grenades, and helicopters would eventually take down the players’ avatars, but in the meantime, it was simple, building-punching fun. Like most ’80s games, Rampage came with an extremely minimal backstory — the three playable monsters all used to be human, but were each mutated by something different. Other than that, through decades of minor reboots and ports from one system to another, Rampage stayed pretty basic, and primarily focused on the kaiju fantasy of leveling a city as thoroughly and efficiently as possible.
That lack of backstory gives Warner Bros.’ big-screen Rampage adaptation plenty of room to breathe. Unlike video game adaptations like the Tomb Raider series or Assassins Creed, which have to contend with years of accreted mythos and complicated character-building, Rampage was always going to be on pretty safe ground, as long as it featured a giant ape, lizard, and wolf pounding some buildings to powder. The screenwriters (Lost and The Strain’s Carlton Cuse, Hercules’ Ryan J. Condal, and Non-Stop’s Ryan Engle) seem to have approached the project with a “keep it simple, stupid” attitude — they beef up the narrative with some buzzword-packed nonsense science, and try to inject some heart and humor into the mix. But mostly, they ramp up the monsters and send them out on a frenzy of mindless CGI destruction.
Dwayne Johnson, Hollywood’s go-to leading man for flashing a winning smile or slapping a concerned frown on a ridiculous action scenario, stars as Davis Okoye, the primatologist at a San Diego wildlife sanctuary. Among other things, the habitat houses apes orphaned by poachers. And one of those orphans, an albino gorilla named George, has a special bond with Davis, who rescued him in the wild. George knows sign language and has a puckish sense of humor, and Davis’ conversations with him have a rough, familial dynamic. Davis treats George as something halfway between a child and a co-worker who’s in a unique position to help other gorillas acclimate to their new home at the refuge. But George is also the exact kind of shoulder-checking, emotion-mocking bro-pal whose authentic affection for Davis wouldn’t stop him from drawing magic-marker dicks on Davis’ face if the human fell asleep in the gorilla enclosure.
Meanwhile, on an improbable billion-dollar secret space station, a gene-splicing experiment goes wrong for the hilariously unethical corporation Energyne, and a crazed, car-sized rat rips its way out of the company’s space-lab. The fallout leads to three samples of an experimental mutagen dropping through the atmosphere and landing on Earth, where a wolf, an alligator, and George are all infected. As they all start growing and becoming increasingly savage and dangerous, the Department of Homeland Security steps in to secure Davis and former Energyne employee Dr. Kate Caldwell (Moonlight’s Naomie Harris). Given that the monsters are maddened and apparently indestructible, a series of escalating conflicts ensues, with Davis desperately trying to calm George down or acquire a cure from Energyne before the ape is killed.
Rampage has a pretty casual, amiable sense of humor, mostly based in banter and some juvenile slapstick. The early going gets a strange amount of mileage out of humiliating Davis’ incompetent, cowardly mentee, Connor (played by Jack Quaid, most recently seen as one of the redneck doofuses in Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky). But the funniest things about Rampage are its overreliance on science buzzwords, and its mustache-twirling villains. The mutagen is explained away as a CRISPR-enabled instant DNA splice, but the story keeps changing, depending on the moment: it apparently also involves growth hormones, recombinant DNA that gives the mutated animals various superpowers, and some kind of programmed vulnerability to a homing beacon. It’s all ridiculous, but all the more so because characters keep explaining it with the straight-faced seriousness of documentary scientists laying out the latest developments in genetic studies.
And the villains who commissioned the project are so broadly drawn, they wouldn’t be out of place in a Saturday morning cartoon from the original Rampage era. Claire and Brett Wyden, the sibling owners of Energyne (played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy) came up with the mutagen plan so they could sell weaponized DNA, and their entire billion-dollar business plan literally goes no further than “make and sell monsters.” Brett, another flailing doofus who feels like Connor’s long-lost cousin, loudly explains this to his cooler, more competent sister at the beginning of the film: “There’s a reason we were doing these experiments in space,” he yells when the mutagen escapes the lab, “and it wasn’t exactly for the betterment of humanity!” The dialogue is terrible, and Lacy plays Brett with so much bug-eyed jerkiness, he looks like he’s periodically being tased by someone just offscreen. Akerman, meanwhile, is straight out of the 1980s businesswoman playbook — she lacks the shoulder pads and bouffy hairdo, but she’s got the icy reserve and bottomless greed down pat.
But there’s a strange throwback charm to the simplicity and idiocy of these villains. Claire’s master plan involves using a homing beacon that will draw the monsters to Chicago, where she intends for them to run amuck and be destroyed by the military, after which Energyne can harvest their DNA. This entire plan is one giant question mark — how exactly does she expect her company will survive the process of inviting monsters to flatten its flagship building? How does she expect to get the monsters’ corpses away from the government without every other evil scientist on the planet harvesting samples from the wreckage as well? And how exactly are her mutants capable of hearing a signal from thousands of miles away, and pinpointing its location with absolute accuracy? None of it matters. Where plenty of more serious-minded modern films would try to build a relevant message into this plot about the dangers of unchecked corporate power, lax regulations, or genetic experiments, Rampage seems to consciously make the antagonists as shrill and unrealistic as possible, to avoid any unfortunate associations with reality. They don’t exist to present thoughtful concerns about society. They’re here to introduce monsters into a building-rich environment, and let the wild rumpus start.
It’s clear the filmmakers behind Rampage learned from the complaints about the city-flattening climaxes of Man of Steel and other contemporaneous superhero films, where the focus was more on the thrill of destruction than the plight of the villains. They make sure to clear all the victims out of the way, and they leave out the original game’s healing mechanic, where the monsters could smash open buildings, snatch out struggling victims, and eat them for a health boost. There are survivors in Chicago whenever pathos is necessary, but the film practically comes with an end-credit tagline that reads “No innocent bystanders were harmed in this story.” Cuse and director Brad Peyton may have also learned from the last film they made with Dwayne Johnson: San Andreas, which was just as dumb and destruction-hungry as Rampage, but a lot less funny and easygoing about it.
In San Andreas, Johnson’s character comes across as largely indifferent to the suffering of other people as he tries to save his family, and his unrelenting grimness doesn’t do much to draw on Johnson’s charm or ability to make a silly scenario seem like a big group lark. Rampage, on the other hand, puts a heavy narrative burden on Davis’ fears for George, and his determination to save the luckless animal from both the science experiment and the military. Johnson’s talent for creased-brow concern and flawlessly emoted sincerity gets a workout in Rampage, but at least Davis’ relationship with George is relatable and enjoyable. The film never comes across as genuinely concerned about any of its other human relationships, or about the threats posed by the mutated monsters. But it’s genuine about George’s innocence, and his right to survive whatever’s done to him. That alone pushes the film in a more soulful direction.
And what about all that action-movie destruction, the open and obvious reason the film exists? For audiences fresh off the similar city-flattening in Pacific Rim Uprising, it largely won’t look that different. The downtown riverfront area of Chicago, also reduced to ashes in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, makes a picturesque backdrop for a large-scale face-off between the military and a bunch of CGI monsters. Rampage’s action strengths are mostly in the mobility of the giant creatures, who leap up and down skyscrapers, dive in one side of a building in an explosion of glass and pop out on the other side, and at one point (in a clear homage to the original video game), ride a falling skyscraper to the ground. The action is all pretty familiar, but at least it’s clearly and cleanly staged.
And while Ralph the scrawny, strangely naked-looking wolf never looks entirely convincing as a real creature, George the ape and the giant alligator have a palpable weight and strength that helps the illusion. Physics goes completely out the window whenever Johnson gets involved in the action — he has an uncanny ability to be underfoot when half the city is raining down in steaming chunks around him, and yet escape unscathed — but when only the monsters are onscreen, Rampage presents a relatively convincing and immersive illusion. It’s mostly a question of how much a given viewer can thrill to seeing yet another computer-generated city get reduced to ash, smoke, and shards.
Back in its day, the original Rampage felt innovative. In a games field where players mostly tried to fight the invaders and save the cities, this game let players embrace the low-res fantasy of running amuck, by playing tiny Godzilla in a tinier world. The live-action Rampage film certainly embraces the 2018 equivalent: standing safely in a crumbling world, watching all hell break loose, and walking away physically and emotionally unscathed. But it’s harder now than it was then to find new ground to explore (or to pound into tiny pieces, then set on fire). In this case, the filmmakers try to innovate largely by making the movie as toothless and easily digestable as possible. Nothing in the film is real enough to care about past the moment, or serious enough to trouble audience’s sleep. Maybe in a world that’s already full of real-life disasters, it’s innovative enough to make monumental destruction this much dumb, lightweight fun.