Based on the same mid-’80s Bally Midway arcade game that unofficially inspired Disney’s “Wreck-It Ralph,” Brad Peyton’s “Rampage” doesn’t seem to understand its own appeal. Reuniting disaster-resistant star Dwayne Johnson with his “San Andreas” director, this brainless big-screen monster-smash movie assumes that audiences want to see the Rock stop three enormous mutant creatures from destroying American metropolises, when in fact, it’s the gleeful prospect of witnessing just that kind of spectacular CG devastation that gave the game its name — and presumably got the movie made.
Flipping the script on decades of nuclear-monster movies, the original “Rampage” invites you to play as one of the three havoc-wreaking monstrosities — a giant ape, a Godzilla-like lizard, or an overgrown werewolf. In the game, the goal is to reduce as many buildings to rubble as possible, whereas this impressive-looking but relatively less amusing big-screen adaptation gets it backward, reverting to the shrill save-our-cities panic that fueled such hokey 1950s classics as “Them” and “The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms.”
Arriving in theaters mere weeks after “Tomb Raider” and “Ready Player One,” “Rampage” is but the latest big-studio attempt to make good on Hollywood’s most exasperating genre: the video-game-based VFX showcase. Granted, Spielberg’s boffo “RPO” was adapted from a pop adventure book about a virtual gaming platform, which surely explains why it works better than duds like “Doom” and the collected works of Uwe Boll, although they all suffer from the same problem. Whereas interactivity can make video games addictive to play, it’s no fun to watch over someone else’s shoulder, and so far, not a single live-action movie has managed to re-create the immersive thrill of steering the action for yourself.
As for “Rampage,” the movie feels like exactly what it is: a mega-budget studio tentpole reverse-engineered from an 8-bit arcade classic (by no fewer than four screenwriters), designed to eat dollars in much the same way the original game gobbled quarters. Watching it, you can imagine the creative team straining to adequately acknowledge the source material — as digital meanies punch holes in skyscrapers, stomp military vehicles, and snatch helicopters out of the air — but they would have been better off starting from scratch. Because this is no longer “Rampage” if, instead of getting to root for the monsters (who started out as normal predators, “weaponized” by a malicious gene-mutating formula), we’re asked to identify with a Dwayne Johnson action hero instead.
Johnson, who plays San Diego Wildlife Preserve primatologist Davis Okoye, is a hugely entertaining screen presence in his own right, but there’s something off about casting a guy who looks like the poster boy for human growth hormone in a movie that bills itself as a cautionary tale about the dangers of biological manipulation. Davis can talk to animals and shares a special bond with George, an albino gorilla who’s learned to sign. (Somewhere along the line, Davis taught George a handful of crude gestures, which feature prominently in his vocabulary while still making him the most articulate character on-screen.)
Instead of going the “Big Meets Bigger” route, as touted by the movie’s tagline, this would have been a fun project in which to cast a pint-size powerhouse like Alicia Vikander (rejected by audiences as Lara Croft), but that would have made for a very different movie. For what it’s worth, Johnson does get a worthy female cohort in the form of Naomie Harris, who plays Dr. Kate Caldwell, the charismatic scientist responsible for inventing the out-of-control “genetic editing” technology.
After a series of lab-rat experiments conducted aboard a space station go horribly awry, resulting in the entire facility self-destructing in the opening scene, samples of Caldwell’s formula fall to Earth, infecting George (who swells to King Kong proportions), an alpha wolf somewhere in Southern Wyoming, and a crocodile in Everglades National Park. Davis is devastated to see his beloved primate go berserk. Once he realizes what he’s dealing with, his job is to track down the antidote before the monsters destroy an entire city.
Borrowing a page from the “Ghostbusters” playbook, the “Rampage” script alternates between pithy jokes and pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo (much of the latter falls to a pair of ruthless profiteers played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy). The movie goes unusually far out of its way to justify its far-fetched conceit while showing complete disregard for natural laws at every turn — not that popcorn audiences will mind. Half the pleasure of giant-monster movies is allowing our suspension of disbelief to buckle like a bridge in Godzilla’s path, and true to form, the film saves a few gonzo twists (including one especially outlandish bonus mutation) for the grand finale — an extended set-piece in which the three creatures converge on Chicago, which has typically gotten off easy where natural disasters are concerned.
However derivative it may be, “Rampage” knows its audience — namely, “Transformers” fans and kids born after 9/11 for whom elaborately orchestrated scenes of falling skyscrapers carry nary a whiff of real-world trauma (it’s a lot harder to stomach for those who can remember the smell that permeated Lower Manhattan after the Twin Towers collapsed). What director Peyton lacks in artistic vision he compensates for in his ability to wrangle such a CG-intensive production, which is more than can be said for such WB favorites as David Yates (“The Legend of Tarzan”) and Zack Snyder (“Justice League”).
Unlike those filmmakers, Peyton delivers a unified-looking whole, in which the visual effects integrate well with stage and location work. George, the rapidly growing, hyperaggressive gorilla, poses a unique challenge, since he needs to appear sensitive enough for Davis to try saving. Sure enough, the folks at Weta Digital do wonders in imbuing the virtual character with an empathetic personality, making it tough to watch as the U.S. military uses every resource at its disposal to subdue the beast. (Special credit to the creature designers, who find a stunningly fresh way of “evolving” all three species.)
Peyton’s strategy is to match grand-scale mayhem with comparably oversize human personalities. While Johnson naturally holds his own, the rest of the cast must exaggerate their performances to keep up. By far the most outrageous is Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who grandstands à la wild-eyed Robert Downey Jr. as a goon from an unnamed government agency who fancies himself some kind of renegade cowboy. Somehow, together with Harris, this trio have to take down the monsters — though it’s not at all clear what can stop these virtually indestructible creatures. The trick here is making audiences care about what becomes of George (remember, Disney did it with “Wreck-It Ralph”), after 85 years of King Kong movies have all but cemented the clichés the “Rampage” arcade game set out to smash.