There is something familiar about Brad Peyton’s new special effects fiesta Rampage right from the get-go. A catastrophic mishap aboard a space station scatters debris across the United States, including some remarkably durable canisters of a green gas that turns animals into giant, mutant rampaging beasties. This does and should sound familiar, sort of like “this giant albino gorilla walks into a bar…” Rampage may be propelled by state-of-the-art CGI effects, but at its heart this this is giant mutant creature feature is right out of the fifties.
Back in the decade following World War II and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both the Hollywood and Japanese film industries were haunted by fear of the then-unknown effects of atomic radiation. In 1954, Warner Bros. produced Them!, directed by Gordon Douglas, in which humanity was threatened by mutated, giant ants, and Japan’s Toho Films produced Ishirō Honda’s iconic Godzilla.
Godzilla would reappear in a long line of sequels, and ultimately became Japan’s unofficial antihero protector from other monsters, both homegrown mutants and extraterrestrial invaders. In the US, giant mutants, particularly bugs, continued to emerge to threaten humanity.
Director Brad Peyton, who has directed two other special effects-heavy Dwayne Johnson vehicles (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island and San Andreas), takes the helm here, and as usual, is not inclined to overthink the material. He’s good at spectacle, and Rampage has plenty of CGI critters and big ticket property damage to go around. He wisely doesn’t give the audience to much time to question the proceedings, which will not survive debates over post-movie pizza. The script is credited to four writers – Ryan Engle (The Commuter), Carlton Cuse (San Andreas, TV’s Jack Ryan, Bates Motel, Lost), (Hercules starring Dwayne Johnson, TV’s Colony) and Adam Sztkiel (Due Date, Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul) – but more doesn’t generally make for merrier in screenwriting. This is a patchwork affair, with coincidence as a recipe substitute for plotting.
Dwayne Johnson, ostensibly the busiest leading man in Hollywood, plays Davis Okoye, a primatologist at a California wildlife sanctuary. We are told that he prefers the company of animals to people, a character trait which is oddly appropriate here.Johnson’s trademark charm and sincerity are on full display here, and Rampage needs everything he has to bring.
Davis’ pet project is George, an albino gorilla, with whom he communicates with via sign language. Part Weta Workshop digital technology, part motion capture performance by performance artist Jason Liles, George is likely to be accepted as a character by audiences, though he’s not as well-developed by the makeshift script as some other leading primates, particularly Andy Serkis’ Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes movies. That George is quick to pick up on vulgarisms is a running joke that’s less funny than it’s supposed to be.
But George is likable, and it’s unsettling when he predictably starts to get really big after exposure to the bad green gas. It’s more Mighty Joe Young size than King Kong size, but he’s still big, and worse, cranky.
Quickly arriving on the scene are Naomie Harris (Skyfall, Spectre, Moonlight) as a scientist who worked on the green gas and is horrified that it’s fallen into wrong hands, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as a shadowy-but-unshaven government operative. Both Harris and the script want to take her character seriously, which given the thin material might be a mistake. Morgan plays so perilously close to his trademark character Negan that audiences may suspect he shot his part between takes on The Walking Dead.
The movie rapidly lumbers towards an inevitable climactic battle between George and his fellow giant mutant critters, a giant wolf and a croco-creature.” They’re all being drawn to Chicago, a lovely city that could easily have lived without the honor, by the machinations of the movie’s sexy but superfluous villainess, Malin Ackerman. (Fanboys may at least appreciate the re-team of Ackerman and her Watchmen costar Jeffrey Dean Morgan.)
The special effects are excellent, but there’s no getting around the fact that’s just a slick update of King Kong versus the dinosaurs on Skull Island, King Kong vs. Godzilla, Godzilla vs. Mothra, Godzilla vs. Ghidorah… And the general level of logic on display is summed up by one line of dialogue delivered by Johnson when he realizes the giant wolf sprouts wings: “Of course the wolf flies.”
The entire enterprise is entirely paint-by-numbers, hoping for redemption from its digital artists, but there is an army of those on hand, and their work is impressive. The sound is very loud. The monsters will be too frightening for younger children, particularly as the initially friendly George undergoes a frightening transformation.
Rampage runs an hour and forty-one minutes, and no one will wish it longer. Ushers will be checking brains at the door, so some audience members may prefer to lock theirs in their cars before the movie.