“I can’t believe we survived that,” says disgraced geneticist Dr Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) after an especially ludicrous set-piece in Dwayne Johnson’s latest monster-budget B-movie. It’s a line of dialogue Caldwell could deploy at almost any point. Throwing the traditional three-act structure out the window, Rampage employs a radical first for cinema: the one-act structure, consisting of back-to-back sequences of escalating stupidity until the credits roll.
Let’s be clear: this is not (necessarily) a bad thing. Director Brad Peyton knows the level he’s operating at with his San Andreas follow-up. Rather than some profound critique of man’s destructive relationship with nature, Rampage – a loose adaptation of the fondly remembered ’86 arcade game – aspires to little more than lobotomised escapism. Go in expecting unashamed popcorn fodder and it delivers in kaiju-sized quantities.
Johnson stars as Davis Okoye, a former special-forces soldier turned primate specialist at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary whose primary responsibility is caring for George, an intelligent albino gorilla, and the last of his kind. When three cannisters of bio-weapon Crispr fall from space, George becomes one of three animals (along with a crocodile and a wolf) across America exposed to the DNA-altering chemicals, causing mutations with “unlimited physical potential”. Wanton destruction, predictably, ensues.
These fantastic beasts are the highlight. Rendered with staggering detail and heft by the wizards at Weta (never seen a photo-real flying wolf? Now’s your chance!) they leave the boundary between our world and the imaginary practically non-existent. Ralph (the wolf) and Lizzie (the crocodile) are straightforward monsters, seemingly unstoppable forces of nature that demolish or devour everything in their path. But George is a different beast entirely. Like Kong and Caesar before him, there’s a soul behind those pixel peepers, the film effectively establishing the bond between Davis and his simian BFF before the dung hits the fan.
The human cast fare far less well. Alongside Johnson, who operates well within his comfort zone as charismatic alpha male Okoye, Naomie Harris flounders with material that is, admittedly, beneath her. On the other side of the divide, Joe Manganiello doesn’t hang round long enough to make an impression as a shady mercenary, while Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy are sentient slabs of ham as brother/sister bad guys the Wydens. Somewhere in the middle is The Walking Dead’s Jeffrey Dean Morgan, clearly having a blast as government suit Agent Russell, a man with the preternatural ability to pop up wherever the plot needs him to be. He nabs all the best one-liners (“When science shits the bed, I’m the man they call to change the sheets”) but anyone au fait with his weekly appearances as Negan will recognise a familiar flamboyance.
Adapting a game lacking any discernible plot beyond point-accruing carnage, the film’s quartet of credited screenwriters concoct a flimsy framework of corporate malpractice to justify the extended finale’s city-smashing mayhem. And boy, does Peyton bring the mayhem. Cargo planes fall from the clouds, half-mile-high skyscrapers are toppled, riverboats capsized, military hardware swallowed whole... It’s a film that delights in devastation; subtlety was a word presumably banned on set.
All this will likely come as little surprise. Rampage was always going to be the cinematic equivalent of junk food – enjoyable enough while consumed, but devoid of nourishment. When the homo sapiens are on screen, you can feel the film start to flatline but, against the odds, a computer-generated gorilla might just win you over. “It’s weird that you like to hang out with animals more than humans,” Okoye is told. We can empathise.