'Rampage' Is Smart Enough to Know It's Dumb Fun

Dwayne Johnson avoids the pitfalls of video game movies, despite the genre's checkered past.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Dwayne Johnson avoids the pitfalls of video game movies, despite the genre's checkered past.

Congratulations, Brad Peyton: You’re the director of the best video game movie of all time.

On the surface, that’s less an honorific and more a line of dubious praise. It takes real effort to be the best at anything, of course, but the bar for video game movies is set low enough that it demands another, even lower bar to record accurate measurements. Do a Google search for “video game movie lists.” The results range from “tolerable when drunk” to “soul-crushingly bleak”: Angry Birds, Resident Evil entries 1 to 6, Assassin’s CreedWing Commander, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Silent Hill, and let’s stop there, because in video game movie canon, Silent Hill is about as good as it gets.

Until Rampage. Rampage is by no means a smart movie, but great movies are not always smart. Some of them are unabashedly dumb. Rampage is wrapped up in an unbreachable membrane of honest to goodness absurdity, and this is the first of several details that help its cause. Most video game movies are as dumb as a box of Invincible Hammers; they’re too dumb to know that they’re dumb. Maybe self-awareness shouldn’t be treated like an achievement badge when evaluating ignorance, but the pros of openly acknowledging your movie’s IQ outweigh the cons on the Fun Factor scale.

Imagine a prototypical 1950s sci-fi schlockfest filled with jawsome manly actors delivering pseudo-scientific dialogue, plus the occasional one-liner, with unwarranted gravity as a science experiment gone wrong wreaks havoc on the world. Also imagine that the female lead is only allowed to participate in the action by dint of her association with the male lead, and that even though she has all the answers, he’s the one who saves the day. If you can picture that, you can picture Rampage, more or less, though the film makes a couple of minor updates to the old formula. It’s 2018. Casting Naomie Harris as a mere foil to Dwayne Johnson would be a bad look. (That said, her main purpose here appears to be screaming her lungs out while stuck in helicopters in freefall. Take that as you will.)

But good news! Rampage doesn’t care about looks. It cares about a modestly giant gorilla running headlong into Dave & Buster’s signage, a more giant wolf with bat wings chowing down on soldiers like peanut butter pretzels, and an overwhelmingly giant crocodile rocking an ankylosaurus tail ruining a Chicago boat tour. If you’ve never played the old Midway arcade games the movie is based on, you’ll come for The Rock and stay for humongous mutant animals turning the Windy City into rubble. If you logged hours of your young adulthood punching buildings as George, Ralph, or Lizzie — respectively, the gorilla, the wolf, and the crocodile — then you’ll come and stay for the exact same things, but you’ll also be tickled at how well the movie turns the basic functions of the game into action set pieces.

In fact, Rampage is so good at being a live-action, CGI’d movie adaptation of the game that you may not notice its self-referentialism right away. You may just be too wrapped up in increasingly outrageous urban devastation to pick up on those references as the film’s monster trio converges on Chicago, on Malin Akerman (playing Claire Wyden, the nefarious entrepreneur responsible for funding the project that super-sized the animals in the first place), and on each other. But Rampage the movie is very much Rampage the video game once Peyton ushers us toward the mindless destruction we paid the price of admission to see.

George, Ralph, and Lizzie careen down streets, carom off of structures, and, yes, climb those structures while beating the hell out of them. They absorb bullets and missile strikes from intervening U.S. troops, and then eat those troops. Eventually, George swallows Wyden whole in a hysterical slow-mo overhead shot. Turns out she’s a walking power-up; she’s carrying the cure for George’s unstoppable aggression on her person and she doesn’t have a clue. This moment at once gives our human antagonist a spectacular send off and satisfies the movie’s need for George to regain his senses so he can team up with The Rock against the remaining behemoths (because no living actor could more believably take on two berserk monsters than The Rock).

On the page, this probably sounds obvious, as if each nod to the game should jump right off the screen. But Rampage fits comfortably into the familiar shell of good ol’ fashioned monster flicks. Even though we know we’re watching a popcorn movie based on a game franchise spawned in the 1980s, we engage the film first and foremost as a goofy monster mash starring The Rock at his Rockiest. The marriage of game and story effectively masks the winks and nudges to the arcade classic (though in retrospect, those winks and nods feel more like dead arms). We expect George and company to cause property damage. That’s what monsters do. But we don’t expect evil industrialists to nonchalantly store Rampage upright arcade games in their offices. That’s obvious referentialism. Everything else is just a monster mash.

Turns out all you need to make a good video game movie is a marriage between gameplay dynamics and genre. What a surprise: A game about monsters who wander from city to city and wreck up the place translates cleanly into a big, dopey monster movie. Rampage successfully bridges the gap separating its parent mediums. In a way, that’s proof of sorts that video game movies are (and always will be) limited by their source material. The more narrow the gameplay, the more difficult the adaptation. Video game synopses don’t get much broader than “monsters destroy a major metropolitan area.” And video game movies don’t get much better than Rampage.

  • Andy Crump