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[This story contains spoilers for Warner Bros.’ Rampage.]
Rampage wants to be two types of blockbusters: a King Kong-like monster movie and a Roland Emmerich-esque disaster flick, with Dwayne Johnson at the center of it all.
But this video game adaptation does not have the ability to satisfy these impulses in a way that’s tonally consistent, which distracts from its promise of mindless thrills. Despite the Rampage arcade cabinets being constantly visible in its villains’ headquarters, director Brad Peyton’s live-action adaptation comes off as too emotionally glib and mean-spirited, even for a mega-budget B-movie.
The film, written by Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel, has a big albino gorilla in the room named George, who embodies the story’s schizophrenic identity to evoke some of the cartoonish game but also make a spectacle out of destruction. Sometimes George is goofy, like when introduced as a playful, sarcastic zoo animal with an emotional bond to the human-averse primatologist Davis (Johnson), which is tonally matched by scenes where hammy villains played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy talk about their scheme to genetically edit animals with the same threatening nature of Boris and Natasha from Rocky & Bullwinkle. But George is also shown to have the potential for great violence as well, after a pathogen genetically modifies him to grow in size, his rage causing a plane full of people to crash and then a city to be destroyed, as mirrored by a jarringly dark scene where a modified super-wolf reduces Joe Manganiello into splattered red corn syrup. With distinct scenes playing out like they came from completely different movies, Rampage could have used a great deal of genetic editing itself.
Because the script most of all needs to show George acting monstrously with a fellow mega-wolf and mega-crocodile to be on brand with the Bally/Midway arcade staple (instead of possibly having George always be a monster-fighter or something similar), Rampage treats George’s evil as an on-and-off switch, even alleging the city’s chaos would have been worse without him. Grounded in a human story as an animal buddy to Davis, the audience is expected to sympathize with George unquestionably as he loses control of his inhibitions, then root for him as he topples skyscrapers and tears up major streets along with two other villainous monsters, and then find him honorable when paired up with Johnson to fight an equally destructive monster. The viewer can’t escape from the script’s indifference in mashing a human-focused story with a video game narrative that’s meant to jokingly celebrates chaos. The result is a moral passivity that dulls the city-smashing spectacle when it should explode like many Chicago buildings do. As the city is attacked, innocent people die and a sense of tonal intent is lost. Peyton expects you to take a vacation from the human factor established in so many other scenes.
Rampage uses the mutation aspect of the game to create a Jekyll and Hyde partner for Johnson, but it disregards the inherent gray areas that should come with a live-action version, now that the chaos is not told from the monsters’ POV, as it is in the game. As goofy as Rampage may be, Peyton’s film fails in the very basic element of using character to establish tone, particularly when you consider two pics that clearly influenced Rampage — previous Warner Bros. projects Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island. Both of those films were able to get the mega-destruction they desired, and let the monsters show their angry side, but they ultimately fortified their actions as those of complicated anti-heroes — in Godzilla, the movie concludes with the headline “Savior of our city?” and in Kong: Skull Island, it is revealed that Kong, despite killing humans in a gruesome fashion throughout, has been a protector of the island all along. Rampage only cares about George to the capacity that he can cause death and destruction, but also be a hero when needed.
Rampage only settles in by its final rumble, becoming good monster and good Rock vs. a truly bad monster, among rubble in which no other humans can be seen. It is a great set-piece, with Johnson acting as if this were his own Life of Pi. But after it’s over, Rampage can’t resist touting its shallow idea of heroism and justice, as it shows people emerging from the rubble in slow motion, as if Davis and George had stopped another 9/11. It’s the cheapest bow for a story like this, as if Rampage admits that it does not want to deal with a fundamental character idea of right and wrong, and just sweep all of George’s casualties under the rubble.
Rampage marks the third collaboration between Johnson and Peyton, the latter of whom follows the Roland Emmerich philosophy of disaster movies, as seen in the likes of Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow and 2012: Only the lives of the main characters matter, even when hundreds of thousands or millions of people are clearly dying within the story. It’s an often fruitful angle for a B-movie, given how Peyton’s predecessors have made spectacle out of it for decades, but there’s a very rotten idea of humanism at the core of Peyton’s two disaster stories, this one and 2015’s San Andreas. In their previous effort, Johnson played a Los Angeles Fire Department rescue pilot, who is rarely shown using those skills, despite the many helpless people he must have passed by while bounding through an apocalyptic California. As with this film, the rampaging takes a non-cartoonish, mean-spirited toll on the city and its civilians, and fellow human beings are only shown when they can be killed or used for emotional moments. In both movies, the disaster spectacle is used as an excuse for a cold, no-stakes idea of humanity.
Peyton’s Emmerich-esque take in Rampage of goofy monsters in an environment of skyscrapers and thousands of people becomes all the less enjoyable when they are tearing up Chicago in a fashion that has rightfully earned connections to 9/11 by various film critics, creating a needlessly warped idea of playtime. Rampage awkwardly evolves into a disaster movie, and it becomes distracting that the story is so cynical about the purpose of monsters, humans and disaster films. Rampage may boast the same mindset of a game that treats people like tiny figures ready to be crushed or stomped or eaten, but Peyton’s indifference to a stable tone makes the spectacle incredibly sobering, not fun.
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