The problem with Rampage—in which Dwayne Johnson plays a primatologist desperate to keep three angry overgrown varmints from wrecking Chicago—isn’t that it’s big and dumb. It’s that it’s not big and dumb enough. The movie certainly has things going for it: Dwayne Johnson. An albino sweetie of an ape named George. Dwayne Johnson. But if we need proof that most popular entertainments just don’t know what they want to be, or ought to be, anymore, Rampage is it. In trying to please everyone, it fails to present anything that might resonate with our inner anarchist, or even just with our inner vintage arcade-video-game enthusiast. The movie is at its best when it’s sopping with sentimentality and when it goes right over the top in its depiction of dorky destruction. Everything in between is a drag.
Johnson stars as Davis Okoye, an individual who, wisely, likes animals better than people. It’s fun to watch Johnson, an obvious people person, play against type, and he pretty much makes it work: When Okoye communicates via sign language with George—who, as the movie opens, is the star tenant of a San Diego wildlife preserve—you can believe they’re closer than family. But George will soon become the victim of an evil plot: A devious brother-sister duo, played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, have hatched a mad plan to conquer the world, or maybe just wreak havoc, by unleashing a deadly pathogen that causes creatures to grow at bodaciously rapid rates, and to become very, very angry. George becomes infected. A wolf and an alligator-lizardy thing do too. All three grow big and get mad. Worse yet, their ears are being tortured by a big bat-sonar signal going off in Chicago, so they run toward the city—as one does—to shut it off.
Naomie Harris, a wonderful performer who doesn’t show up in the movies enough—though at least her radiant, wrenching turn in Moonlight gave her profile a boost—plays genetic specialist Dr. Kate Caldwell, who offers to help Okoye cure George after his growth spurt. If only they could wrangle him: As he makes his run for Chicago, he’s both elusive and indestructible.
The plot of Rampage is of the “Who cares?” variety, because really, who cares? Directed by Brad Peyton (San Andreas), Rampage is based, in some fashion, on the ‘80s arcade game, in which radioactivity-enlarged critters stage a destructo-fest, climbing skyscrapers and busting them down. The object isn’t to stop the creatures—they’re the heroes of the game. That’s not really the case in Rampage. It’s fun, for a few minutes, to watch these CGI behemoths scale glass skyscrapers, breaking windows on the way up to get a foothold. And it’s fun, too, to watch Johnson being heroic in the Johnsonian way, recounting to Dr. Caldwell how, one day in the jungle, he rescued the baby George from evil poachers. “They shot at us at and missed,” he tells her, his gaze like a brown velvet bullet. “I shot back and didn’t.”
I would watch Dwayne Johnson deliver lines like that until the cows come home. Better yet, I would watch a whole movie consisting of nothing but Dwayne Johnson speaking sign language to cows—they wouldn’t even have to climb any buildings. But neither he nor those three brobdingnagian beasties are enough to make Rampage the wild fun it pretends to be. The CGI is pretty good—because face it, in 2018, when is it not? But the movie is listless and unfocused, constantly on the move toward something yet never arriving. And where are we at, if we have to be fooled into thinking we’re having fun? Rampage is big and dumb in the most artificial and calculated way. You wouldn’t think that could be such a hard thing to fake.