What is ‘Rampage’?
Based on the 1980s arcade game of the same name, Rampage stars Dwayne Johnson as primatologist Davis Okoye, who shares a unique bond with a gorilla named George. George is a highly intelligent and very rare albino silverback, who has been in Okoye’s care since he rescued the young orphan from poachers. But a rogue genetic experiment gone awry mutates the gentle ape into an enormous, raging beast. When they discover other similarly mutated animals, the race is on to put a stop to their rampage across North America. Okoye teams up with discredited geneticist Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris) on a mission to halt a global catastrophe and save his friend — but it’s not only mutant alpha predators that stand in his way.
Rampage is a curiosity. Based on the old 1980s arcade game, the film takes artistic license with its source material. Where the premise of the game involved three humans transformed into monsters by various substances, the film instead mutates existing creatures. A gorilla, wolf and a crocodile morph into bigger, speedier, more agile and more aggressive versions of themselves — the result of ingesting the same lab-created pathogen. Far more realistic, then.
Of course, realism isn’t the point. But while the aim of the game is for players to take control of the monsters and smash up cities, all the while avoiding death at the hands of the military or other hazards, the purpose of the film is to stop the beasts in their tracks. And while the game is from the perspective of the monsters, the film flips it and — more conventionally — makes the beasts the enemy. All except George, that is. In whom we have a significant emotional investment. Set up as a super-intelligent, and sensitive, albino gorilla who has a touching relationship with his keeper — a man with an aversion to his own species — George is adorable.
The beefy duo communicate through sign language, and are able to hold some pretty sophisticated conversations. In short, Okoye is a kind of gorilla whisperer, on hand to talk George down when he gets antsy or to persuade him to play nice with the troop newcomer.
So, when George breathes in a mysterious green mist and the changes begin to take effect, his bond with Okoye means that Davis is at pains to save his furry pal. No matter what danger he poses. And if we weren’t already in love with George, a wee flashback to the moment Okoye saves him from poachers as a young ape seals the deal.
A Dash of Space Horror
The film begins with a genuinely tense and chilling sci-fi sequence set on a space station where scenes straight out of a space horror initiate proceedings. There’s some surprisingly gory stuff here — blood spatter on walls and a floating hand severed just past the wrist, as well as a panicked female crew member. It’s clear she’s the sole survivor of whatever has transpired. And it feels very much like we’ve been plunged headfirst into the climax of another film. This prologue is the catalyst for what’s to come, and introduces a certain mutated lab animal you might recognise from a version of the game.
Taut and surprising, the sequence culminates in the transferral of onboard research samples to Earth, which is what leads to the unplanned mutations.
Let’s talk about George. Introduced early on as Okoye toys with a new member of staff at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary where he works, he’s initially positioned as dangerous. But is quickly revealed to be a gentle, whip-smart soul, who is reprimanded by Okoye for not welcoming a new ape. A cheeky streak and wry sense of humour also come to the fore when George rejects Okoye’s fist bump to respond instead with his middle finger. Cute.
When the aggression ramps up, however, and he begins his rampage through Chicago, aided and abetted by fellow mutated beasts, the Wyoming wolf and the Floridian croc, you start to think this can’t end well. It doesn’t — terror spreads, buildings crumble and people are squished. And if you’re wondering why the heck they all converge on Chicago, don’t worry — all will become clear when you watch the film.
Angry or Simply Hangry?
So what of the other beasts? Well, not a lot has been seen of the croc in marketing up to this point, and there’s a reason for that. It’s the film’s piece de resistance. The most terrifying of all the mutated creatures, it’s probably twice the size, or more, of the wolf and George combined. It’s also the most fearsome, with its near-impenetrable armoured skin and rows of razor-sharp gnashers. And, like the wolf, which seems to have developed the ability to fly, the croc also has some unusual features. George, meanwhile, is just big and hangry in comparison.
Though special effects aren’t always as smooth as you might expect from a film of this scale, you excuse those moments where it lets you down because of the film’s high-camp nature. The other thing you may find yourself forgiving is the stuff that makes no sense. There’s the moment Davis and Kate screech to a halt in a car out front of the wildlife sanctuary building they’ve apparently just come out of following George’s escape. Or the moment they run from one side of a plane to the other, when they’re actually safer in the position they’ve just come from. We don’t even mind that people draw crazy conclusions and act on them. Or that the croc — the largest and most dangerous of all the creatures — manages to make it all the way from Florida to Chicago undetected. If we’re being generous, it all adds to the schlocky fun.
Dwayne Johnson is his usual warm and likeable screen persona, firing off cheesy quips — with a fair-to-middling strike rate, it has to be said. And he finds an unlikely ally in Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Agent Russell, exhibiting all the traits of Morgan’s Walking Dead character, Negan, in early scenes.
Villains Claire and Brett Wyden, played by Malin Akerman and Jake Lacey, meanwhile, are deliberately cartoonish. Which can be entertaining, but their panto-villain proportions mean they never really pose a palpable threat. Definitely more Dastardly with a capital ‘D’, you might say.
Directing in Beast-Mode
The film deserves praise for getting its pacing practically dead-on. Director Brad Peyton is in beast-mode himself, zooming through the story and action at breakneck speed, with barely any pause for breath. There’s a slight sense that they don’t quite get to Chicago quickly enough and that the saving of the croc for the big reveal in the Windy City robs us of seeing it terrorise tourists in Florida but hey. As soon as the film is into its Chicago climax, you’re having way too much fun to dwell on such points.
By the time they hit Chicago, we’re ready for some large-scale destruction and heroic derring-do from The Rock. A couple of points of difference from standard city-under-siege disaster flicks uphold the entertainment levels. Particularly a heart-pounding chopper stunt and the moment where Johnson — and all his bulk — runs across the windows of a fallen building.
Is ‘Rampage’ Good?
You’d hesitate to call Rampage tongue-in-cheek — it’s certainly not a send-up and thank goodness for that. But it’s definitely self-aware. The film is honest, promising a Dwayne Johnson actioner in the same vein as San Andreas, which was also directed by Peyton. It borrows heavily from Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Kong: Skull Island but dials back the gore and tones down the horror to deliver a monster movie 10-year-olds will love.
Rampage also recalls made-for-TV monster mash-ups like Sharktopus and Mega Python Vs Gatoroid but it’s infinitely more watchable. Where the novelty can quickly wear off with those kinds of ironic movies, Rampage is more sincere and less mocking of itself. Which makes it way more fun, actually. But if you’re looking forward to seeing The Rock reenact a classic moment from the game in which characters edge off the screen naked? You’ll be sorely disappointed.