Rampage review

5 months ago by Brock Wilbur

We fought a zoo.

We’re in a bit of a renaissance of blockbuster action films right now. This is the time for doing clever twists on the usual dumb summer flick, and if you’re not bringing a new and fascinating angle to the format, just going incredibly big and sinking all your efforts into making a 90 minute chunk of concentrated fun is suddenly and noticeably hard to muck up. The last two years, especially, have been a real gift. I can recall less than three major studio films that I regret having seen, and I see a lot of dreck, because my editors know how to punish me for my skill set.

That is what threw me so completely about Rampage. I do not think it is the worst movie I have ever seen, but I do think it is the worst I have ever seen Hollywood not do its job. On any level.

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Rampage began as a Midway arcade video game in 1986. The premise behind the game is that three human beings take a weird science juice and they transform into gigantic killer monsters. There’s a King Kong-type ape, a Godzilla-type lizard, and a cool-ass werewolf. You travel city by city around the country, with the goal of each level being the destruction of all the buildings on the map. As one of the monsters, you climb buildings and smash out windows and walls until the structure collapses. In the meantime, all types of military dudes and vehicles would keep blasting you. Oh, and you could recover your health by eating soldiers or fleeing civilians.

There were two additional delightfully bizarre gameplay elements: If you lost all of your health, you turned back into a tiny naked human (no Hulk pants here) and you scampered off-screen. If one of the other monsters ate the human version of you, they absorbed your score. The second big detail was that, as you smashed up these buildings, you never knew what you might find behind broken windows. There could be gigantic fruit or meat or even people that were consumables that helped, or cigarettes or bathtubs or bombs that hurt you. Also you could find money. Not sure why a monster needs money, but this was a good thing? Or some items could be both things? A toaster was bad to eat, unless the toast popped upped and then it was good. There’s a photographer that you can eat, but if you wait too long he snaps a flash which hurts you? It was one of those childhood game logic things that without the instruction manual you were just completely lost as to how any of that worked. (See also: A Boy and his Blob.)

This is when I began to have some suspicions that the giant monster movie about smashing things and then smashing other things -- well, it might not be good.

This game was a staple of my youth. I’m not going to go all “childhood nostalgia makes me think this should be better,” because I’m an adult and I know how movies get made. I know that a Midway Arcade game, like an Asteroids or Tempest, would make no sense without filling out the world and making big changes. It’s also the kind of project that has been teased dozens of times as a film adaptation since the 1990s. But when a movie featuring three humans that turn into three gigantic monsters announced a cast including The Rock, Joe Manganiello, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, I was pretty sure I understood what was going to happen and I was here for it.

Then I saw the trailer, where it became increasingly more obvious that The Rock does not indeed turn into a gigantic murderous ape, but that he is just friends with a regular ape that slowly gets bigger until it is too big for an ape to be.

This is when I began to have some suspicions that the giant monster movie about smashing things and then smashing other things -- well, it might not be good.

The 2018 action film Rampage opens with The Rock (who keeps trying to convince us his name is Dwayne Johnson) introducing us to his friend George, who is an albino gorilla that he rescued. The Rock and George communicate via sign language and right off the bat, this movie establishes that it wants to bounce between visceral descriptions of poaching and a CGI monkey constantly flipping people off. Not like, in different conversations. I mean back and forth immediately. The Rock reminds us that family is what binds us and the monkey gives him a fist bump but also there is farting and a panicky white guy who keeps yelling and ducking. Did I mention that everyone wants The Rock to have sex with one of his students and the only woman on the team? That’s super fun.

The Rock, it turns out, gets along with animals but doesn’t get along with people. Animals understand him, you see. And The Rock, well, he’s seen war. So humans, they’re not great. Not great at all.

Meanwhile, in an entirely different movie, a brother and sister team of evil scientists is doing evil scientist stuff. Malin Åkerman plays Lady Scientist and she’s always saying evil stuff like “The pathogen is working exactly as we designed” while her sweaty affluenza brother (played by The Office’s Jack Lacy for some unknown reason) keeps a-panicking that they’re all going to go to jail, but also he wants money, but also he’s a big man. They have a space station and it explodes, which they watch on Youtube because that’s how Youtube works. Three containers shoot down to the earth’s surface and land near some swamp monster, a wolf, and of course, George the gorilla. Uh oh, there’s gonna be antics.

Elsewhere, in another totally separate movie, a team of hired mercenaries (led by Joe Manganiello) do mercenary things. In a scene that should sum up the entirety of the film, Manganiello’s entrance features him opening the driver’s side door of a car while holding a handgun. He had been holding the handgun while driving the car. He’s so good at guns and driving he can half focus on both at the same time. He clumsily opens the door handle with his gun in hand, the way no door or gun would work, and then hands the gun to a stranger. He didn’t even need the gun. He was just driving around with his driving gun, in hand, so he could give it to a friend. Then, another guy hands him a much larger gun, which he does some gun stuff with by putting ammunition into it or whatever.

Now, he doesn’t load this gun while holding a different gun, so I’m not sure how believable all this is. A real mercenary doesn’t even drink water without drinking it out of a gun that’s also made of smaller guns. But either way, Joe Manganiello hands the second of two guns in 15 seconds back to a third party, and then he gets into a helicopter.

I could not make this up if I tried. I would not make this up if I tried.

Having set the stage here, I can mostly blow through the rest of the plot. Be aware that MAJOR SPOILERS follow from this point.

George, as well as the wolf and the crocodile, keep getting bigger and angrier until they are gigantic monsters. The evil scientist brother and sister team turn on a radio frequency atop their science tower in Chicago, which forces the three animals to converge on the city and destroy everything in their path.

There’s just an unrealistic number of times that the military says “No thank you, Mr. Primatologist who knows the ape personally, we’re going to handle this with a slightly bigger gun than the previously large guns which had no effect.” And then everyone dies. There’s a sequence on an airplane. There’s a sequence in an abandoned mine. There’s a sequence in Chicago that goes terribly for the Dave & Busters on Wacker Avenue. Also, there’s a new Rampage game that you can only play at Dave & Busters. I, too, am shocked by the coincidences piling up around here.

Sorry. Sorry. Quick aside here: The evil scientist brother and sister team? They have a Rampage arcade machine in their office. The original Rampage. It’s not like, a hidden easter egg. It’s visible and in perfect focus in nearly every single shot. Their virus that mutates animals is called Project Rampage. So the video game Rampage exists in this universe, and the people who made the evil monster juice play it. Like every day. And randomly, because of falling space station parts, the exact same three creatures get huge-afied, include a gorilla named George.

At some point, Jeffrey Dean Morgan stumbles into all of this as an FBI guy who comes off… I don’t know how else to put this? He’s like Jim Carrey from the 90s doing an impression of Tommy Lee Jones from the 90s? Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the only person who knows what movie he’s in and he just goes all in for Some Choices. He enters every scene standing in profile and talks a lot about being a cowboy. I dunno. He’s just here. If they put him in the movie because he just started showing up on set one day and no one could make him leave, I would fully believe it.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan is the only person who knows what movie he’s in and he just goes all in for Some Choices.

So, back to the ‘story,’ loosely called. Large monsters are tearing apart the city. Military helpless are to stop them. Well, not helpless. They’re going to drop a MOAB (mother of all bombs) on the city, which you might remember from how that’s the actual name of a weapon we keep using on foreign countries these days. If you thought you were going to get through the feature film Rampage starring The Rock without having complicated thoughts about the situation in Syria, well, you do not understand good storytelling.

The monsters start attacking the building that is sending out the signal to make the monsters attack the building, which was the evil brother and sister’s plan the entire time. I, at this time, still do not understand that plan or why they were still on the top floor of the building when the monsters got there without a real plan of escape. I think there was a helicopter but also these events took place over a series of days. There was no reason to--

Sorry, no, I don’t have to fix this. This isn’t my job. Moving on.

The Rock and Nice Scientist Lady think there’s a cure that will stop George from being mean. They break into the lab and find the cure. The Rock gets shot and then suddenly isn’t shot anymore. Or, it’s just like, not a huge deal to him? Point being, they’re up on the roof of the building with George Monster In Rage State and they have the cure.

Now, remember how I said the arcade game involved eating people to stay alive? At this point, there are 10 minutes left in the film and no one has been eaten. And remember how the Evil Scientist Lady has the Rampage arcade machine in her office? You won’t believe what happens next. The Rock throws the cure serum into her purse, and out of nowhere, George eats the first and only person that is eaten in this film, which is the Evil Scientist Lady and her purse. How did they knew that this would work? This is a question that will haunt me until the end of time.

The Rock shoots every kind of gun that has ever existed. George is nice again but the other two monsters are less nice. The Rock shoots guns from a helicopter. There’s -- I swear I am not making this up -- a shout out to Harambe in the credits. Really.

I can’t tell you this for certain, but I am willing to bet there isn’t a single line in this film that didn’t appear in the first draft. This was a script that was put into production and the only changes made were studio notes. Rampage is what happens when someone pulls up a document, sees a list of changes, and then just clicks “accept all” without reading them.

One of the worst instances of this is the ham-fisted commentary about poachers. Obviously, Rampage should have a social message. It is that kind of intellectual property. But perhaps reconsider the message “animal cruelty is bad” in a film where the audience will spend 75% of the time cheering for The Rock to kill animals.

Rampage is marketed as a fun summer romp with explosions and The Rock doing quips, but what exists is so far tonally from what it wishes that it were, I’m actively warning friends who are parents away from bringing their kids. It could’ve been big stupid disaster fun or it could’ve been oppressively grimdark and violent. Instead, it fluctuates between the two in a manner that I found physically upsetting.

Perhaps reconsider the message “animal cruelty is bad” in a film where the audience will spend 75% of the time cheering for The Rock to kill animals.

One minute, The Rock is laughing and doing sex jokes with his CGI monkey pal. The next, a whole team of military dudes is being torn in half by a monster. I’m not talking hidden-the-shadows, hinted-at dismemberment: I mean torsos pulled asunder and blood and organs dripping from trees. Again, this is a PG-13 movie. There’re high fives and then decapitations. When Evil Scientist Woman gets eaten, it’s in one gulp like a Sharknado movie, but a few minutes later, a man’s entire body gets exploded with a falling rock. When The Rock explains how poachers killed George’s mother in front of his eyes, we get a flashback of a crying tiny white gorilla watching men cut off his mother’s hands.

This movie made me into a real asshat in a theater because I just could not believe what I was seeing. And I’ve been struggling to put into words what the worst part is. Overwhelmingly, yes, this is just the laziest film I’ve ever seen, and yeah, there’s a small part of me that wanted the video game from my youth to be fun as a movie. But the worst injustice here is maybe what this does to The Rock.

I keep thinking about the movie Funny People, which is all about Adam Sandler realizing that his life and terrible movies have been pointless, so he tries to make good things. And then in real life, Adam Sandler just went back to making more garbage. Having just seen Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, where The Rock plays the exact same character, it feels like a huge leap backward. I know the guy makes 11 films a year, but Rampage is such a heartless, empty, absolute heap of a film. I firmly believe that this disaster isn’t simply a strike against him, it’s a black mark that he (and everyone involved) will have to work to overcome.