Rampage: Apeshit, by David Bax
God help me, I swear Rampage starts off promisingly. If you’ve got your comment-typing fingers locked and loaded up with accusations that I’m a killjoy critic who can’t just sit back and enjoy a movie about giant animals destroying things, know that I was ready to do exactly that. The prologue, a bit of space horror in which the sole surviving member of a team of astronaut researchers floats frantically through wreckage, zero gravity flames and the bodies of her colleagues to get to an escape capsule before being killed by an angry rat the size of a hyena, is tense and thrilling. After that, though, Rampage becomes a different, stupider movie.
That escape capsule carries with it the last three samples of the serum that created Rat Hulk and, due to an unfortunate incident (RIP astronaut final girl), they end up scattered across the United States, one in the Everglades, one in Wyoming and one at the San Diego Zoo, which is where we meet up with our human protagonist, Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson), a primatologist and military veteran whose best friend is George, an albino gorilla in his care. George is one of the three animals (along with a crocodile and a wolf) who are infected by the serum, grow to the size of buildings and, due to some evil corporate machinations, converge on downtown Chicago. Our only hope lies with Davis and Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), one of the scientists who cooked up the formula to begin with but left the company when she discovered her concoction of growth hormone mixed with rabies was being used for unethical purposes.
Rampage stumbles when it loses its footing in any sort of understandable reality. It’s not that a movie like this–or any movie–has to be consistent with the laws and likelihoods of our own world. But it should be consistent with itself. Before director Brad Peyton (San Andreas) has even finished selling us on the whole genetic modification thing, he also asks us to buy that George is more intelligent than any ape who has ever lived, a fact which seems unremarkable to Davis and his team, leaving us with the implication that, in this world, all apes are super smart and all they need to come out of their primal shells is a good friend with whom they can stage elaborate practical jokes, carry on full conversations in sign language and give people the finger.
Then again, why should we expect the apes to behave believably when the humans in the movie can’t do so? Rampage’s dialogue is replete with that standard, B-movie bullshitting technique where everyone talks as if they’re making sense and we’re expected to be convinced. (Of course insect DNA makes George’s wounds heal faster! She just said so without stuttering or laughing!) Of the entire cast, only Jeffrey Dean Morgan, as a Southern-fried government agent of ambiguous morality, seems to understand what kind of movie he’s in and that, in order to make it work, he’s going to have to eat up as much of the scenery as the giant crocodile. On the other end of the spectrum, representative of the cast as a whole, is Malin Akerman, usually a reliable comedic actor, playing her villain role with factory-wrapped blandness.
It’s hard to blame Akerman for not being funny, though, when the screenplay is so full of half-jokes and non-jokes. Even Jake Lacy as her sidekick and brother, another funny actor who’s actually playing a character who’s supposed to be comic relief, can’t turn his stress-eating, sensitive psychopath into anything more memorable than an improv team’s hasty invention. Meanwhile, the four credited screenwriters either don’t know or couldn’t agree on what a joke actually is, often opting for a reaction instead of a punchline. A bunch of people die on the Chicago River? “Well, that sucks.” A man gets crushed and splattered by falling debris? “That was a lot.” It’s the equivalent of an unfunny person replying to something clever by observing, “I see what you did there” and expecting a laugh in return.
At least Rampage is the rare, dumb, loud blockbuster with a city-destroying climax that actually acknowledges people are getting killed. But even then, the movie’s too thin and fake for it to feel real. As I watched humongous beasts destroy Windy City landmarks one by one—Willis Tower! Marina City! Dave & Buster’s!—my mind began to wander: I really should visit Chicago again.