Loosely adapted from the arcade button-masher of the same name, Rampage is an early contender for the most bewilderingly schizophrenic big-budget movie of the year: an ape-shit spectacle for a bat-shit era. True to its title, conceit, and mindless video-game source material, the film has no shortage of death and destruction, as three supersized mutant animals stampede through civilization like bulls in a china shop, knocking down buildings and gobbling up bystanders. And yet all this surprisingly violent mayhem has been nestled into a brisk, corny, even vaguely family-friendly action comedy about the platonic love affair between The Rock and his best friend, an orphaned, albino gorilla with what you might call an off-color sense of humor.
The gorilla’s name is George, and he lives in a San Diego wildlife preserve, under the care of impossibly buff bachelor Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson). As far as implausibility goes, city-destroying monsters have nothing on The Rock playing a primatologist, even one who came to Jane Goodall’s calling through special-ops work. But maybe a movie with this much breathless pseudoscience demands a properly improbable pseudoscientist. Davis has forged a wisecracking, cross-species bromance with his simian companion, who he rescued from poachers years earlier and whose fluency in sign language makes Koko look like a total dunce. George, in other words, is a pretty remarkable ape even before he gets into a lost canister of gene-splicing pathogen and grows to the size of a small building. He’s also, to be honest, kind of a dick—a prankster whose habit of scaring the bejesus out of green interns for his own amusement sets the sadistic tone.
Directed by Brad Peyton, in the same imitation-Roland Emmerich style as his earlier San Andreas, Rampage never drags its feet. The script, somehow written by four people, teams Davis with a bitter rogue scientist (Naomie Harris, looking faintly embarrassed) and also a smarmy federal agent played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan, seriously just doing a friendlier version of Negan, his congenial-bastard villain from The Walking Dead. George, whose growth spurt comes with blinding rage, is the least of the gang’s problems. They also have to contend with the ravenous flying wolf that emerges from a radioactive blast crater in Montana, and the reptilian leviathan growing out of a bubbling gene pool in the Everglades. The mutant fuel literally drops out of the sky, raining down from the fiery remains of an orbiting laboratory. Why would a company conduct its research in space? Duh, because no one could see what you’re doing up there! The evil corporation, Energyne, is run by a pair of cartoon sibling moguls (Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy, abysmally bad in thankless roles) who watch most of the movie unfold from the computer monitors in their high-rise headquarters, like kids waiting impatiently for their turn at the joystick.
It’s been a minute since a PG-13 tentpole exhibited such a glib disregard for human life. Civilians are crushed under clawed feet, eaten alive, blown to smithereens, and tossed from great heights. That’s perfectly in keeping with the primitive, repetitive, demolition-derby spirit of the game, to say nothing of the Toho rubber-suit classics it was riffing on. There’s something weirder, and maybe a little too real-looking, about kaiju carnage rendered through state-of-the-art technology. But it’s hard to deny that, as B-movie diversion, Rampage often delivers. The monsters, racing through traffic and up the side of skyscrapers, inspire the proper shock and awe. And the movie, outrageously, is almost on their side. Taking its cues from Davis, who prefers animals to people, Rampage wants us to weep for the slaughter of George’s family, while cheering on the apocalyptic mess made by him and his fellow mistakes of science. Of course, that was also true of King Kong, what with its parting eulogy for an enraged, escaped primate who left a lot of bodies in his wake.
Sometimes the gearshifts are louder than Godzilla’s war cry: This is a movie that chases a shot of rescue workers evacuating a smoldering downtown Chicago—imagery that can’t help but evoke 9/11, especially when set to mournful music—with a giant ape doing the universal hand gesture for sex. What holds it all together, just barely, is The Rock. Ostensibly, franchise fare of this sort has no need for famous headliners; the premise is the star. But Johnson’s singular charisma—his way with a one-liner, the built-in special effect of his unreal physique—grounds Rampage in a consistent personality, even as the tone veers wildly from broadly comic to selectively sentimental to casually horrifying. Hell, he even sells the character’s undying loyalty to rude, crude George, flipping cars and the bird, pummeling a humanity that had it coming. Some joked that the last American Godzilla movie, a much more artfully crafted creature feature, was a “post-human blockbuster.” Maybe this is just the first post-Harambe blockbuster.