‘Rampage’ Finds Dwayne Johnson Saving Chicago From Oversized Creatures

This is a movie where the title literally captures what it’s all about. “Rampage,” roughly based on the video game of the same name, seeks to do nothing more than create enormous, murky CGI creatures and have them climb one (one, mind you) Chicago skyscraper after stomping around the city. It attempts to add a little heart to the whole, loud disaster by turning Dwayne Johnson into some sort of ape whisperer. This is the kind of movie where you can imagine the cheer in the minds of executives when someone proposed doing a The Rock/Giant Gorilla combo. Now with this sort of idea the potential for wild fun is everywhere, but the delivery instead becomes pretty bland.

After a title card explains the perils of “genetic editing,” the movie opens in space, yes indeed, where an astronaut named Kerry Atkins (Marley Shelton) is trying to escape from a space station under assault by a giant, mutated rat. The critter is the result of experiments sanctioned by a corporation known as Engyne. Atkins tries to save samples of a genetic-tampering serum but her craft explodes, but not before the samples crash on earth in the form of three different, cube-like carriers. Cut to San Diego where primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson), spends his time caring for albino gorilla George. Davis can apparently hold entire conversations via sign language with George, who can throw a middle finger or do the “doing it” sign. But George comes in contact with one of the Engyne cubes and begins to mutate into a monstrous giant. Meanwhile a crocodile in the Everglades munches on one of the cubes and also transforms, as well as a wolf in Wyoming. The evil owners of Engyne, Claire (Malin Akerman) and her brother Brett (Jake Lacy), aware of what is happening, decide to send out a piercing signal through a large radio tower in Chicago. The idea is this will lure the creatures to the city, as well as the army, and once the army kills them Engyne can scoop up the corpses and produce more of the dastardly serum.

That pretty much does sum up the premise of this clunky monster movie. Its best moments take place around the first 10 minutes, when Davis has his funny scenes with George as they sign and make fun of each other. Of course it’s silly, but Johnson has always had a specific, comedic charm. When he’s not being fast and furious he comes across as a pleasant comedian trapped inside a muscle man’s physique. But as soon as George gets big the film just goes off the rails. The director, Brad Peyton, has a curious obsession with visual orgies of destruction. His previous effort with Johnson, “San Andreas,” was a maddening action opus where California is virtually obliterated by the Big One. By comparison “Rampage” feels scaled down. Nothing in this story is truly worked out or engaging, every development is simply an excuse to show a giant wolf, crocodile and gorilla make their way to Chicago and crush a few cars and buildings. The dialogue never crackles, the motivations of the villains are so rushed and vague as to be completely forgettable by the time they meet their ends. After all, their whole scheme does only revolve around getting the creatures to climb up one building in downtown Chicago.

The genre is no excuse, 2016’s “Shin Godzilla” was grandiose, funny and even politically conscious, all at the same time. Here Johnson has no purpose other than to run, fly a helicopter and continuously scream with pleading emotion, “George!” The side characters are complete throwaways, including Naomie Harris as a former Engyne scientist who mumbles some reason for leaving the company but might have a cure for the animals. Jeffrey Dean Morgan plays a government agent named Harvey Russell, who of course has a heart of gold and sides with the heroes on the run while the military hotheads pull the Trump card of deciding to drop the infamous MOAB (Mother of All Bombs) on the animals. Curiously enough there’s never the standard disaster movie scene where the president addresses the nation on the sudden appearance of enormous creatures in a major U.S. city. The two villains (you start to wonder who even works at Engyne after a while) speak only in exposition, in the style of “well of course she knew we were going to do this because we were planning this and this all along, to then carry out our great scheme.”

A movie like this can at least offer some fun visual flights of fancy. But “Rampage” has a bland, rather sad look to its visual effects. We never get a good look at the creatures, there’s no terrifying majesty or scope to how they’re revealed or portrayed. The wolf just leaps through dark woods, chomping on some mercenaries or a helicopter. George is funny in the beginning, sort of endearing in the final scene, but for most of the movie he’s just an oversized, rampaging gorilla without much personality. Once they make it to Chicago the cinematography becomes muddy, murky and quite literally dusty. Peyton fills the frame with so much debris you have to squint to get a better look at the beast breaking everything. There’s no joy or goofy fun to the final battle, it’s just depressing debris and Johnson attempting to chuck some grenades at the giant croc. The movie is based on a videogame of the same name, but as a cinematic experience it feels like you’ve been left without a controller. Possibly the best action scene doesn’t involve the monsters. It’s a moment where Johnson sky dives out of a burning plane with Russell. On a big screen it had the gusto the rest of the movie was missing.

“Rampage” promises you a giant gorilla in the ads, as well as Dwayne Johnson, and you certainly get both. What you might not get is your money’s worth.

Rampage” opens April 13 in theaters nationwide.