Rampage movie review: American kaiju

Rampage green light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Raises the bar on big dumb fun, with The Rock’s social-justice-warrior badass and his genuinely charming relationship with a gorilla, plus a ton of goofball sci-fi monster action turned up to 11.tweet
I’m “biast” (pro): love The Rock and Naomie Harris
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female coprotagonist
(learn more about this)

Rampage raises the bar on big dumb fun. I’m not sure I ever thought that could be a thing, but it’s obvious: Just because a movie is dumb doesn’t mean it has to be stupid. It doesn’t mean it has to be insulting. Just because all those things usually go together doesn’t mean they have to.

So we have The Rock, who is a certifiable Movie Star, just always a pleasure to spend time with (though much more so when the movie he’s in isn’t stupid and insulting *cough* Jumanji *cough*). We have lots of giant monster action, as if Rampage somehow knew in advance that Pacific Rim 2 was going to go almost exclusively roboty on us and we’d need that. Those two things alone might have been more than enough for big dumb fun, and yet there’s so much more.

A bad day...
A bad day…

...to be a helicopter pilot.
…to be a helicopter pilot.

Dwayne Johnson’s (Baywatch, The Fate of the Furious) Davis Okoye isn’t just a regular ol’ movie badass. He is — I am sorry to have to inform those people who will be sorry to hear this — a social justice warrior. Literally. He is a former elite soldier with a whole lotta “redacted” in his file who is now an anti-poaching, pro-wildlife badass. That’s how he met George: the rare albino gorilla was just a baby when he rescued the ape from poachers in Africa. (Oh, and does Davis have a Nigerian surname? He sure does.) Now he and George, who lives at the San Diego wildlife facility where Davis works, have a real “we’re all dudes here” kind of relationship. They have a good laugh over practical jokes and sign digs at each other — their brand of sign language includes rude gestures, which of course George thinks are hilarious.

George may be a fantastical version of a real gorilla — he’s too smart and a little too human in his sense of humor — but he is a very nice boy. And having a rapport with animals looks pretty darn sexy on a human man. Davis and George are great together and have real chemistry, which is a trick when one of them is CGI. I hope their next movie is a buddy comedy in which they play cops who get mixed up in a wacky banana heist or something.

I hope The Rock and the CGI gorilla’s next movie is a buddy comedy in which they play cops who get mixed up in a wacky banana heist.

Anyway, their friendship gets disrupted by a canister of genetically engineered “turn an animal into a beserker monster” pathogens that falls to Earth from the exploding space station, which would be enough to ruin everybody’s day except it’s even worse. There are, in fact, three canisters, and all of them land in the lower 48 United States, what are the odds. One mutates George into mega-George; he gets big and strong on a King Kong level. Another lands in the Everglades and transforms a crocodile into a hideous giant reptile like something out of a Japanese monster movie. The third lands in the Rockies and turns a nice ordinary wolf into an enormous wolf-wolverine-bat thing. These are animals of a scale and a ferocity that, when they go up against military helicopters, the helicopters lose. This is goofball sci-fi turned up to 11.

Of course, the mad-science corporation that had sponsored the experiments on the space station want their “weaponized DNA” back. Good thing evil CEO Claire Wyden (Malin Akerman: Stolen, Rock of Ages) built in some genes that make the transformed creatures respond to a radio signal, and that she just happens to have access to the transmitter atop the Sears Tower in Chicago to send out the call and bring the monsters right there and somehow collect genetic samples from them. Either Wyden has never seen a Godzilla movie or she actively wants Chicago to get smashed to smithereens by the monsters; either is suspicious. But perhaps The Rock and Naomie Harris (Collateral Beauty, Moonlight) — as Dr. Kate Caldwell, the scientist who created the weaponized DNA before she realized the evil purpose it would be put to — can stop the monsters and save George, too?

You won’t like George when he’s angry...
You won’t like George when he’s angry…

Spoiler: Chicago takes a beating. And it’s a bit too realistic, a bit too many shades of 9/11 for a movie that’s just supposed to be big dumb fun. Even if urban destruction was the point of the 1980s console videogame this is (very loosely) based on.

Still, this is a movie that features multiple cool female scientists; Marley Shelton (Scream 4, A Perfect Getaway) plays another one. It passes a racial version of the Bechdel Test almost every time Johnson and Harris speak to each other. It features the hero unironically saying things like “You have to evacuate Chicago” with the impassioned sincerity of a man who thinks that can actually happen in the space of mere minutes, in a movie that mostly agrees that it can. (That sort of optimism is kinda refreshing, if hopelessly naive. But at least a thought is given to preventing civilian casualties.) It invents a government agent in Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, The Salvation), who announces that he is from a secret agency he can’t name but, “when scientists shit the bed, I’m the guy they call to change the sheets”; he deserves a movie all of his own, not least because, just what the hell is happening in this world that he gets regular work?

I didn’t say that Rampage raised the big-dumb-fun bar a lot, but it’s more than most similar movies bother with.

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