In the film Rampage, in the office of its over-the-top villains, there is a copy of the 1986 arcade game Rampage, and this cute gesture raises ontological questions that the film is unprepared to address. Does Rampage exist within the universe of Rampage? Do the characters in the movie in fact realise that they are living out the events of the game? Do they regard their existence as merely acting out a fate that has been pre-ordained for them by their player-god? Is this why, for no fucking reason at all, the giant flying wolf is given the nickname "Ralph"?

But alas, this is not that kind of movie. This is as simplistic a popcorn movie as you're likely to run across, clearly aiming for an audience of bright-eyed children who want to see cool movie monsters, with plenty of child-pleasing bloody violence and excessive swearing to make the parents wonder what the hell they've gotten themselves into (there's also a scene where a giant gorilla does the index-finger-through-the-opposite-fist gesture to ask his human buddy "are you gonna fuck her?". You know, for kids). Weirdly, even inexplicably, it is almost no fun at all, despite having three giant monsters and Dwayne Johnson, who hasn't dialed down his inherent charisma this far since the drab San Andreas back in 2015. And wouldn't you know, Rampage and San Andreas share director Brad Peyton, who also directed Johnson in 2012's Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, and in a grotesque proof of auteur theory, you can kind of tell that these are all coming from the same place: it is a bad place, and certainly in the case of the later two films, a rather charmless place.

Rampage the game had roughly one sentence worth of plot synopsis, which makes it perversely admirable that Rampage the movie has a different plot. In 1986 (and onward), this was the story of three mad scientists who turned themselves into giant monsters and destroyed major and mid-level cities across North America. In 2018, they're normal animals transformed into abnormal animals after an accident in space destroys the orbiting space station where EvilCorp Genetics secretly creates a weaponised DNA sequencer whose solitary purpose is to transform animals into huge genetic freaks combining the traits of dozens of species, and all with artificially heightened aggression. What conceivable purpose this project could serve is absolutely not even gestured at: probably it's just because EvilCorp CEO Claire Evil (Malin Åkerman) enjoys wickedness and chaos for their own sake. Actually, the company is Energyne, and she's named Claire Wyden, but she is happily, self-consciously evil: in her first scene, playing against her weak-willed idiot brother Brett (Jake Lacy), she makes it pretty clear that she'll spend any fortune and go to any lengths as long as the result is destruction and suffering.

As far as Claire goes, Rampage is a smashing success: the game was a very aware nod to '50s mad science horror cinema, and the film is a somewhat less aware nod to the same thing; no genre, in any era, was home to more people doing crazy-ass shit for "Science! (and also I am an evil sociopath)", and Åkerman, praised be her name, knows exactly how to handle this kind of character and the bullshit plotting she's attached to. You can almost watching her smacking her lips in misanthropic glee at knowing that the world will be a worse place because of the giant albino gorilla, wolf, and alligator-beast she controls using a super-powerful radio signal in the antennae of Chicago's Wills (née Sears) Tower. Incidentally, while I regret that we do not get to see Peoria flattened, in accordance with the game's first setting, it is at least good that the film puts such effort into taking place somewhere in Illinois.

So on the one hand, Åkerman, providing thick campy pleasure. As far as everything else, though, Rampage is a crumbling failure. Johnson being so flatly earnest is a major problem, and it's symptomatic of the film's general unwillingness to smile at itself. This is, somehow, a serious film about giant monsters tearing ass thrown downtown Chicago (but only after a protracted stretch of plotting), one hinging on the friendship of San Diego primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson) and the orphaned gorilla George (mo-capped by Jason Liles), the victim of the Rampage pathogen. We get a substantial amount of labored exposition telling us a bit about Davis's reluctance to join in humanity and his love of animals; we get lots of moving pieces around the chessboard with Davis, ex-Energyne scientist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris, fighting the good fight, and losing), and drawling good ol' boy government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, whose... Texas?... accent sure is something). We get the anticipated scenes of urban destruction that look somewhat like all the other scenes of urban destruction, though in this particular case, there's enough slow motion to allow us to appreciate the poetry of failing debris more than in, say, a Michael Bay movie.

What we do not get is mirth, or playfulness, or any kind of bravura style, or even very exciting, adrenaline-pumping action. It's very much a film from the director of San Andreas in this respect, entirely to its detriment: that film, like Rampage, was a fairly generic exercise in toppling CGI buildings and exploding CGI vehicles (and making Johnson fly a helicopter, which is emerging as an oddly specific repeating motif), and doing so with mechanical proficiency that is totally denuded of any "gee whiz!" factor. There are a few jokes, but only a few; and only really one line ("Well, that sucks") that particularly draws on Johnson's goofy beefcake persona to any good effect.

Even setting aside the monotonous tone, the film fails as popcorn spectacle by not even having good effects work. The CGI gorillas we see early on are incredibly dreadful, and at one point, when George taps Davis on the shoulder to get his attention, the compositing was so bad that I was genuinely confused by what action was going on (it looks like he's grabbing something out of the air, several inches away from Davis). The giant wolf doesn't look much better, though I'll spot them the giant gator: it has the lumbering presence of a huge primordial terror, and it interacts with the CG streets in a largely convincing way. Still, one out of three ain't all that good, and when it's not knocking down Chicago landmarks, Rampage looks pretty bad, and it has thoroughly lugubrious pacing. This kind of film can justify itself in one way and one way only: being awesome enough, with sufficient vigor and visual razzamatazz to excuse how the screenplay is the absolute dumbest shit. To lean into the matinee splendor of it all, and other than Åkerman and the corny "duh-duh-DUH" motif composer Andrew Lockington plugs into the soundtrack once or twice when she appears, Rampage never succeeds in being that kind of cheesy matinee fun. Worse yet, it doesn't seem to have crossed its gloppy, solemn mind for this to have even been a possibility.