Basing a movie on a game makes a certain amount of sense. Be it board, video, or party, and old game doesn't involve a beloved story to be painstakingly adapted; in some cases, a game provides little more than a premise. Really, they're marketing hooks sharpened by a vaguely comforting sense of nostalgia, which is all that some studios want out of "intellectual property" anyway.
This weekend brings a pair of additions to Game Cinema: Rampage, adapted from the old arcade game about monsters busting up buildings; and Truth or Dare, conceptually riffing off of the non-trademarked party game. Both very much belong to time-honored genres: Rampage is a monster movie as well as a disaster movie; Truth or Dare is a horror movie where a supernatural force stalks a group of young people. But they're similarly interesting in terms of how the games at their center shape and sometimes gender the material.
Of course, plenty of girls played Rampage at the arcade back in the day. But contrary to any number of statistics, gaming is still stereotyped as a male pursuit, and Rampage leans way into that perception. It's not just a movie designed for 12-year-old boys but seemingly by 12-year-old boys, aware of grown-up movie standbys like horrific violence and casual swearing but not especially adept at using them effectively.
It's not surprising that Rampage, in which Dwayne Johnson plays a primatologist whose gorilla bestie George is mutated into a larger, angrier monster and scuffles with a similarly enhanced wolf and crocodile, is a very silly movie. "B-movies with A-movie budgets" has been a much-used description of Hollywood blockbusters for going on two decades, and to an extent it applies here. But like San Andreas, the last movie Johnson made with director Brad Peyton, even the A-movie budget can't disguise how hollow and insubstantial all of the death and destruction feels, even in action-movie terms.
Some of Rampage is still fun, especially when several of the actors (including Jake Lacy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, and Malin Akerman) chew up the scenery just before the monsters demolish it. A better movie would make them part of the joke; Rampage feels uncertain about whether there is a joke, or if so, what it should be. One character gets eaten by a gigantic crocodile, and Peyton stages it more or less like a mean grown-up getting pushed into a swimming pool in an old Nickelodeon movie. The movie wants to revel in its absurdity, yet never fully lets go of the idea that it could stumble its way into a superior monster-movie style exercise like Kong: Skull Island. That never happens; it's unmistakably a kid movie half-grown into its bad language and body count.
Johnson is the ideal figure to maintain this illusion of an all-ages blockbuster, because he's both a genuine star with clear presence in front of the camera and a barely-adolescent boy's idea of masculinity: Gigantic, muscular, kind to animals without doling out too many hugs, sweaty and bloodied but essentially bulletproof, and girl-adjacent but not really romantic. The filmmakers would probably argue the lack of romance is progressive, but the sidekick status of female lead Naomie Harris doesn't get upgraded just because she and Johnson never kiss. Especially when the movie still has George make sniggering sexual hand gestures about her. It would be a stretch to call Rampage charming (how many 12-year-old boys are?) but it certainly stays true to its tweenage heart.
Like Rampage, Truth or Dare is hardly a gender-exclusive phenomenon. Still, it's probably most commonly associated with young women at slumber parties, as one of the college-aged characters mentions early on. He's part of a mostly-callow group of seniors spending their last spring break in Mexico, lured, with hilarious improbability, to a burnt-out old cathedral, where a stranger nudges them into a round of Truth or Dare that gets a demonic force on their case. Once they're in the game, Olivia (Lucy Hale), her friend Markie (Violett Beane), and their friends must take infinite turns choosing to admit hard truths or perform life-threatening dares.
This is a blatant knockoff of both Final Destination and the artier It Follows, with only a smidge of the former's mordant wit and none of the latter's peerless dread-craft. But Truth or Dare does pay homage to the game's perceived roots through a compelling conflict between Olivia and Markie, lifelong friends who want to stay close "until life tears us apart," as one of them says. The movie is most provocative when poking at Olivia's supposed good-girl selflessness, something that the demonic game puts to the test. How deadly is the gap between your public nobility and your privately selfish feelings?
It's possible that this line of thinking could have been handled more interestingly by a female director. Instead, director and co-writer Jeff Wadlow often filters the female-friendship material through romantic or sexual rivalries, and the movie is too busy with gossipy, salacious, and weirdly obvious twists to dig into its own psychology. Truth or Dare has more to say to its imagined audience than Rampage — and its cynicism about its largely ill-tempered characters is thematic, rather than incidental. But both movies wind up too close to their roots: They're time-passers for girls and boys who don't yet feel comfortable around each other.