We All Know Video Game Movies Usually Suck, But That Might Be Changing
The legend goes that Bob Hoskins didn’t know Super Mario Bros was based on a videogame when he took the role of Mario. With a budget of $48 million, the lure of a large pay cheque was Hoskin’s biggest incentive to sign on. Hollywood’s first attempt at turning a popular video game into a film was a disaster – behind-the-scenes, critically and at the box office – and a prophecy.
Mainstream film studios are built on hope, an idea that whatever’s popular will become profitable as a movie, but for over three decades they’ve been throwing cash at turning video games into films with a lacklustre level of quality. The track record of video game films ain’t great but it’s mostly due to producers, writers and directors misunderstanding the allure of games and the appeal of popular characters.
The idea that films based on video games are always ‘bad’ has become a running joke, an easy generalisation to make, but we’re at a point where a passing grade is a reason to celebrate, as was the case with Rampage.
Wow! Very cool RAMPAGE news! Not pointing to the scoreboard yet, but it seems we may have finally broken the dreaded video game curse. And remember, I starred in the stinker “Doom” so I have lived thy curse 🙏🏾 https://t.co/2FSb0wXavK
— Dwayne Johnson (@TheRock) April 13, 2018
The best video game films are often not based on games, but about them, and there is a handful of decent adaptions tiptoeing around the in the graveyard as well as signs things may be changing.
The film to kickstart the interest in video game films in the early 90s was The Wizard. There had been films about video games before like Tron, The Last Starfighter and Wargames, but this story focused on a boy (Fred Savage) and his brother (Luke Edwards) who run away from home to compete in the video game championship and it’s peppered with Nintendo products.
The producers paid Nintendo for the rights to use their consoles and games, including the infamous Powerglove, but the company had no creative control over the film. Luckily, it turned out okay for Nintendo because The Wizard was a like commercial hidden in a light-hearted road movie, but the company vowed never to be in the same situation again.
As detailed in Blake J. Harris’ book, Console Wars (an essential read), when film studios got word Nintendo was serious about turning Super Mario Brothers into a film they all wanted in:
“Competition for the film rights was intense, particularly at a time when four of the year’s highest-grossest films turned out to be action-adventure family movies (Home Alone, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Dick Tracy, and Kindergarten Cop). The suitors each made multimillion-dollar offers, but as Nintendo had learned with The Wizard, the money came with strings attached. And this time Nintendo cared less about the money and more about controlling those strings …”
Nintendo bypassed every major studio and decided to make Super Mario Bros independently, which left all the potential suitors craving a video game film of their own. The early 90s was also when the battle between Nintendo and Sega was beginning to heat up and consoles became more common in households instead of arcades. Home computers also became a mainstay and games like Myst, The Secret of Monkey Island and Doom ushered in a new wave of PC gaming. Film producers wanted in on the gaming boom.
Super Mario Bros is released in ‘93 and assuming it would be a hit (it wasn’t) studios began purchasing the rights to video games. For the remainder of the 90s, we were bombarded with Double Dragon, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and Wing Commander. The existence of these films was tied to the popularity of gaming and they were rushed into production without much thought as to how the story of each game would translate to the big screen.
Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat were the only ones to draw a crowd by each hitting $100 million at the worldwide box office, but collectively they got mauled by critics and audiences. From here onwards, the reputation of video game films began to glitch.
Pretending like the 90s didn’t exist, a blockbuster version of Tomb Raider went into production with a $100 million budget. The video game films of the previous decade may have been scattershot in quality, but their budgets never got near triple figures.
The release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was built around the rising star of Angelina Jolie, who was coming off a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award win for Girl, Interrupted. Jolie did what most actors do post-Oscar, she went mainstream, and while the film was a hit at the box office, again, the reaction was negative. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is a film that’s more in love with the idea of Jolie as Croft than capturing the adventurous spirit of the game.
Resident Evil came next, another hit, but it joined the ranks of video game movies with rotten reviews. The reaction wasn’t a deterrent to both films with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider getting a sequel in ‘03, and Resident Evil spawned five sequels with a total box office of $1.2 billion worldwide; the highest-grossing video game film series.
From a commercial point-of-view, video game films during this period were finding a mainstream audience despite their bad reputation. Then it got really bad.
From 2003 to 2010, there was an onslaught of video game films that justified their poor rep and flopped at the box office: House of the Dead, Doom, Alone in the Dark, BloodRayne, Silent Hill, DOA: Dead or Alive, Hitman, Max Payne and *gulp* Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. When people joke about video game films, this is the era they’re cackling about.
Lecturer in Media at Swinburne University, Dan Golding, says the track record of video game films is fascinating.
“..take something that’s successful and has a built-in audience, throw some cash at it, market it well, and you’ll get results.”
“The continued failure of these films both commercially and critically is one of the most magnificent things about Hollywood because it just completely short-circuits what has been prevailing logic for at least three decades now: take something that’s successful and has a built-in audience, throw some cash at it, market it well, and you’ll get results.”
The next decade bought with it new and old video games to adapt with a little success at the box office, but the same shoddy quality persisted in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, Need for Speed, Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed.
In the wake of more video game film duds, everyone had a favourite they liked to defend, and enough time had passed for cult followings to form around maligned adaptations. But the evidence argued in favour of the sad catch-all that, yes, most video game films did suck. What was getting lost in translation?
Bugs In The System
The common problem most video game films have is a misunderstanding of the concepts that make a game appealing in the first place.
Often, elements from games are forced into films because writers and directors think it’s the secret to a game’s success. For example, in Super Mario Bros, jumping boots are introduced as a tool Mario and Luigi use to mimic the platforming mechanics of the game; Doom has a first-person action sequence to replicate the shooter’s gameplay; and Street Fighter builds an insane plot around a huge roster of characters as an excuse for them to fight.
Senior Writer at Insomniac Games, Sam Maggs, says games a difficult to adapt cause of the different ways they approach a story.
“Storytelling in games is inherently different from storytelling in other mediums specifically because the person consuming the narrative is doing so actively instead of passively. A huge part of player enjoyment in games comes from embodying the protagonist, having direct control over their choices in dialogue, gameplay, or both. In movies, someone else is making those choices for you.”
There’s a sense of being a backseat driver while watching a video game film. Our relationship with games is different from adaptations of books and theatre because were giving up control and intimacy. Of course, this is fine if you’ve never played the game a film is based on, but often these adaptions stick too close to the source material; they become obsessed with trying to please fans and win over non-gamer audiences at the same time.
Finding the balance is tough according to Maggs.
Games have become a juggernaut in our culture, whether you play a game on your phone or on a console, so these concepts no longer exist in a vacuum.
“Sticking too closely to video game narratives can be tricky in films because game stories often exist in part to serve other masters (gameplay, combat, technical constraints) Plus, story moments that are compelling in a game because of a previous 80-odd hours of investment in a character, or because it comes after a personally-challenging combat, are not as satisfying in the 45th minute of a film. But not sticking to that story is risky too, because as fans we expect to see what we loved in a game recreated on a screen. So you can get stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Most video game films suffer from an identity crisis but to lump them all together as the worst is a huge generalisation because there have been highlights along the way and signs of change.
The Game Ain’t Over Yet
The bright spots in video game film history, to date, include Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil and Rampage. Yes, this is the hill I’m going to defend.
Mortal Kombat takes the story from the game of a fighting tournament that decides the fate of Earth and applies a kung-fu movie structure; Resident Evil is an action film with zombies, and Rampage has more in common with King Kong and Godzilla than its video game film cousins.
Golding argues there are different types of video game films to consider.
“The ‘straight’ videogame films that do it best are probably the Silent Hill series, which at least capture an interesting sense of place and set design. Then you have this other genre of ‘sort of’ videogame movies, like Wreck-It Ralph, The King of Kong, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.”
Tomb Raider still has plenty to give according to Maggs.
“The recent Alicia Vikander Tomb Raider film drew directly from the 2013 reboot of the game franchise, and she was really wonderful in the role. I’m looking forward to seeing where they take her character in sequels because in the games she just gets progressively more bad-ass.
Other films built around video games or gaming concepts to pop up recently include Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Ready Player One and The Edge of Tomorrow. Regardless of what you think of each film, they each use the language and concepts we associate with video games; respawns, multiple lives, avatars, game patterns and easter eggs. Games have become a juggernaut in our culture, whether you play a game on your phone or on a console, so these concepts no longer exist in a vacuum.
Video games are also being adapted elsewhere, Netflix has an animated Castlevania series as well as a live-action Witcher (a game based on fantasy novels) in production starring Henry Cavill as Geralt. There’s also a rumour of a TV series based on Zelda coming soon and a Minecraft film is set for release in 2022.
If you’re keen to look elsewhere, Maggs has a few recommendations.
“… games hold huge opportunities for other mediums. They have so much worldbuilding and character development already built in. Writers and artists who aren’t afraid to put their own stamp on those worlds and characters have done great things; Gail Simone’s run on Dark Horse’s Tomb Raider comic, Patrick Weekes’ Dragon Age novel, and IDW’s Baldur’s Gate comics are, I think, particularly great examples of this.”
There’s also a yellow beacon of hope: Detective Pikachu. The film, based on the game of the same name and the Pokémon franchise, is not the saviour of video game films we’ve been waiting for. Detective Pikachu has lots of charm and a wonderfully realised world, but Pokémon lore and a plot built around a corporate conspiracy leads to a video game film blowout. Still, it’s great in smaller buddy cop moments between Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) and his human companion (Justice Smith).
But the more video game films change the more they stay the same as evidenced by Sonic the Hedgehog, out later this year. Following the release of the first trailer, the film’s director, Jeff Fowler, took to social media to promise fans the design of Sonic was going to be changed after a negative reaction to the look (the least of the film’s problems based on that trailer).
Thank you for the support. And the criticism. The message is loud and clear… you aren't happy with the design & you want changes. It's going to happen. Everyone at Paramount & Sega are fully committed to making this character the BEST he can be… #sonicmovie #gottafixfast 🔧✌️
— Jeff Fowler (@fowltown) May 2, 2019
Again, a video game film is stuck between trying to appeal to the biggest audience possible while trying to keep fans happy. Here we go again.
Hollywood, insert more coins.