Playing In Our World: Could This Be The Year Of Good Video Game Movies?
To provide a quick recap: video game movies suck. That is not even a general statement, as they have been continually bad, with very few approaching the semblance of what makes a good film. I can argue plenty about why 1995’s Mortal Kombat is the only one that comes close to being decent, but ever since 1993’s Super Mario Bros., we seen nothing but sub-par efforts. It is ridiculous to not have even accidentally seen a film that is better than campy fun or a guilty pleasure, but here we are. However, 2016 seems to be in the strange position of producing multiple video game adaptations that could actually be good.
Looking at a lot of the films that have been made over the years, I see two sides in regards to why things have mostly been so dour. On the one hand, the inherent need to produce a video game adaptation feels needless, as most of the films made reflect games that were inspired by other films (see Max Payne, among others). It becomes a weird cycle to see the game that paid homage to a film be warped back into an inferior version of both its cinematic and video game inspiration. Therefore it becomes no real surprise to see attempts become artistic failures.
The other side basically amounts to greed. While some filmmakers claim to have some sort of investment in the video games they are adapting, it seems to largely amount to a studio backing a film because they have the rights to adapt the game and need to do something with it. There ends up being varying degrees of passion in the production process sure, but a lack of heart in what the film should be representing, as far as tapping into what makes gamers love said property.
Okay, I realize there’s a third side to this as well (so now it’s a Triforce). There are those who know the games they are adapting inside and out, but it always seems to be a trade-off and it is usually at the expense of the screenplay. Silent Hill seems to be the key example many point to as getting the tone right, but the story and characters are awful and it does nothing to draw me in because of this. “Are you really going in, because of the story?” shout the ones simply wanting entertainment. Of course I do. Why should I settle for less?
Now this means justifying my praise for Mortal Kombat. That’s a film that balances everything just right. It is over-the-top, silly and broadly acted to say the least, but it feels like the only attempt to really capture the spirit of its inspiration, without trading off on anything else. The film is dated and obviously I am using my own personal tastes to justify why it deserves more praise than others, but the same argument can likely be made by anyone for very few films belonging to this sub-genre.
There’s a zombie elephant in the room and that is Resident Evil. This is a franchise that will be releasing its 6th film in January 2017 and I am aware it has its fans. You should also be aware that I find each one to be terrible. I give plenty of credit for it being one of the few film franchises to have successfully built a female action protagonist with Milla Jovovich, but none of these films have ever done anything that actually echoed the spirit of the games they were inspired by (arguable), let alone felt like inspired action-sci-fi flicks. More power to those who enjoy the antics of Alice and her zombie/Umbrella folk-killing friends, but this isn’t for me.
So now, after taking perhaps too long to get to why I am finally getting optimistic for video game movies again…okay maybe optimistic is a stretch, so let’s go with ‘more intrigued than normal’, it’s time to look into what is coming and why you may be able to get excited.
Ratchet And Clank (April 29th)
The pros are quite simple here. This upcoming animated film looks like the game it is based on. That is not much of a stretch, given the involvement of nearly everyone who works on the Ratchet & Clank games, but this film is coming to the big screen and it looks quite enjoyable. So much of the game series relies on both having fun playing it, along with really well-done cutscenes to deliver a story and funny vocal performances, it seems like it would be hard to screw this one up. With a balance that can bring in both kids and adults, along with a level of irreverence that calls to mind some of the more clever animated features of recent years, Ratchet & Clank does not need to be ‘Pixar in its prime’ good, but there is potential here for it to be more than decent.
The Angry Birds Movie (May 20th)
Admittedly, this is the weakest entry of the bunch, but kudos to Rovio Entertainment for getting their popular gaming app all the way to this point. With a solid cast of funny people (Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Bill Hader and more), the very flimsy premise of birds launching aerial attacks on pigs seems to be one that could play really well for the kids, with some inspired gags for adults as well. The summer release date seems imply there is some confidence here and the trailers have more laughs than expected. It doesn’t hurt that putting writers into a sandbox to deliver something fairly original has its potential as well.
Warcraft (June 10th)
The biggest summer film of the bunch is this $100 million investment in bringing the popular Blizzard Entertainment series to life. The cast may feature some strong character actors, but their lack of drawing power means it will be up to director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) to successfully make this work. Honestly, I am just hoping this ends up feeling a lot less generic than it seems. I want to find a way to praise this film for what looks like an even-handed portrayal of both the humans and orcs, so ideally the script has some clever tricks up its sleeves. There is even room for interesting social commentary, given the type of story that is being teased out so far. I may not play Warcraft, but I am a fan of Jones and would prefer he have a success on his hands.
Assassin’s Creed (December 21st)
Things get tricky here, as this almost seem too good to be true with Assassin’s Creed. Michael Fassbender is starring and producing this feature based on the hit Ubisoft series and it doesn’t hurt that he’s brought along a lot of good talent and a director (Macbeth’s Justin Kurtzel) who is great with visuals. Having Scott Frank among the screenwriters is not bad either. Fox is investing plenty of money here and if this film can properly take on both the period action aspects, along with the sci-fi element that serves as a framing device, this could very well be the most ambitious and successful attempt to properly bring a video game to the big screen. It may be the backing of Fassbender that has kept me from writing this off as a waste of time completely, but I’d far prefer this to work, rather than see another Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
There is an inverse to how the way things have played out over the years. While studios have searched for ways to make profits out of their video game adaptations with mixed results, there have been many films inspired by or structured like video games. Sometimes it is by necessity. The upcoming Hardcore Henry is a film shot entirely from a first person perspective, to make you feel like you are watching a video game shooter come to life on the big screen. The movie looks like utter chaos with a slim chance of working to me, but we’ll see.
Other times you get films that have video game sensibilities imbedded in their personality for better or worse. Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World and Wreck-It Ralph use this to their advantage, given what that films aim for. Other films that are generally forgettable action flicks, turn things into nonsensical amounts of time that give certain video games a bad name in the process. A handful of recent films (good and bad) such as these: Deadpool, London Has Fallen, 13 Hours, Gods of Egypt all feel like the results of filmmakers and production teams that have in some way found inspiration from holding onto a controller and engaging in virtual fun.
Regardless of how gaming has impacted Hollywood outside of actual adaptations, it feels like this could be the time for things to change. I say that knowing we still have films such as another Tomb Raider, Sly Cooper, Uncharted, The Last Of Us, Temple Run, Thief, another Mortal Kombat, Kane & Lynch, BioShock all in some stage of production and not exactly pining to see any of them become big movies. At the same time, perhaps these upcoming 2016 films all do turn out to be successes and my spirits are lifted.
I should be holding onto my thought of how needless this sub-genre really is, based on what I said about how strangely cyclical the nature of these types of movies are to begin with. However, much like the best open world games or what Telltale has been offering me in recent years, it seems like I can explore different paths and achieve new results. Hopefully those achievements unlock films that are more than just empty entertainment at best and cinematic monstrosities at their very worst.