I reposted this a year ago and it is time for an update following the release of Warcraft.
The commercial dream factory that is the cinema works (at least in the US) on a business model of flinging as much shit at the wall as possible in the hope some will stick. Developing original films is both costly and risky as audiences and marketing departments find existing IP easier to digest. For this reason film studios have a voracious appetite for source material with [ugh] ‘brand recognition’. Thus, the constant stream of comic and TV adaptations remakes and reboots. It has been ever thus, it is only the sheer volume of material now produced that has changed.
Comic book movies have had great success over the last decade, to the extent that they have become a dominant format for mega-budget entertainment. Even such unpromising material as fairground rides and toy lines have resulted in boffo box office success (the Pirates of the Caribbean and Transformers franchises). Some of these movies have even been good (The Lego Movie).
But there are only so many comic properties and genre films to remake and the superhero format while showing no signs of waning have turned to auto-cannibalisation, with reboots of reboots.
With the headline stories generated by the success of blockbuster games franchises like Halo, Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto, it is natural that Hollywood has long been churning out films based on video-games (such an archaic term, as appropriate as ‘comics’ is to the best of the medium). Contenders coming soon include Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed starring and produced by Michael Fassbender, and a movie based on the Gran Turismo motor-racing Sim franchise (details are sketchy, but it seems that the Gran Turismo film will feature a very suspenseful 20 minute sequence of dicking around with gear ratios), and even a reboot with Rupert Friend replacing Timothy Olyphant as the title character of Hitman: Agent 47. Perhaps one day, we will get the rumoured Pong movie once marked as a Jack Nicholson vehicle (or was that Pac-man?).
Since the disastrous release of Super Mario Brothers in 1993 video-game to film adaptations has increased from a trickle to a steady stream. Unfortunately for us, given the quality of these films, it is not a stream of gold but of slurry. Somehow the video-game adaptation has never managed to produce either a significant breakout hit (moderate successes sure) nor anything to remotely qualify as an artistic triumph. Why is this?
Games fans cannot afford to be smug. There are worrying signs that the narrative heavy single-player games so beloved of the hardcore are in crisis. Last year the industry was rocked by the announcement that Irrational Games were laying off the majority of its staff and re configuring as a more streamlined team with a new focus on smaller games. The news came seemingly out of the blue and despite the company’s huge success with the ambitious and heavily story driven Bioshock and sequel Bioshock Infinite.
The reasons for the failure of most computer game adaptations are almost always one of translation. Either filmmakers fail to grasp that game narrative and film narrative work in different ways, or they take a game genre and mash it into an incompatible film genre (survival horror is often re configured into action, a 180 degree switcheroo). Be too loose in an adaptation and you can lose what made a game notable, be too reverent and the audience feels like they are watching a game-play demo.
Let’s pick over the carcasses of game adaptations to date and indulge is some idle speculation about the games that might be ripe to make the leap to the silver screen.
Close but no Dark Iron Smoking Pipe
Best video game to movie adaptation ever!!!
Unfortunately that isn’t saying much and ‘best’ doesn’t mean ‘good’. I certainly didn’t hate the film, director and co-writer Duncan Jones has got his $160m up on screen with an impressive visual recreation of Blizzard’s cartoony and colourful fantasy MMORPG World of Warcraft. But, in his noble efforts to make the Orcs interesting and not just sub-human bad guys, Jones’ completely neglects the humans resulting in bland characters that might as well be played by the cardboard standees in the multiplex foyer.
This isn’t helped by the underpowered cast of mostly TV actors: Vikings Travis Fimmel gets pulled into exposition when major action scenes happen and he’s supposed to be the hero; rising star Ruth Negga has nothing to do; and why Dominic Cooper continues to be cast by anyone remains a mystery to me; even the usually great Ben Foster struggles as a drab spell flinger/Obi Wan analogue.
On the Orc side it’s much better, especially Toby Kebbel’s mo-capped and conflicted Durotan, a Horde clan leader who worries both about the survival of his species and their corruption. Durotan should be the movie’s real protagonist. But just when it’s getting interesting back we go to the boring humans.
This is essentially a movie like those my generation loved as kids, Krull, Hawk the Slayer, The Dark Crystal. I enjoyed it despite the frustrations and I’d like to see Duncan Jones make an epic sequel that fixes the issues. Sadly unless the box office in China is stratospheric (which is possible given the popularity of WoW there) I feel that will never happen.
The Resident Evil franchise
The first is barely tolerable, it has some awful CGI but a couple of cool deaths, but the sequels are all shocking, shallow and largely incomprehensible vehicles for the dubious talents of Milla Jovovich. To be fair the series got off to on a bad footing with horror movie fans when Capcom initially hired George A. Romero to write a screenplay and direct. For whatever reason, they decided to go in a Paul WS Anderson shaped direction instead. Whether George of the Dead could have produced a less turgid adaptation is a moot point given the less than stellar quality of his recent output, but fans love to think of what might have been.
More of an issue is that Resident Evil is, or at least was in the case of the early games, brilliant examples of Survival Horror, a game genre of Japanese origin that values creeping dread over mass carnage. Until Resident Evil 4 significantly moved the genre in a more action heavy direction (not a bad thing, that game is a masterpiece) typical survival horror games made the player tiptoe into dark places at a snail’s pace fretting about what horrors lay around the corner. The player was also brutally punished by a strictly limited supply of weapons and health packs.
In Anderson’s perpetually gee-whiz style of action movie-making this goes out the window and is replaced with slow motion shots of a minimally-clad Jovovich pirouetting through the air firing twin pistols at CGI zombies. To be fair, Anderson does successfully crib the games’ stilted B movie dialogue and incomprehensible conspiracy plot.
Need For Speed
This is a film in which a lot clunks but very little clicks.
The plot is absolutely preposterous, its futile to pick holes in such obviously fantastical junk, but the non-existent plots of the video game franchise upon which the film is based – basically get from point A to point B really fast, don’t crash, and evade the cops – are actually more nuanced than this drivel. The characters are all assholes. The ostensible villain is only made more obnoxious than the ostensible hero by the excessive amount of product in his hair.
This would be forgivable if the film was any fun, but it isn’t. At all.
Despite some admirably practical looking stunts, the filming is leaden and unexciting. The driving game is among the most functional of game genres narrative wise. This should give the opportunity for a filmmaker to go wild and come up with something decent, but this movie makes Fast 5 look like The French Connection in terms of depth. Remember when Justin Bieber was arrested after drag racing a rented Lambo in Miami and we all called him an asshole on twitter? That is basically the entire plot of Need for Speed.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
I honestly can’t think of a good reason why these films had to be so crap. Tomb Raider’s plucky, animal slaughtering girl-power heroine Lara Croft is a female cross between Indiana Jones and The Terminator. Star Angelina Jolie could handle both a cut glass accent and twin automatics and looked the part. The budgets were decent. So what happened?
Another case of blame it on the script, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider and its sequel were leaden and childish and despite the occasional decent sequence (the Hong Kong sky glide in the sequel is worthy of Bond) come across like 80s action television burdened with too much money.
Clear evidence that games designers don’t understand movies any more than filmmakers games. Rock star (not Rock Star) game designer Chris Roberts helmed this adaptation of his graphically impressive but never as good as X-wing space combat games. It is laughably terrible, and stars Freddie Prinze Jr. and the perpetually gurning Matthew Lillard.
Anything from Uwe Boll
House of the Dead, Far Cry, Postal, In the Name of the King 1, 2 and god help us 3, Bloodrayne 1, 2 and 3 and worst of all Alone in the Dark. Boll is a shit movie dynamo. Often featuring surprisingly decent budgets (thanks to shady German tax shelter loopholes), occasionally slumming it stars, and always zero film making talent, Boll’s putrid oeuvre dragged the reputation of the game adaptation through the gutter, out of the gutter, into a toilet pan and flushed it into the sewer.
A complete disaster, Doom stripped out everything that ID’s paradigm shifting game notable. The creepy satanic symbolism? Gone. The menagerie of demons? Gone. Any sense of humour? Gone. It did however make a big deal about including a five minute first person sequence, which was smart as it made you feel nauseous and did nothing at all to dispel the notion that watching someone else play an FPS is really fucking boring.
The slipstream hits
Here’s the odd thing. It is an accepted truism that there are no good video-game film adaptations, and I’m not going to argue with that. However, that is not the same thing as saying there are no good game films. I’m an old fart who played games on a Sinclair Spectrum. There are now several generations of filmmakers that have grown up with gaming and understand the grammar of games.
Here are some of the best films (and a TV series) that while not directly adapted from games are clearly massively influenced by them.
The Wachowskis are creative magpies, stealing bits from anime, manga, kung-fu movies, comics, post modern critical theorists, and yes, games. The Matrix is a synthesis of all the above, but in its still startling fight scenes it captures much of the style of beat-em-up, and cribs from Japanese games and anime/manga (a two way street really).
Ok its TV, but Simon Pegg, Jessica Hynes and Edgar Wright’s generation defining sitcom managed the difficult feat of being simultaneously nerdy and cool. Pop culture references abounded, including video games. My favourite moment featured Pegg’s character Tim obsessively drowning Lara Croft over and over again (in the game obviously) whilst snarling ‘sometimes I just like WATCHING HER DIE.’ A sentiment anyone who remembers just how unforgiving the original game was will understand.
Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
Edgar Wright again, with what is to my mind the very best example of a video-game movie that is actually an adaptation of a graphic novel. Scott Pilgrim daringly throws out the screenwriting manual mandated three act structure replacing it with a multi level structure based on a succession of boss battles clearly modelled on classic 16-bit era console games. A flop on release, Scott Pilgrim may be Wright’s best film to date, a day-glo distillation of everything that is fun about games into a different medium. If there is any filmmaker likely to make a genuinely great video-game adaptation, the wildly inventive and visually daring Wright is that man.
So to date, the history of the video-game movie is not one written in glory. Here is a short list of games I think have the genuine potential of making good movies.
NFS and Gran Tourismo suggest that an approach is to adapt games with no essential narrative whatsoever. Clearly this is done for nothing more than brand recognition, but if I were to take this route I would select obscure ZX Spectrum game 3D Deathchase, a game whose entire premise consisted of riding a motorcycle through a forest really fast chasing two other motorcycles until you died.
I’d hire Joseph Kahn to direct.
Terry Gilliam’s Manic Miner.
That is it.
That is my entire pitch.
Now why won’t you give me $150 million dollars (for god sakes, you made bloody Jupiter Ascending)?
Metal Gear Solid
Hideo Kojima’s labyrinthine and uber complex cyberpunk stealth combat conspiracy franchise is so mind bendingly convoluted only Christopher Nolan could make it, or possibly Shane Carruth.
Valve’s two and a bit Half Life games are landmarks in first person shooters, blending compelling physics based action with a decent dystopian sci-fi story and an unconventional hero in nerdy bearded scientist Dr. Gordon Freeman.
Freeman never speaks, but Edward Norton would fill his shoes nicely.
David Cronenberg directs.
Grand Theft Auto
The epic open world toy box that is GTA is already heavily indebted to movies, GTA V’s gripping crime saga storyline would translate best to film, with Billy Bob Thornton playing psychotic anti-hero Trevor Phillips, Bruce Willis aging bank robber gone straight Michael De Santa and Michael B. Jordan as ghetto boy Franklin Clinton (hopefully with a quality rewrite to make that character interesting).
Michael Mann directs.
The Last of Us
The Last of Us is arguably the single finest story based game of the last console generation, and a film adaptation is proceeding. The risk here is that the video game’s narrative is so good, and its characters so multi dimensional and interesting that a film adaptation has a significant task ahead of it in trying to be a unique piece of ‘entertainment’. I say entertainment in quotes because The Last of Us is as bleak a vision of a post apocalyptic future as Cormack McCarthy’s The Road.
This blog originally appeared on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk