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Why Hollywood Can’t Figure Out the Video Game Movie

on March 16, 2018, 12:00am

Whenever a conversation starts up about video game movies, there’s generally only one place it ever ends up: a laughing discussion about the most ridiculous offerings among them. We don’t generally talk about cinematic adaptations of video games in any sort of highbrow discussion, largely because they’ve historically been characterized by failures of varying shades. Sometimes you get a Hitman, a perfectly disposable B-movie with brand recognition. Sometimes you get the Mortal Kombats and Resident Evils, violent and trashy schlock with some camp appeal. If you’re really lucky, you get a Super Mario Bros., a logic-defying oddity that seems to have been assembled from the most loosely liberal interpretation of the source material possible.

In any case, you don’t tend to find a great number of these films that might be considered “good,” let alone “great.” Regardless of how you feel about Rotten Tomatoes numbers as an indicator of quality (this writer would argue that they shouldn’t really be used in this way at all), it’s hard to dispute that the general critical reception of game adaptations has been muted at best. No theatrically released US video game adaptation has ever cracked the “Fresh” threshold on the site; the current high-water mark, as of this writing, has been achieved by Paramount’s Tomb Raider reboot at 52%. It’s still a sharp jump up from the next best-regarded film, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, at just 36%. Yet an adaptation of the arcade smasher Rampage is on its way into theaters this spring, and another half-dozen high-profile properties have film interpretations in the works, from Uncharted to Detective Pikachu to Minecraft.

Some critics (including our own Clint Worthington) have already lauded Tomb Raider for its more stripped-down approach to the video game movie, and if it’s a movie that actually worries about its quality as a piece of film storytelling first and a multimedia brand representation second, it would certainly be among the first. One of the more glaring common errors among modern pop culture’s murderer’s row of games-turned-movies is the attempt to define the film adaptation as a longform enacted commercial for the source material. Instead of attempting to stylistically capture the game’s thrills, so many movies have stuck to the most cutscene-friendly action sequences possible for the sake of Maximum Awareness & Brand Synergy. So often you can see the PowerPoint assemblage of adaptations onscreen, the films burdened by the twin pressures of translating a story between media and satisfying the core fanbase that they ostensibly mean to draw in making it.

But fan service for the sake of trudging through familiar beats has no benefit for anybody involved. Sure, a handful of obsessive fans will always make apologies for any adaptation; this is one of those realities of game fandom that’s at once somewhat estimable and sometimes frustrating. But for many audiences, uninitiated to the game’s joys as they are, what often results is a CliffsNotes version of a story or experience that works far better with a controller in hand. There’s an inherent disconnect at work between games and film as media, just inasmuch as the storytelling functions differently because of the direct human involvement. Particularly in an era where “open world” is becoming more and more of an industry goal and standard, human connection with a game’s functional rhythms and long-form stories has become a substantial part of some of the best-regarded games of the HD period.

Then again, when considering the history of game-film adaptations to date, it’s not as though some of the crowning narrative achievements of game history have been the first properties tapped. Studios have frequently been gun shy about greenlighting projects built around over-ambitious games, for fear of not being able to recoup the substantial expenses involved (see: the deaths of Gore Verbinski’s Bioshock or Neill Blomkamp’s Halo). Yet it’s games like those that might stand the best chance of capturing a different audience’s imaginations while also keeping the die-hard fans satisfied. While there would understandably be trepidations about turning The Last of Us or Red Dead Redemption into a film, part of the art of adaptation is finding a way to turn an immersive long-form story into a comparably short-form one that still retains the original work’s emotional resonance.

When you’re adapting something with little to no emotional resonance, the point of making a film out of it gets even blurrier, but once again, Rampage. Or Mortal Kombat, or Street Fighter, or any of the other first-person shooters and fighting games and other relatively plot-free affairs that nevertheless control the majority share of the game adaptation pie chart. The Uncharted series is ridiculously enjoyable as a series of gun-and-box-puzzle games, but has a strong chance of coming off derivative as a movie. (The game series itself is an extended Indiana Jones homage, after all.) Once Minecraft comes to fruition, we’ll have transcended film adaptations of plotless games and moved into the realm of the anti-narrative, calling into question what happens when you make a film about a video game with an empty, completely interpretative purpose. Game adaptations have so often flopped with critics and audiences alike due to the clear strain made by all involved in turning a blank-slate diversion into a film that somebody could sit still and watch for 90 minutes or so.

By embracing the emerging artistry and weirdness of so many modern games, Hollywood could stand to spend some of its wheelbarrows full of cash on some really interesting projects. Imagine a nine-figure adaptation of Shadow of the Colossus that retained its ominous power or a Breath of the Wild able to capture some of that game’s free-roaming grandeur. HBO, if you’re looking for your next expensive Game of Thrones, there’s a game called Bioshock Infinite that has more plot in one game than some great works of literature and could actually improve as a series-length tale of time travel, American imperialism, and ragtime Beach Boys tunes. In the same way that horror and sci-fi have seen some of their generic highs in the hands of genuine visionaries, the games most worth turning into movies will require a different but sympathetically brilliant mind behind the camera. Every film genre has found its auteurs; why not the game adaptation?