I think the only thing left for people who genuinely enjoy video games to do is start boycotting video game movies.
I mean it. If you love video games, tell video game movies to kiss it. It used to be an optimistic hope on all our parts that a film adaptation of a video game would legitimize our pasttime but it is clear that cinema and video games are two different worlds…or at least, the way Hollywood is trying to mesh these two different types of media. It is genuinely not working right now. One can easily tick off a list of cinematic adaptations of video games that have ranged anywhere from subpar to disastrous. The Super Mario Bros. Movie is inherently the alpha in this pack, being the most high-profile bomb among all contenders. For a time, it seemed like everyone was prepared to accept that the concept of video games as movies was a bust, but the greed of the Hollywood tycoons was not prepared to admit defeat.
There was some effort to regain the moment lost from seeing Dennis Hopper portraying King Koopa as a greasy business magnate against an Australian and a Colombian-American playing Italians. The problem was that each follow-up was even more removed from the original source material than its predecessor: Double Dragon, Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, and its sequel. After the explosion of these irradiated nightmares, it took some time for someone to want to dip his toes back in the treacherous waters of video game filmmaking, but then, why would anyone have thought to try? Sure, it seemed like there was hope on the horizon with the release of Lara Croft: Tomb Raider but it is hard not to turn a suspicious eye on that movie. Was the film successful on its own merits or was it merely exploiting Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft? Then we had the many Resident Evil films, built entirely on the premise that Milla Jovovich is worth ogling, as is Michelle Rodriguez (provided she fulfills her contractual obligation in every Hollywood movie to die). That was when Uwe Boll got into the business and we saw his handiwork: House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, BloodRayne, FarCry, and so on. On top of that, we had the weird ones. Oh, you know the weird ones – Doom, Postal, Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li – the ones few knew about and even fewer wanted to know about. Not until 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time did we even have a single appearance of something resembling competence in the attempts to hybridize the two media, and that was still pretty uninspired with a 36% on RottenTomatoes (and that was actually the best aggregate score for a video game movie for the next six years).
More recently, we have seen the rise of stuff that does not even translate well into the medium of movies. Ratchet and Clank can get a lot of flack, but at least it looked like a real movie. The fact that there is such a thing as The Angry Birds Movie, which is now the leading film in terms of critical success for a video game movie at 42% on RottenTomatoes, itself makes me angrier than any bird. How does one craft a plot around such a thing? What about crafting a plot around the upcoming Tetris movie? And please, enlighten me on how these things can happen while the movie Warcraft, steeped in a rich, atmospheric lore, can already be limping anemically at the box office?
At this point, you might even ask yourself, “Who wanted all of this? Who really wanted Wing Commander with Freddie Prinze, Jr.?” The simple, if incorrect, answer is: the fans. However, that is pretty questionable. Yes, the titles I have rattled off have largely been well-known games, but we hardly see developers canvassing their markets to see what would poll well and translate to the big screen best. Besides, the fans already know the settings inside and out, yet invariably every movie comes with an exposition dump to explain who these characters are and where they are. The shotgun blast approach to exposition is meaningless when it is unnecessary, suggesting that there must be a different target audience in mind. Well, is it the children? After all, what adult thinks, “I need to go see The Angry Birds Movie today!” without either irony or a severe need to visit a psychological expert? Sure, kids love the movies. I know the young girl sitting near me during my viewing of Ratchet & Clank was all into it, given how she was talking back to the characters. However, are kids the target audience of Hitman: Agent 47? That big “R” rating in America says otherwise. So sure, there may be some films with the kiddies in mind, but as the generation that first really grew up in a market for video game consumption (i.e. kids of the 80s) gets older, video games and the movies that attempt to emulate them are skewing toward more adult themes. Thus, we have something like The Division now slated to get a movie, because we could not get enough of Jake Gyllenhaal as our hero in everything. Look for him also to be Nathan Drake in the upcoming Uncharted movie and to be digitally superimposed over Michael Fassbender when Assassin’s Creed enters theaters later this year.
Very well, so who is really meant to be seeing these movies? My guess is anyone and no one. That is not wholly glib. If the fans already know the setting, it cannot be for aficionados of the games. Thus, the movies must be for people who do not know the franchise already. That means anybody off the street with an interest in seeing a movie. The question is: how can that be a profitable plan if the only ones who want to see the movies are the fans? Well, it also does not matter if the fans see it, does it? Despite myself, I am intrigued by the fact that there is a Sonic the Hedgehog movie in the works (though every nerve in my body tells me I am eager to look into a great abyss and see it stare back at me). The fans are the ones who will eat this up and hopefully drag along their friends to see it too, or so logic would dictate. However, movies that strictly adapt the source material beat for beat are not blowing the players’ minds, so why would the movies be designed around that? On the other hand, radical deviation from the source material only serves to annoy the players/audience, who then hulk out and smash the theater in a fit of nerd rage. Perhaps that is why Nolan North, the voice actor for Nathan Drake, said the fans do not want an Uncharted movie. That only serves to make the whole business more inscrutable, since the fans are the ones most likely to see the video game movie, but the video game movie is not tailored to the fans. How could this work? Why do studios keep trying in the face of unrelenting failures before?
In short, why do video games even become movies? The best I can say is that a movie is the most digestible form of media there is. It is a non-interactive medium that moves at its own pace and is self-contained. Books take effort and television shows rely on audiences returning, but once the movie ticket has been sold, that is another few dollars recouped to the movie’s budget. Movies are so mainstream that they lend legitimacy to the still-seemingly niche medium of video games, even though we all know that gaming has become so mainstream that it should not need to be shouldered into another form to garner social acceptance. That is where the rub of the Hollywood glitz and glam lies: because video games are apt to tell stories well, the natural inclination is to think that they would be like movies. For a long time, that has been seen as an apex to be reached by developers: the cinematic video game. The problem is that a fan who sees a movie of a video game he/she has already played is gaining nothing from the movie experience. The fan already got to interact with this movie on his/her own terms. A non-interactive video game, as one might guess, sounds remarkably boring. Nevertheless, gamers continue to be tarred as The Other, a socially marginalized group associated with anti-social behaviors and general nerdiness. Nobody wants to be that, so we are socially conditioned to want the rest of society to accept us and the things we like. Movies help us do that, or so we would be led to believe, except gamers are also not the ones making the movies, which is rather much like getting orthodontic braces put on by a proctologist.
However, there are games that do lend themselves to movies. I would say that the Phoenix Wright live-action movie, for all of its incredible quirks, was a decent flick. Concessions had to be made to condense the story, but it told the events of the first game well, did not lose pace, had a theme other than explosions, and was fun (that thing that movies and video games used to be). I still think BioShock Infinite would have made a better movie than it did a video game. Infinite‘s gameplay was nothing to write home about and only served to be mindless distraction between the story bits, which were infinitely stronger.
Get it? Infinitely stronger? I got a million of ’em.
I would be remiss if I did not give love to NiGHTS, which I also like to think would be suited for adaptation, although I would be lying if I said a NiGHTS movie is necessary. It would probably be a cooler stage performance than a movie, although a NiGHTS movie could be fun. But then, I suppose that is the essence of the matter: there is never a need for a video game movie in the same way there is never a need for a book to be adapted to film. That is why I give props to the late Sir Terry Pratchett for resisting selling out to Hollywood – his books were already works of art and part of their magic was the imagination he used to write them and you needed to read them. Video games are their own works of art in just the same way. If the general public, nebulously defined as that is, does not understand video games, this is not the right way to educate the public on video games. Movies can do their own thing and video games can do their own thing. Anything more than that is superfluous. If everyone says, “The book was better,” why would the same not be true about video games?