If you’re sick of the wave of comic-book movies over the last few years, you’d better brace yourself: the video game movie is coming, and it’s coming for you. The end of last week saw the announcement that another attempt is being made to ramp up zombie game “Dead Island” as a movie: originally in the works with Lionsgate back in 2011, the project’s now set up at Occupant Entertainment, which is co-producing alongside the game’s creators, Deep Silver.
The film, aiming for production to start in 2015, joins a host of others in various stages of production that may threaten the dominance of the comic book movie. This turn of events could make the hearts of many sink: the history of the video game movie is a terrible one, full of commercial flops (the top-grossing video game film ever is “Prince of Persia” with a little over $300 million worldwide, but is still seen as a huge money loser), and worse reviews. Who needs another “Super Mario Bros,” “Street Fighter” or “Max Payne?” This is far from the first time that we’ve faced such an onslaught.
But an onslaught is coming: next year brings a sixth “Resident Evil” movie, sequel/reboot “Hitman: Agent 47” and the Michael Fassbender-starring adaptation of “Assassin’s Creed,” along with sci-fi comedy “Pixels,” which isn’t based on one specific property but instead collects a bevy of 80s lo-fi game classics in one film. Beyond that, 2016 has firm release dates for “Warcraft,” “Uncharted” and “Angry Birds,” with projects like “Splinter Cell,” “Metal Gear Solid” and “The Last Of Us” firming up, along with countless others still in development. And yet there might be reason for optimism. Or at least reason to think that not all of them will be shit…
For instance, following in the footsteps of Marvel Studios, video game companies are taking their destinies into their own hands. Deep Silver’s involvement is just one example of development studios and the like stepping up: Most notably, one of the largest game companies, Ubisoft, set up their own film division in 2011, developing movies like “Assassin’s Creed” and “Splinter Cell” themselves, shouldering development costs inhouse, before partnering with studios to bring them over the finish line: an approach very much influenced by Marvel’s early days.
And the creators of games have also learned not jump at the first paycheck. After a planned film version of "Bioshock" to be penned by “The Aviator” and “Skyfall” scribe John Logan and to be directed by Gore Verbinski fell apart, creator Ken Levine, told the press, “We don’t have any need to get a movie made. We’d like to have a movie made, but it would have to be the right one.” Similarly, Dan Houser, head of Rockstar Games, said in 2011 that his hugely successful “Grand Theft Auto” series wasn’t heading to the screen any time soon, saying, “If we were to make a movie, we would like to make it ourselves, or at least work in collaboration with the best talent, so at least if it is bad, we can know we failed on our own terms.”
It’s easy to understand their hesitation, given the genre’s track record. Although in fairness, game developers haven’t always provided the best material. We’ve argued this point before, but the first couple of decades of the video game saw the medium taking most of its cues from the movies. “Doom” didn’t work as a movie because ‘Doom’ riffed so heavily on “Aliens” to begin with. “Max Payne” brought the experience of a John Woo movie to your controller, but when translated back to the screen, it just felt like a bad version of a John Woo movie. Even recent console blockbusters like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ riff heavily on movies.
But games like “Bioshock” and “Assassin’s Creed” are marching more to the beat of their own drum. The former has influences —“Atlas Shrugged,” “Brazil”— but turns them around into a unique hybrid. And the latter melds historical action and science fiction in a way that hasn’t been achieved onscreen before. This means there’s value in bringing certain games to the movies: to a non-game playing audience, it’s fresh material based on sophisticated game storytelling (relatively sophisticated, anyway: games, even good ones, are still often frustratingly puerile in their find-the-object, kill-everything-in-the-room narrative mechanisms).
But the games are also attracting more serious talent. It’s easy to draw parallels between the first couple of decades of the video game movie and the way that comic book adaptations were stuck in the doldrums in the 1990s. Like the video game movie genre, the superhero film was treated as a way to make a quick buck: hire a cheap screenwriter, a competent director, make it for little money, and hope that enough fans recognize the brand name that the film turns a profit. And so game adaptations have so far been closer to “The Shadow,” “The Phantom,” “Steel” and “Batman & Robin” than to what we now understand the comic book movie to be.
At the end of the 1990s, something shifted with the superhero film. Whereas they were once being made by cheap, anything-for-a-gig genre helmers, major filmmakers started to tackle the material. And they took them seriously: either because they were life-long fans, like Sam Raimi with “Spider-Man,” or because they knew next to nothing about the source material but found their own hook into the essence of each book, as with Bryan Singer and “X-Men” or Christopher Nolan and the Batman films of the 2000s. These directors didn’t think of these things as comic book movies. They thought of them as just movies, and by the end of the 2000s, this turned the superhero into arguably the dominant force in worldwide pop culture.
And something similar could be about to happen with video game movies. The last generation of director geek gods, now in their 40s or 50s —J.J. Abrams, Joss Whedon, Guillermo Del Toro— grew up on comics and “Star Wars,” but the next generation is coming up, the ones in their late 20s and early 30s, for whom Link, Sonic and Cloud were just as important a part of their cultural upbringing as Spider-Man and Luke Skywalker were to the previous. And these are the guys who are starting to get the jobs in question.
When Josh Trank (still only 29) made it big with “Chronicle,” one of the first projects he started developing was an adaptation of cult game “Shadow Of The Colossus.” That’s unlikely to happen any time soon: Trank’s got “Fantastic Four” and then a “Star Wars” flick, but it certainly shows his intentions. Meanwhile, “Moon” and “Source Code” helmer Duncan Jones is a huge gamer, tweeting as much about real-time-strategy PC games as about movies, so it’s hard to imagine anyone better to be taking on Legendary’s “Warcraft” movie, which wrapped recently. And “Kings Of Summer” helmer Jordan Vogt-Roberts lives and breathes games, and just landed the director’s chair for the long-gestating “Metal Gear Solid” movie.
These aren’t guys who once played “Space Invaders” but lost interest: These are guys who know their source material like the back of their hand, who know the appeal and aren’t just interested in dressing up a standard action movie with settings and characters from a game. Even seemingly unlikely figures are starting to take these jobs: Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel has gone from Cannes-selected indie drama “The Snowtown Murders," to the upcoming awards-tipped Shakespeare adaptation “Macbeth," to prepping “Assassin’s Creed.”
But the directors aren’t just finding source material in these games. Indeed, games are actively influencing their filmmaking. "It feels like a video game" has been a long-held, and often justified, complaint about the era of the modern blockbuster, too often crammed with weightless CGI imagery with little relation to live-action. But smart filmmakers have found ways to integrate the rhythms, moves, feel and tone of games into their pictures while still ensuring they feel cinematic. It’s been going on for a while to one degree or another, but Edgar Wright’s “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” was one of the most obvious and conscious examples in recent memory: taking its leaf from Bryan Lee O’Malley’s source material, it namechecked energy bars, extra lives and save points, among other video game tropes, in a smart and poppy way.
Since then, it’s happened more and more often, and not just via overt references. Both of Neil Blomkamp’s films so far, “District 9” and “Elysium,” owe as much to the outlandish weaponry of sci-fi shooters as they do to Paul Verhoeven. Brad Pitt’s blank protagonist in “World War Z” recalled Gordon Freeman in “Half-Life,” a passive, endlessly relatable observer, and the game’s stage-by-stage progression through international set-pieces, including a sneak-em-up conclusion, was firmly from the video game playbook. The precision rocket-thrusts, and occasional first-person viewpoints of the Oscar-winning “Gravity” had console origins, while the final set-piece of “Thor: The Dark World” riffed on acclaimed game “Portal.”
And there’s been even more of it this year: the “Robocop” remake didn’t add much to the original, but one of the few things it did add were references to training levels and, again, some first-person-shooter stylings. The opening sequence of “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” owed as much to “Metal Gear Solid” as to anything from the comics, while “Snowpiercer” both appropriated some of the tone of “Bioshock” and was structured very much like a video game: the sense of forward progression, of discovery, even including occasional boss battles (what is Alison Pill’s schoolroom sequence if not that?). Some are more unlikely and subtle: the score of “Kings Of Summer” riffs on “The Legend Of Zelda,” and the naming of the child in Rian Johnson’s “Looper” — Cid — is an apparent reference to the “Final Fantasy” games.
And then there was this summer’s “Edge Of Tomorrow,” which could lay claim to being the first great video game movie, despite not being based on a video game. It’s been well documented elsewhere, but the movie’s imagery (exoskeletons, multiple weapons, different grades of alien of escalating size and ferocity) was certainly inspired by modern games. But the narrative arguably even more so: Cruise dies repeatedly, caused by the smallest of mistakes, and must learn the precise patterns of where to stand and what’s going to shoot at him, in order to survive.
There are bad movies above, but certainly the likes of ‘Scott Pilgrim’ ‘Edge Of Tomorrow’ and ‘Snowpiercer’ prove that, in the right hands, taking inspiration for video games doesn’t have to mean a lack of quality or a dilution of cinema. For better or worse, we’re living in a mash-up culture, where mediums crash into each other and influences from all over the shop are magpied into something new, and so we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this as time goes on.
And perhaps most crucially of all, as far as the studios are concerned, tapping video games is a way of keeping afloat. As much as comic book movies dominate the theatrical release schedules, sales of actual comic books are miniscule compared to their movie offspring (“Amazing Spider-Man 583” is the top-seller of the last decade, at a little over 500,000 copies). But the game industry is now a titan. It took “The Avengers” nineteen days to make a billion dollars, and “Avatar” about the same. It took “Grand Theft Auto V” three days to reach the same amount when it was released late last year.
Crucially, the studios are finding that teen boys, who were once their most reliable market, are no longer buying movie tickets in the same way that they used to: even something like “Guardians Of The Galaxy” drew a crowd that was predominantly over the age of 25. The kids of today have endless shiny things to draw their attention —social networks, YouTube, streaming TV, etc. But video games might be one of the biggest. By capturing not only teenage boys’ favorite characters and franchises but also the way they experience game narrative, Hollywood hopes that it’ll be able to win back a demographic it no longer knows how to cater to. And let’s not forget the Asian markets either: “World Of Warcraft” is absolutely huge out there, which means that Duncan Jones’ film adaptation will likely be a monster draw in the crucial Chinese market even if it tanks everywhere else.
All of this is not to say that the movies on the way will necessarily be good: Jones’ “Warcraft” and Justin Kurzel’s “Assassin’s Creed” is one thing, ‘Angry Birds” and an “Uncharted” movie that went from being directed by David O. Russell to being directed by the guy who did “Four Christmases,” quite another. But this juggernaut is coming, and it’s at least comforting to know that there are filmmakers out there who know what they’re doing, both with the form and with the content.