After a few years that have seen studios deciding to focus on trying to make movies out of board games, it looks, from the last couple of days, as though video games are cycling back around as the hot source material. Monday saw Michael Fassbender announced as the star and producer of a film based on Ubisoft‘s hugely popular “Assassin’s Creed” franchise, while yesterday a movie based on the long-running “Deus Ex” series was set up at CBS Films, Sony‘s “God Of War” film got new writers, and Dreamworks‘ “Need For Speed“ got a firm 2014 release date.
All this on top of the announcement a month or so back that “Chronicle” director Josh Trank was developing a “Shadow Of The Colossus” film, based on the seminal Playstation 2 game of the same name, and with 3D game-derived horror sequels “Resident Evil: Retribution” and “Silent Hill: Revelation” gearing up for release in the fall, with both films set to unveil footage at Comic-Con. And there are even more projects in development, and all told, it seems games are officially hot again in the movie world.
It’s almost brave, given the track record of games-to-movies so far. They have been almost universally critically reviled, with the highest Rotten Tomatoes score to date (for what that’s worth) being for 2001’s flop CGI feature “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” with a less-than-rousing 43%. The biggest worldwide box office hit in the genre was “Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time,” with $335 million worldwide, and that’s a film generally deemed to have been a flop (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” is the biggest domestic grosser, with $131 million). Only the surprisingly resilient “Resident Evil” series has managed to sustain a successful franchise — thanks to a 3D boost, the fourth installment took nearly $300 million worldwide — but no film in the series has yet taken more than $60 million domestically.
And that’s just the top end — from “Super Mario Brothers” to “Max Payne,” there are plenty of movies based on games that died at the box office. So are all these new projects destined to be as badly received and financially disappointing as their predecessors? Can a video game adaptation ever be successful? More importantly, can one ever be good?.
Of course, the two questions probably have more in common than one thinks. While, like all bad movies, the likes of “Hitman” and “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” have their defenders, they weren’t just rejected by fans, but by audiences too — the sequel to the latter halved its gross for follow-up ‘The Cradle Of Life,’ suggesting that many of those who saw the first one really, really didn’t like it. Without a single film stepping apart from the herd to legitimize the genre, as Richard Donner‘s “Superman” or Tim Burton’s “Batman” did for comic books back in the day, people are justifiably wary of seeing these things.
From our point of view, there’s a couple of other major issues that limit video game adaptations from being much good. The first is the nature of the source material. From the emergence of the form in the late 1970s, games have taken serious inspiration from either sports or movies, and it’s the latter that has taken particular precedence as the technology has improved. Even the most acclaimed games are generally inspired by movies, rather than something independent — take Rockstar Studios, who’ve made billions of dollars from their open world games “Grand Theft Auto,” “Red Dead Redemption” and “L.A. Noire.” All three are immaculate, detailed games of real artistry, but they’re also derivative riffs on, and homages to, the crime movie, the Western, and the detective genre, respectively.
And even selling points, like the bullet-time gimmick of “Max Payne” for instance, might feel fresh in a game, but in that case, and many others, it was something inspired by a movie (“The Matrix“), and when taken back to the big screen, it felt like just another violent cop actioner. This is not to say that Hollywood is a beacon of originality themselves, but aside from the brand name, and perhaps a star they like, the filmgoing audience aren’t given any reason that they should go and see the film.
Which leads directly into problem number two. Gamers — the core, and hardly insubstantial (far bigger than comics fans, in fact) audience that studios hope to capture by translating their favorite properties — are used to interactive experiences, and film is an inherently passive medium. Involving and immersive at its best, sure, but still passive; you watch things happen to other people. Having guided the protagonist through ancient ruins or zombie-filled cities yourself, why would you want to watch someone else do it for you? It’s an inherently unsatisfying idea, and game-based movies haven’t yet done much to add to the experiences that the fanbases already have.
What’s more, cut-scenes are already an extensive part of modern games, with the upcoming “Resident Evil 6” featuring more than four hours of non-interactive moments. And while writing for games is still pretty weak, for the most part, filmmakers seem happy to sink to the levels of the games (or even lower, in some cases), rather than elevate the material.
All of which is not to say, necessarily, that a great film couldn’t be made from a video game. Good movies have been made from crappy novels and TV shows, from comic-books with decades of patchy storytelling, and even from a theme park ride (while sullied by the sequels, the first “Pirates of the Caribbean” remains in the upper tier of modern-era blockbusters). A literal translation of “The Godfather” or “The Bourne Identity” likely would have made for a poor film, but they, along with many others, were lucky to get filmmakers who picked up the material and ran with it, and that’s what video games haven’t yet had; at best, they get someone workmanlike like Mike Newell, at worst they get Paul W.S. Anderson. Of late, game movies have had more promising names like Josh Trank, Gore Verbinski and even David O. Russell (briefly, in the last case) attached, so things may be changing in that department. Hell, “Deadwood” writer David Milch was penning a “Heavy Rain” movie, which is more than a little intriguing.
But perhaps more importantly, they need to realize that a simple (and usually watered-down) translation of plot and characters isn’t going to work. Games as an artform (and sorry Roger Ebert, but we think the potential is there, even if the reality is disappointing 99% of the time) do two things well; embrace the interactivity to produce something you couldn’t do in any other medium (see “Portal” or “Braid“) or create detailed, immersive and (sometimes) original worlds.
It’s why we’re a little more optimistic about “Assassin’s Creed,” particularly now that the picky Fassbender is involved. An action-thriller with sci-fi elements set in the Crusades, in Borgia-era Venice, or in Colonial America? We haven’t seen that before at the movies, and that makes it feel immediately more promising to us. Similarly, another big-selling game series, “Bioshock,” and its upcoming spin-off “Bioshock Infinite,” has delivered an entirely unique retro sci-fi setting that could have looked extraordinary on screen (which, ultimately, proved too expensive for Gore Verbinski’s film to get the green light while preserving an R-rating). Pair this kind of backdrop with top-flight creative talent (Verbinski had Oscar-nominated “Hugo” writer John Logan working on “Bioshock,” and Fassbender is sure to pursue A-list writers and directors for his film), and you might have a chance at making something that you wouldn’t be ashamed of.
Of course, we say this not having played either game (or really, any game since high school) in more than passing detail. We’ve been intrigued by what we’ve seen, but we don’t know the worlds or characters to the extent that true fans do. And that’s why we also think it’s important to use the source material as inspiration, rather than as a Bible. Don’t tell the same story as the games, tell a new one within the same universe (for all their many, many flaws, this is likely the secret to the longevity of the “Resident Evil” franchise — past the first film, they’ve mostly diverged down their own path). That way, existing fans don’t feel like they’re retreading something they already devoted 20+ hours of their life to, and non-gamers get their own entry point. In a way, the in-development movie version of “Asteroids,” as ludicrous a proposition as that is, has a better chance of doing something new and interesting than a film of “God Of War,” which risks coming off as “Clash Of The Titans 3.” And by the same token, game fans need to be more open to changes — the uproar that greeted David O. Russell‘s plans for “Uncharted” — which surely would have been more interesting than yet another “Indiana Jones” retread — pretty much killed the film stone dead.
There are undoubtedly terrible movies made from video games still to come. But just as it was the generation that grew up on comic books that made the best comic book movies, filmmakers like 26-year-old Josh Trank are starting to arrive, who grew up with games as a key part of their cultural upbringing. And if someone as talented as Trank clearly is, thinks he can make a “Shadow of the Colossus” movie — one of the more artful games around that potentially promises something unique at the multiplex — than we’d be inclined to want to see him try. But what do you think? Are video game movies intrinsically doomed to failure? Or is there a glimmer of hope out there? Let us know your thoughts below.