Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Are Video Game Movies Doomed To Fail? (VOR)


With Warcraft charging into cinemas this week, we decided to look back at the history of video game movies and assess why Hollywood has such a hard time translating them onto the big screen.

It’s become something of a punchline in recent times, but the cold, hard truth is indisputable; in over 20 years of trying, we’ve yet to see a truly great film adapted from a video game. For whatever reason, video games have always struggled to translate well to the silver screen, and even though the industry has poured millions of dollars into trying to crack the code, they’ve remained unsuccessful.

That’s not to say all video game movies are terrible; the two Tomb Raider films are enjoyable enough, but that’s more or less where the list ends. That’s it. 20 years and all we have to show for it are two mediocre action movies featuring a young pistol-wielding Angelina Jolie and her exceptional bust.

So far, the best ‘video game movies’ aren’t actually video game movies. They’re movies that lovingly borrow ideas and motifs from video games and seamlessly interweave them into the narrative in a way that compliments the story. Look no further than Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World or Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow. Both employ video game imagery and tropes without actually basing their story on any one single video game, and both were well received by audiences and critics alike.

The reason we see so many direct video game adaptations fail is that they’re often treated as cheap, disposable cash-grabs that only exist to make a quick buck. Look no further than Sony’s recent adaptation of Angry Birds or the upcoming Fruit Ninja movie (yes, that is a real thing that is actually happening). I mean, c’mon – what’s next? Temple Run? Candy Crush? Farmville? Shit, better not give them ideas…

More often than not, video games are just used as window dressing for basic genre films. The Resident Evil series has churned out five entries since 2000 (with another on the way) using the source material as a mere backdrop for a string of otherwise wholly generic action movies; 2014’s Need for Speed is essentially a cheap Fast and Furious knock-off that is shamelessly leaning on its established brand for recognition. We’ve now seen two separate Hitman movies crash and burn as they fatally misunderstand their source material by serving up just another noisy action film starring a kickass assassin.

Will Warcraft do enough to buck
the trend?
We’re on the brink of an influx of video game movies that will either make or break the genre; Duncan Jones’ Warcraft arrives this month whilst Assassin’s Creed swings into cinemas around Christmas. Will either of these direct adaptions buck the trend? Early word on Warcraft suggests not, but maybe that’s because the whole industry is doing it wrong. 

Imagine if Hollywood studios greenlit adaptations video games and actually took the time to understand their lore and backstories. Picture a world where adaptations of The Witcher, Dark Souls or The Elder Scrolls were produced with the same love and arduous craftsmanship as Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings saga. Their universes already draw heavily from J.R.R Tolkein’s fantasy epic – why not treat them with the same sincerity and gravitas as Jackson? The PR machine over at Legendary Pictures has made a big deal out of Jones’ pre-existing love for Warcraft, but when that passion doesn’t translate onto the screen and gets lost in a sea of ugly CGI (just speculating based on what we’ve seen in the trailers), is there any hope for anybody? 

Can you envisage a future where esteemed and beloved properties like Mass Effect and Dragon Age are afforded as much care as Star Wars or Game of Thrones? Where fantasy storytelling and rich world-building meets tangible filmmaking and practical effects? Wouldn’t that be fantastic?

Maybe we’re approaching this all wrong. Maybe we don’t need video game movies, period. After all, the best video games are already inherently cinematic; anyone who has played Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series have experienced this first-hand. The series is a perfect blend of likeable characters, smooth cinematic visuals, adventure storytelling and gripping gameplay that isn’t just as good as a film – it’s better! Why would we need to see Uncharted replicated on the big screen when we can just boot up Among Thieves for the sixteenth time? Is there any actor on Earth who could successfully capture Nathan Drake’s natural charm and swagger as well as Nolan North did across the five Uncharted games?

Things like Until Dawn or Alan Wake are essentially extended, interactive horror movies; Red Dead Redemption, Grand Theft Auto, Watch Dogs and Fallout are sprawling open-world adventure games that fall into clear-cut film genres if you strip away the playable elements (Western, gangster, neo-noir and post-apocalypse respectively). 

The greatest challenge facing studios is boiling sprawling open-world games like Red Dead Redemption and Fallout into
tight, concise two hour feature films.

Does this mean they would make good movies? Maybe, but remember this – part of the reason these games are so memorable is that we spend 40-50+ hours with these characters, living their lives and controlling their every interaction. Boiling that amount of character development and emotional investment down into a concise 120 minute feature film requires a lot of cuts, often at the detriment of the rich worlds and universes these games create.

A game doesn’t have to become a film to cement its legacy in our collective cultural zeitgeist; there’s a reason that Empire Magazine described The Last of Us as gaming’s ‘Citizen Kane’ moment. It’s peerless storytelling and character-driven narrative surpasses most movies in the last decade, let alone video games. 

Until the industry decides to reassess and actually dedicates itself to producing accurate, well-crafted films, video game adaptations are doomed to fail. Unless they stop fucking around with shit like a Tetris trilogy (seriously, how would that even work?!), audiences will continue to reject bastardized versions of their beloved properties and the term ‘video game movie’ will continue to exist as a disappointing footnote in our collective cinematic history. There are great stories out there waiting to be adapted; it’s just that somehow no one has got it right yet.
 
This article was originally published over at Hooked on Film, a Perth based website where you can find even more new release movie reviews, features, interviews and insight. Click here to check it out.

2 comments:

  1. Loved the article, but as you pointed out, the whole system is flawed.

    All the great games you mentioned (and some you didn't) are basically derived from pre-existing great movies. It's not like their stolen note-for-note, but it's clear that the designers and writers were inspired by Hollywood films.

    Maybe instead of adapting games into movies, maybe we should go the other way, and adapt more movies into games. Oh wait. They've done that too, haven't they? Nevermind.

    To be honest...if there is one game I would die to see turned into a movie? Bioshock. That would(/could) be amazing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks mate! I've never gotten around to playing Bioshock but I've heard great things. I'll add it to the neverending list ;)

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