By Rick Warren / Gfn2112
With the Tomb Raider reboot recently releasing its trailer (and being met with mixed reactions), it’s clear that video game movie releases aren't stopping any time soon.
In this article, I'll be taking a deeper look at a majority of the video game movies that have released since the year 2000 (I seriously couldn't put myself through watching Super Mario Brothers). Which of these movies have failed and why did they do so? If any, which video game movies have done a commendable job so far? Will any of the currently announced movies truly be good? I'll only be giving my own opinions of the movies of the past and my thoughts on what's on the way, so if you have something of your own to add feel free to leave a comment.
The Past - What do you mean, source material?
The biggest crime committed by most video game movies so far has been their failure to appreciate what makes the games so beloved in the first place. Key story moments are ignored, video game worlds are toned down to be more realistic, and characters have far less personality than in their games. It's hard to tell if the inaccuracy has come from a lack of effort by the studios, a lack of time to develop the characters and world, or a belief that video games can't be sold to a general movie going audience (it may be a combination of the three). This issue seems to be increasingly noticeable the older the movies are... well, aside from one exception.
This exception wasn't just another one-and-done, loose video game adaptation. This six-movie series managed to carry out the inaccuracy all the way until last year. The Resident Evil movies were unique because of their uncompromising ignorance of the source material. Random characters were constantly shoved into the movies for no reason at all, and once I got over the giddy feeling of seeing a familiar face, I realized the inevitable disappointment that was going to come with their role. None of them did anything of note, with characters like Chris and Claire Redfield basically being useless. Considering how different the movie storyline and video game storyline were, cameos like this became forced fan service that distracted from what was going on. Instead of delivering an accurate story that a RE fan could enjoy, the filmmakers decided Resident Evil needed a random super-powered, cloned heroine named Alice. The fact that the main character was never present in the games, and had powers not present in the games, is where the issue truly shines. See, the biggest problem with the movies wasn't the cheesy dialogue (that matched the games well), it's the fact that these movies should not have been called Resident Evil at all. A few of the films were okay, standing as fun, ridiculous action movies that worked on their own. It's just clear that those involved with the projects had an extremely loose idea of what Resident Evil is. They threw the Umbrella logo around and shoved Albert Wesker into a cliché villainous role that constantly made him look stupid. Zombies were often left to the side in favor of the more monster-like creatures, and almost nothing from the games happened in the movies. Any of these things could have been replaced with original ideas, from the movie titles to the creatures Alice fought. These movies simply were not Resident Evil, and pretending to hurt them much more than it helped from a story standpoint. Yet despite all of that, they made money, which is all that seems to matter in the end. With every unnecessary, cash-grab sequel I became less interested, and I honestly still don't know why I watched them all.
The only video game movies out there that were even close to Resident Evil on this front were the Silent Hill Films. They too misinterpreted concepts (hard to tell if it was accidentally or intentionally) to make up their own, simpler version of Silent Hill, and it never quite worked. Iconic characters like Pyramid Head were used as fan service, even though they had no purpose in the story. Innocent people were forced to enter Silent Hill, which is the opposite of how it is supposed to work. The dialogue was unrealistic and simple. Overall, they weren't much more accurate to the games than Resident Evil, but at least they didn't go on for over a decade. Plus, a Sean Bean character lived through a movie... so that was cool, I guess.
Another quick example of the problem older video game movies shared was Doom, an adaptation that most people forget existed. Spoilers: it wasn't good. Like the others on this list, it failed to adapt the games in an accurate way. Even worse, though, it wasn't even slightly entertaining like the previously mentioned movies managed to be. The most I can remember is a first-person montage, and The Rock somehow getting infected and turning into a demon. It says a lot that this movie stands out as the worst, given its heavy competition for that title at the time.
Finally, I'd be hard-pressed to think of a better example than the original Tomb Raider movies when it comes to the flaws of the typical, early 2000 video game movie. Angelina Jolie may have looked the part, but I never connected with her as Lara Croft. It's hard to blame her, though, as she had so little to work with. The scripts were as weak as the direction, with the movies constantly cutting between locations without explanation. The stories were uninteresting, the action was uninspired and the supporting characters were entirely forgettable. Still, I can at least give these movies credit for being somewhat accurate to the older games. Sure, they failed in almost every area, but at least they tried to get the core Tomb Raider experience right. As weak as they were, these were the first modern video game movies that resembled the games in some way.
The Present - Flawed execution... and a glimpse at success?
The trend set by the original Tomb Raider films can easily be seen in 2016's Assassin's Creed movie. Clearly, the writers and director were trying to get the feeling of Assassin's Creed right... and they almost did. Almost. Out of any failed video game movie, this one had the most potential by far to be a good film. Instead, a terrific cast was wasted and the movie failed to make enough money to warrant the planned sequel. It's hard to pin down exactly what the largest contributing factor was, but there are certainly many to choose from.
The first of these issues was a general Assassin's Creed fatigue. AC: Unity had burned gamers, and they were generally tired of the series. In response, Ubisoft took a year off from the games, releasing the movie in the 2016 slot instead. For whatever reason, they felt the fatigue would not carry over into the movie's release. They were wrong; it did. The movie failed to be the blockbuster hit it was trying to be, having a disappointing run at the box office. The reviews certainly didn't help either. The most common complaint I saw was that people did not understand what was going on... and I really don't blame them. There are moments and plot points only those who played the games would understand, as very little is explained in the movie. Worse, though, were some of the creative decisions.
The choice to go for a PG-13 rating failed to bring in a large audience, and it even hurt the film's action. Scenes that could have been cool were often cut up to avoid showing anything too violent, something that makes absolutely no sense in an M-rated video game series built around killing. Further, the filmmakers fell into the same trap the games did of focusing too much on the modern-day story line... only on a much greater level. A majority of the movie took place in modern day, and these moments struggled to be interesting. Aside from a clever interpretation of the bleeding effect (which I preferred over the one in the games), the scenes set in the present were mostly just filler. Instead of using this time to explain the things that a general audience would not know, the director chose to throw in some scenes with Jeromy Irons’ villain that added nothing. It was a shame to see such a great actor used in a role filled with boring writing and little to do. Even worse than the uninspired villain, though, was that the moments set in the past were enjoyable. Even with some muddled action, these scenes were so much better. The set and costume design were terrific, and the handful of brief scenes set in this time gave the movie some life. Shocker there, right? Like the games, the movie worked best when it focused on what its audience cared about: The Assassins. Even as an Assassin's Creed fan, the movie was simply mediocre. There were moments of fan service that I appreciated, but with most of the present-day story falling flat (and most of the movie being set in that time), I could not recommend this movie to anyone besides the most dedicated Assassin's Creed fans.
Next up, another 2016 disappointment: Ratchet and Clank. I watched this movie for the first time recently, and sadly I felt similarly to how I did about Assassin's Creed once I had finished. There were some enjoyable moments in there (including a great bit of fanservice at the end and some clever easter eggs), but overall it was nothing more than okay. The movie never did anything truly unique, and most of the jokes didn't land. It was clearly aimed at kids though, so maybe it's unfair to me to judge too harshly on that front. Instead, my main issue was that the movie didn't feel like it had heart. The voice cast was all there, and they did a fine job. The same story was there (again). The animation was as great as it was in the games. Yet... something was still missing. Without the amazing gameplay and gorgeous planets, much of the Ratchet and Clank charm is lost. While the games have always been my favorites out of the PlayStation 2 Platformers, it's no secret that they were weaker than Jak and Sly on the story side of things. Aside from the Future games, Ratchet and Clank has never been a series that relies on a strong story. Simply put, Ratchet and Clank were the wrong group of PlayStation mascots to adapt for an animated film. The adventures of the lovable duo will always belong in the games, where the story can remain in the background and fun gameplay can take control.
Despite these two disappointing movies, last year we were given the first video game film that was good. Not "okay" like a few of the Resident Evil movies or "watchable if you're a fan" like Assassin's Creed, but something that was truly enjoyable. I'm talking, of course, about Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV. The prequel to last year's tremendous Final Fantasy XV, Kingsglaive succeeded in every way that it was trying to. It established the world and characters perfectly, while also telling an essential story of its own. Kingsglaive is essential to appreciating Final Fantasy XV, and having an interest in XV is essential to appreciating Kingsglaive. This connectedness to the game is, sadly, what kept it from being a critical success. For fans, though, this was a strength. The movie was not a barebones tie-in that was filled with filler; it was something worth watching. The great voice acting was only outdone by the stellar animation, and the movie was filled with awesome action from beginning to end. While many continue asking when the first good video game movie will release, they're failing to realize that it already did. Kingsglaive was it, and any video game movie going forward (both animated and live action) should look to it for inspiration.
The Future - Light at the end of the tunnel?
I suppose it's time to dissect the thing that inspired this article: the 2018 Tomb Raider movie (or, more specifically, the trailer). When the trailer dropped, opinions were extremely mixed among critics and fans alike. Me? I was, and am, right in the middle on it.
I thoroughly enjoyed 2014's Tomb Raider reboot, even more so than the originals. I preferred the gritty realism, and I loved that Lara got some legitimate character development. When I heard the movie would be heavily inspired by this game, I was pleasantly surprised. However, the trailer took some of that pleasure away. Yes, it was great seeing the boat scene and the bow from the game. Alicia Vikander also looks terrific as Lara Croft. She very much resembles the young Lara from the reboot, which was great to see. That said, I have some legitimate worries about the movie. First, the action. Some of the big moments shown in the trailer looked cheap and outdated, but I'll give them a pass for now as much of the CGI work is done closer to release. Another problem is the marketing. The music and moments shown in the trailer make it seem like a generic action movie. While some people may be fine with that, I hate this idea. The best part of the Tomb Raider reboot was seeing Lara struggle with what she was going through. I'd hate if the filmmakers cut out the scene where she must come to terms with her first kill so that they can squeeze in more action. There's no need for another action hero who murders everyone right away without any guilt. There's a good chance that they'll reduce a great actress to a bunch of one-liners as opposed to letting her act. If this movie wants to get my attention and possibly get me in a theater, they need to show more of the character-building scenes in the next trailer.
Tomb Raider isn't the only treasure-hunting video game series getting a movie adaptation, though. After years in development hell, the Uncharted movie is finally moving forward. If you were to ask me which game would best be suited for a movie, I would quickly say Uncharted. With the heavy inspiration taken from Indiana Jones, Uncharted is filled with great characters, action and humor. Further, Nathan Drake can easily be the Indy for a new generation, and a new series of video game movies may be born. That is, if the first movie is good and sadly, that doesn't seem likely. I do approve of the idea to focus on a younger Nathan Drake, as it opens the movie up to tell a different story and leaves room for more in the future. I also really approve of the casting choice, as I can easily see Tom Holland becoming a great Nathan Drake. It's everything else that I'm worried about. The movie got off on the wrong foot with the scriptwriter talking about how he made an R-rated movie because "that's how it should be written". That's outright wrong. The Uncharted games have always been rated T, with the comedy and violence walking a line between being aimed at teenagers or adults. After a decade with the series, it would feel wrong hearing Nate or Sully say anything more than "shit" or "crap". Creating a script like this not only limits the potential audience, but it's simply not accurate to the games. More than just unnecessary violence or language though, the worst part about this script is that nobody at Naughty Dog has seen it. This is unbelievably offensive to the studio that built the series, and they should have a role in the development of the movie. At the very least, they could offer advice on how to make it work. Hearing about this inconsiderate move on Sony's part immediately raised a red flag for me, and it's stayed up ever since. I hope I'm wrong, but right now I can easily see this movie being another failure that doesn't live up to the games.
The other Naughty Dog game that was set to get an adaptation was The Last of Us... my favorite game of all time. I say was, because nothing has been said on the project for a few years. Honestly, I hope it stays that way. I legitimately detest the idea of this movie happening. Even with Neil Druckmann involved, I have never had confidence in this project. Maybe he didn't, either, and that's why it stop being discussed. To put it bluntly, The Last of Us cannot be adapted into a two-hour film. It's outrageous to cut thirteen hours from a story, especially one as celebrated as this game's. Doing so immediately destroys the character development and buildup of the game's story. Everything will feel cramped and rushed. Brilliant scenes will be removed. The movie would be an empty shell of what the game was. If the entire point was to bring the great story of The Last of Us to a larger audience, cutting a majority of that story defeats the purpose. Still, there is a way to do it right: cancel the movie, and instead work with HBO on a series.
The concept of a series makes far more sense than a two-hour movie, and Game of Thrones is a perfect example of how to make this adaptation work. George R.R. Martin had a role in picking who would direct the show, and he has had a say in the show as it has progressed. Neil Druckmann can and should do the same if an HBO series for TLoU were to be made. Not only does it give room to tell the entire story of The Last of Us, but it gives room to expand on it. The writers can make each season of the show cover an actual Season from the game. Make Summer longer, showing Joel and Tess working together more. Make Winter longer, showing more of Ellie's struggle without Joel and weaving in Left Behind. With HBO's support, the show's budget would not be an issue either, as the destroyed world could look realistic and the clickers could be as terrifying as they are in the game. For me, this is the only way to make The Last of Us work in live action. HBO would provide the budget, time, and freedom that this story deserves.
While many games would be better off as a series than a movie, there is one video game film that I'm anticipating: Metal Gear Solid. Unbelievably, this has little to do with my love for the series. Rather, it's entirely thanks to the movie's director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts. In an interview with Gamespot, he announced that he was redoing the script to make it more Kojima-like. Further, he shared his own love for the series, saying that he grew up with the games and would rather make a Metal Gear Solid movie than a Star Wars film. He listed all the iconic characters and showed he had a true understanding of what MGS is about. In the end, Vogt-Roberts is a fan who is going out of his way to make the movie as close to the games as possible. With many studios forcing these video game movies out without care, this was so refreshing to read. Look at some of what he said below; I couldn't agree more:
There's a billion ways to do this wrong, and that's why I've been so passionate and adamant about it--because it's something that I probably know better than just about anything on the planet. And it would be very easy for someone in Hollywood to screw this up. Metal Gear is so tonally complex, it would be so easy for a studio to make it generic, make it G.I. Joe, make it whatever. It's like, 'No, no, no. If you're going to do this, you have to double down and 100% not be afraid of what Metal Gear is.' You have to fully commit to it, and that's what's going to make people fall in love with it. I think it's just about really, truly understanding what these games made all of us feel, and then figuring out how we preserve that, and how we build a movie around that.
With Jordan Vogt-Roberts behind this movie, I'm fully confident that it will be the first great video game adaptation. Putting someone who has played all the games and knows what they're doing behind the project is a major key to success. The idea that he's willing to make "the most Kojima version of this... even if it means [they] make it for a little bit less money" is the most promising statement I've ever come across regarding a video game movie. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, and its name is Metal Gear Solid.
While I do think certain games would be far better as shows than movies, Metal Gear Solid's director has given me a bit of hope for the future. Video game movies have struggled for years, and his belief is one that I share. Video game movies are overdue for a renaissance, much like comic book films and their increase in quality/critical praise. The key to success is putting people who care about the games in charge, and giving them the freedom to tell the story the right way. Those who created the worlds and characters shouldn't be ignored like with Uncharted. Instead, they too should have a role in development. Until more studios understand this, they'll never be able to properly adapt video games to movies.