Yesterday saw the UK release of Duncan
Whilst Warcraft: The Beginning was an expensive production, helmed by a promising film director in Duncan Jones, the news won’t come as a surprise to everyone – Videogame movies have a tradition of critical failure. Should this latest setback be seen as the death knell for videogame adaptations?
Videogames are big business, with billions of gamers around the world. It is a target market that the film industry can’t ignore as it looks to utilize existing fanbases in every media to continue to churn out blockbuster movies. The first major video game to movie adaptation came in 1993, in the shape of Super Mario Bros. Based on the lead character from the then-biggest selling video game of all time, it was seen as an obvious first step.
The film, however, was slammed by critics, and grossed around $20m domestically, against a production budget of around $48m. The movie isn’t remembered fondly, and can be seen as a catastrophic start to the rise of video game movies. Super Mario Bros., though, was badly timed. the character was at the height of its popularity, but coming a couple of years before Toy Story, could not benefit from the Pixar-led revolution in animated movie making. instead, it was a live action film, which if made today could best be described as a ‘Dark Knight’-style gritty re-imagining of the source.
It was followed by adaptations of several two player fighting games. Double Dragon, Street Fighter, and Mortal Kombat were all adapted for the big screen. With mostly B-list casts, they met with mixed financial success, but were all critical flops. The performance of these movies made it clear that video game to movie adaptations were not a quick recipe for success. What were movie studios doing wrong?
All these properties were chosen for adaptation as they were all high-profile properties, the games that hit the headlines. They were not, though, narrative in nature. The games the movies were based on had very little storyline at all, and therefore very little potential for rich storytelling.
It wasn’t until 2001 that a video game movie would meet with mainstream success. Director Simon West’s Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, starring Angelina Jolie in the title role, did not fare any better than it’s predecessors in the critical stakes, but was popular enough to gross $274m worldwide, and prompt Jolie to come back for a sequel two years later. Tomb Raider seemed to be a good bet for a film adaptation. Though the game was still narratively shallow, with an Indiana Jones-style vibe, it had the potential to be made into something big and fun.
Tomb Raider, much like the Super Mario Bros. movie, was poorly timed. in 2001, video games were still relatively basic, limited by the amount of data their media could process. Whilst there were more complex games around, the most popular were still basic platform games, with the emphasis on playability rather than satisfying storytelling.
Then, in 2002, came a movie that would change the game, so to speak, both for the good and the bad. Paul W. S. Anderson’s Resident Evil adaptation, starring Milla Jovovich, spawned a financially successful series of movies that still continues on as we speak. The first installment grossed $100m worldwide, and that total increased with each entry, peaking with 2010’s Resident Evil: Afterlife, which nearly broke the $300m worldwide barrier.
The movies were proving popular with audiences, then, but were suffering from the same critical mauling as their peers. The Resident Evil games, though, had a strong story running through them. If the movies had been written with the same level of tension and restraint as the games they were based on, they may well have bucked the trend. The movie series, though, has been built more on over-the-top action sequences, and melodramatic acting.
It is this series, more than any other video game movie, that seemed to have poisoned the well of gaming adaptations. As a result of Resident Evil, films based on games were now synonymous with ironic laughter and guilty pleasure viewings. With the whole genre considered a bit of a joke by this time, what respected film director would risk their reputation by entering the fray?
The genre remained pretty stale as a result. For every Hitman, and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, movies that were at least an attempt at elevating the genre back to mainstream, there was a Postal, and BloodRayne. Gaming platforms were evolving, with games introducing far more narrative depth, but the biggest problem at this time was that popular video games were still taking inspiration from movies. Why would successful film makers want to make a Grand Theft Auto movie, when GTA was itself was a parody of Hollywood crime movies?
The future, however, does not look quite so grim. With the latest generation of gaming platforms has come the time and space to craft fulfilling stories. Photorealistic graphics and increasing budgets have meant that the ‘acting’ in games has been able to improve considerably, and this has helped to inspire developers to make far more narratively-driven games.
Warcraft: The Beginning sees computer generated orcs acting alongside human actors in a convincing way, and this improved movie making technology, alongside the more story-driven games, gives great hope to the genre.
Whilst we will still have to endure cash-in projects like the Angry Birds movie, and Ratchet and Clank, there are films with great potential on the horizon. With 2015’s Macbeth director Justin Kurzel at the helm, the upcoming Assassin’s Creed movie is looking promising. When acclaimed actors like Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard sign up for a project, you know the script must be pretty impressive. Whilst opinion is divided over whether the storylines to the Assassin’s Creed games are particularly good or not, they definitely have potential.
With films based on games like The Last of Us, Uncharted, and contemporary Tomb Raider games in development, and gifted film makers seemingly becoming more open to adapting them, there definitely looks to be a big shift coming.
Many of today’s video games, like Firewatch and Quantum Break, are movies in their own right, and as long as Hollywood execs look to these types of properties to adapt, rather than just looking to the biggest sellers, the future of the video game movie adaptation may just have picked up a new life.