Video game movies have traditionally been cheap, schlocky, poorly-written, poorly-acted messes that insult not only our intelligence as movie-goers, but the legacies of the often beloved gaming franchises they drag to the screen. Yet, they continue to get made, and few inexplicably make a profit.
This all began in the mid-1990s on the heels of the tremendous failure of Super Mario Bros in 1994 (that would be the one with Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, and Dennis Hopper all being desperate for a paycheck). Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat (both 1995) somehow turned B-grade special effects, poor scripts, and even worse directing into huge box office receipts. The unfortunate consequence of the latter film’s success was that it launched the career of the laughably incompetent Paul W.S. Anderson.
After a few critical and commercial disasters in the 90s, Anderson returned to video game adaptation in 2002 with Resident Evil. Unfortunately, he also returned to the formula that turned Mortal Kombat from one of the most-recognized pioneers in its genre in the video game world into a punchline featuring The Highlander and the hot teacher from the Adam Sandler flick Billy Madison. While not advocating slavish devotion to the source material for film adaptations (in spite of the constant grumbling of the Harry Potter and Hunger Games fandoms), Anderson’s script for Resident Evil completely ditched the most compelling elements that made the game a classic and watered it down into a criminally generic zombie thriller. Much the same as Mortal Kombat, Anderson was partly rescued from his own mediocrity by good special effects and the uniqueness of the monsters he inherited from the source material, and the film was able to gross over $100 million on a $33 million budget, also spawning four sequels to date.
Of course, no discussion of awful video game movies would be complete without mentioning this generation’s humourless version of Ed Wood, German “director” Uwe Boll. Helming such train wrecks as House of the Dead (2003), Alone in the Dark (2005), and BloodRayne (2006), Boll has shown that, in spite of what we’re taught in school, the phrase “winners never quit” can apply to losers too. Where to begin with him though? House of the Dead, much like Resident Evil had the year before, turned a unique, exciting game into a generic mess of a film, removing the Lovecraft-influenced monsters and plot that made House of the Dead on of the most successful arcade shooters of the 90s. Alone in the Dark was doomed from the moment Christian Slater and Tara Reid were cast in the lead roles. Nothing more needs to be said about that one. The vampire hunter flick BloodRayne re-defined the term “slumming” for most of its cast. Featuring Ben Kingsley (the same Ben Kingsley who won an Oscar in 1982 for his portrayal of Gandhi) as the king of the Vampires and Tarantino favourite Michael Madsen as an older, fat version of himself, BloodRayne made Blade 2 look like Citizen Kane.
However, adapting a video game into a movie is no easy task. Perhaps the biggest difficulty in the process is the loss of what makes video games an attractive medium in the first place: interactivity. Since the cinema, by definition, cannot provide that, adaptations immediately lose their source material’s biggest selling point before a single frame is shot. Having said that, it’s also difficult to make a good movie when motivated by sheer greed. Uwe Boll is, again, the best (worst?) example of such behavior, turning the BloodRayne catastrophe into, believe it or not, a direct-to-DVD trilogy. That trilogy culminates with the mercifully short BloodRayne: The Third Reich that, as one might guess from its title, borrows the Nazi element from the second game in the series, shoehorning its main character (played by Norwegian actress Natassia Malthe, who also appears in Anderson’s DOA: Dead or Alive adaptation) into World War II as vampires attempt to give Hitler immortality by injecting him with vampire blood. Boll’s artless, ham-fisted filmmaking made The Third Reich into the kind of flick the direct-to-DVD market was made for.
In spite of this daunting history, a pair of recent films have shown that video games can be the basis, however indirectly, for movies you wouldn’t be ashamed to admit to having seen. Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz)’s 2010 film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, is one such movie. Based not on a video game but on a graphic novel, Scott Pilgrim borrowed the boss-battle structure familiar to (hopefully) all gamers, as its titular character is required to defeat his new love interest’s “Seven Evil Exes” in order to win her heart. Though a box office failure, the film made an exceptionally strong showing with critics and its home video release, becoming one of the best-selling Blu-Rays in the lifetime of the young format.
Disney’s latest animated feature, Wreck-It Ralph, has already been a massive critical and commercial success in America and is due to be released here in Ireland on the 8th of February. While its title character comes from a fictional video game known as Fix-It Felix Jr., the movie is littered with nostalgia-laden references to games as far back as Pong and Pac-Man, as well as more modern titles like the Metal Gear series and Final Fantasy VII. Present in Wreck-It Ralph, for better or worse, is the “fun for the whole family” sentimentality that has been the hallmark of Disney movies for about a hundred years. High production values and a stellar voice cast, not to mention creative use of both familiar and invented games and characters, set it apart from the B-movie garbage that has tainted the public’s view of video game-based movies.