The Rise and Fall of the Video Game Film

Recently released photos of Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft in the upcoming Tomb Raider film have sparked much attention and interest for the newest in a long line of video game films. By their very nature, video game films spark scepticism, and a hefty dose of it already accompanies the release of the film. The original Tomb Raider films are largely abysmal, but the newest entry in the series aims to change the face of video game films, much like Assassin’s Creed and Warcraft before it. Perhaps it’s only cynicism that colours my view, but given the slew of failures in their wake, isn’t it time to give up on blockbuster video game adaptations?

Video games have had a long and turgid history with cinema in the past, buoyed by the rising popularity of video games as a storytelling medium. Despite this, we’ve yet to see a truly great video game film, with Assassin’s Creed representing one of the last, great hopes for the genre. With an absolutely stellar cast in the form of Academy Award-winning actors Marion Cotillard and Michael Fassbender, and an AACTA-award winning director in Justin Kurzel, it had all the makings of a great film. Yet somehow, it wasted every drop of potential that the series had. The video games craft a wide, sweeping narrative that takes players from the Holy Land, to the city of Venice and through the waters of the Caribbean.

With a variety of enigmatic and charming assassins across several games to choose from, Assassin’s Creed chose to focus on… none of them. Not only did they ignore the charismatic and highly popular Ezio, or even main series stalwart, Desmond, the film instead created an entirely new character in Fassbender’s Callum Lynch. It almost seems like an overstatement to call him a character in his own right – Lynch is one of the blandest, least developed characters in the film, and audiences are supposed to believe that he could lead an entire team of assassins to overthrow the Templar Order. But while Lynch is a bland, black hole of a character, he isn’t the biggest problem with the film. The writing for the movie is, quite simply, terrible, and the dialogue is the not at all believable. It’s one thing to hire actors of a certain calibre for a film, but it’s another thing entirely to give them a worthwhile script to work from.

The problems of Assassin’s Creed are many, but its largest sin was ignoring its source material. In an effort to appeal to a larger audience, writers carefully carved story chunks from the juggernaut series, but in the process, the essence of the games was lost. Some might argue that a move away from the divine intervention and omnipotent celestial beings of the main series benefitted the movie, but in some ways, it simplified and demystified an important piece of Assassin’s Creed lore. Video game films are often characterised by this misunderstanding, with directors and writers completely mistaking the core essence of video games, and why people are so drawn to them. This isn’t just limited to the Assassin’s Creed franchise, with recent blockbusters like Warcraft and Ratchet & Clank similarly tanking.

Ratchet & Clank, based on the much loved 2002 video game of the same name, had a whole cast of brilliant actors including Sylvester Stallone, Rosario Dawson and John Goodman to prop it up, as well as a neat, tried and tested concept. An odd-couple buddy cop movie set in space, Ratchet & Clank had all the tools it needed to succeed, but like most video game movies, it was hampered by a dull, underdeveloped plot, and largely terrible writing. The film had a budget of $20 million dollars, and it still lost over $7 million at the box office due to the poor reception it received from both critics and fans. Following this, Warcraft continued the trend, and was absolutely slaughtered by gamers for alienating its core audience through its bland plot and ignorance of the main franchise games. Both films sought to shed the elements that made their games so popular in the first place in order to appeal to the wider cinema-going demographic, and both suffered for these decisions.

But video game films ignoring the source material and instead going for bombastic Hollywood ‘originality’ is nothing new, and in fact, it’s a trend that arose in even the earliest of video game adaptations. Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel’s 1993 Super Mario Bros. adaptation is considered one of the first blockbuster video game movies, and, unsurprisingly, it’s also one of the worst, though a very low bar has been set. Despite starring iconic character actor Bob Hoskins, the film is totally unsalvageable. Among the film’s problems were a lack of faithfulness to the source material, a convoluted plot, abysmal character design, and almost a complete lack of understanding of the charm of the Super Mario Bros. game series. Yoshi looks like a mutated lizard, Bowser is a man with a snake tongue and a terrible haircut, and Koopas are normal size men with tiny mutant heads. It’s all a bizarre caricature of the loveable Mario characters that we know today, and all in the name of some strange interpretation of ‘creative freedom’.

Super Mario Bros. was soon followed by Double Dragon, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat adaptations, each of which suffered from stilted dialogue and a lack of cohesive plot. Despite negative reviews, Mortal Kombat still made $122 million worldwide, giving movie producers free reign to exploit any and all video game franchises with the guarantee of suckering in hopeful gamers. It’s for this reason alone that video game film adaptations continue to be churned out by an uncaring industry – guaranteed profits. One can only hope that the minds behind the upcoming Tomb Raider film pay closer attention to the source material and key their eyes off the wallets of unsuspecting gamers.

A lack of quality writing or cohesive plot, over-the-top performances, stilted dialogue, and unfaithfulness to the source material are all problems that have dogged video game films since the early nineties. The simple fact is that no video game movie has ever received a score higher than 44% on movie review website, Rotten Tomatoes. While this isn’t the authority on reviews and audience satisfaction, it does give a pretty good indication about the quality of the material, and the disappointment that greets video game fans every time a new movie is released. Video game fans want to care about video game films, but the disregard with which the film industry treats this audience is frankly astounding. The fact that they haven’t recognised their faults and worked in any way to correct them almost beggars belief. Audiences are turning away from video game films in droves, sick of being subjected to continuous disappointment.

Despite recent video game film failures, and their audience’s loss of faith, the industry is pressing ahead, with a slew of new video game adaptations being released over the next few years. Tomb Raider is joined by a new Sonic the Hedgehog film, as well as Minecraft, Five Nights At Freddy’s, Just Cause, Sleeping Dogs, Dead Space, Monster Hunter and much-loved indie, Firewatch. Whether they can break the curse of the video game film is yet to be seen, but the future does not bode well for any of these upcoming adaptations. It’s unfortunate, but as long as video game films make box office gold, the wheel will keep on turning, and video game fans will continue to be subjected to mediocre films for even the most loved franchises.

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