Posted in: Review

It’s Not “Game Over” For Videogame Movies

Here’s a list of every great movie based on a videogame:

Short list, huh? It’s not news that movies based on videogames are terrible. We all know that they run the gamut from “Well, I guess that didn’t completely suck” (Tomb Raider, Silent Hill), to abysmal (Need For Speed, the current Hitman: Agent 47), to downright unwatchable (Wing Commander, BloodRayne, and about a dozen others). And then there’s 1993’s infamous Super Mario Bros., which graduated magna cum laude from the University of Mind-Boggling Stupidity.

It’s really no wonder that they’re so uniformly awful, given that there’s a weird cannibalism at work. Once upon a time, videogames were just simple scenarios, repeated at increasingly rapid speeds until they became so fast that no one could conceivably succeed at them anymore. (Think Space Invaders.) Modern games, on the other hand, work overtime to emulate movies. They have stories. They have cut scenes that utilize every manner of filmmaking technique. They’re often “filmed” in cinematic aspect ratios and have credits sequences. So what you end up getting are movies based on videogames that have been inspired by movies. It’s kind of like the Michael Keaton comedy Multiplicity, where he made clones of himself, and each new one was a little dumber than the one before.

Other things account for the reliably putrid nature of “joystick cinema,” such as bad screenwriting, clunky direction, and incompetent acting. (Oh, hello, House of the Dead!) Again, those are pretty obvious detriments. Perhaps the biggest hurdle, though, is that watching movies is, by nature, a passive experience, while playing videogames is an active one. With movies, someone puts together a story, which you sit and view. You have no control over its shape or form. You’re just an observer. Videogames give you this experience during their cut scenes, but then they become active. You control what happens in the game based on the choices you make. You choose whether to use a hand grenade or a bazooka when fighting your enemy. You decide whether to eat a mushroom or jump down a pipe. You opt to either take on rival criminal organizations or simply drive around town running over prostitutes with a stolen car. Movies don’t provide that sort of direct involvement. At no point in, say, American Sniper does the viewer get to choose whether Bradley Cooper acknowledges that his baby is made of rubber or continues living a charade by pretending it’s real. There’s just a fundamental gap between what movies and videogames offer.

This does not mean that it’s impossible to make a good videogame-based movie. Aside from the standard quality-of-filmmaking things that apply to all motion pictures, there are a few things that might help create productions that are more pleasing than what we’ve gotten so far.

Aside from passivity versus activity, another huge discrepancy between videogames and movies is that videogames use graphics instead of actors. This constitutes a fundamental shift in technique. For that reason, it would make total sense for some videogame movies to be done via animation. This would allow them to be movies while still looking and feeling like their source material. No more awkwardly trying to recreate computerized bits and bytes in the real world. To date, this has only happened once in terms of theatrical releases, with 2001’s Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. While by no means a box office smash, it nonetheless garnered some decent reviews from Variety, Entertainment Weekly, and Roger Ebert (who called it “a technical milestone”). Gamers often moan that movies don’t get “the feel of the game” right. Modern three-dimensional animation is the perfect form to preserve that feel.

Videogame-based movies also tend to fall into the trap of trying to be slavishly faithful to the works that inspired them. And because games are usually action-heavy, studios tend to hire directors who specialize in action sequences. Resident Evil was directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, as were two of its sequels. Lara Croft: Tomb Raider was directed by Simon West, who also did Con Air. Max Payne was guided by John Moore, whose previous films included Behind Enemy Lines and Flight of the Phoenix. What do they all have in common? They’re all “journeyman” directors, not auteurs, brought in to deliver something familiar. Also, they’re all white males. In fact, white males have directed pretty much every videogame movie ever.

Since increased diversity is much needed in Hollywood, why not entrust one of these productions to an indie director outside the “white male” demographic? Just imagine what someone like Jennifer Kent (The Babadook) could do with a survival-horror game. Or the peppy energy Dope director Rick Famuyiwa might bring to an action-oriented adaptation. Or the character attention Gina Prince-Bythewood (Beyond the Lights) would almost certainly infuse a game-based picture with. These movies need directors who will bring something unexpected, and maybe even more personal, to the table. If nothing else, exploiting diversity would keep videogame movies from feeling so monotonously similar.

On a related note, the cinematic adaptations tend to follow the games’ story beats note-for-note. This clearly isn’t working. Hiring original screenwriters with distinct voices would help, especially if given the freedom to tinker with the material. Remember when Charlie Kaufman was hired to write a screenplay based on Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief? He couldn’t do it, so he wrote a movie — the brilliant Adaptation — about his own struggle to write that script. Studios planning videogame movies should hire A-list writers like Kaufman and Aaron Sorkin, or even comedy writers like Tina Fey and Nicholas Stoller (The Muppets), then allow them to deviate from what’s already established. This would help ensure the telling of a worthy story, rather than just the simple repetition of a familiar plot. Books are changed for the screen all the time, so why not videogames, too?

Videogames continue to enjoy massive popularity, which means Hollywood will keep finding ways to capitalize on their appeal. (Nintendo recently announced intentions along this line.) And that’s OK. After all, they’re popular for a reason. People respond to them. The key now is to create films that hold the same appeal. What filmmakers have been doing so far has proven to be an abject failure. Shaking things up and changing the template might create movies that are satisfying to gamers and cinephiles alike.

It’s time for videogame-based movies to level up.

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