Video-game movies suck. I can’t think of another subgenre that has such a tremendously consistent record of shit as movies adapted from video games, though it’s possible that video games adapted from movies come close. If that is ever going to change, we need to own up to the reality of the situation.
There are a few exceptions. Sort of. The Mortal Kombat movie was fine, at least as far as disposable, one-note martial-arts movies go. Same with the Resident Evil series, especially the first one; they're pleasant-enough zombie/superhero film hybrids. (Curiously, Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil share a director, Paul W.S. Anderson.) Outside of that…well, I’ve had people who didn’t appear to be suffering from head trauma tell me they liked the Tomb Raider movies, but I’ve never subjected myself to that particular punishment, as I am not a fan of the games and am one of the few humans who doesn't find Angelina Jolie irresistible. And don't get me started on the legendarily bad Street Fighter.
A look at Rotten Tomatoes offers something like mathematical proof of the shittiness of the video-game film, with not one single movie breaking a 50 percent rating. Hell, there are more films with a single-digit score — a true accomplishment of wretchedness — than there are with a score over 25. That’s impressive in the worst possible way, and with a reported 43 video-game adaptations in the works — more than the entire number of theatrically released game films to date! — you need to brace yourself for the deluge of feces to come.
The obvious question: Why do video-game movies suck so hard? It’s possible that some bitter studio exec dropped a monkey's-paw curse on the whole idea of a video-game movie, but more realistically, there's an inherent challenge in the nature of video games themselves. But what?
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One issue with nearly all of the existing films is that they don’t seem to get the games they’re based on. This is likely just because video games have really only existed for about forty years and have only been a true mass medium for the past fifteen. That means there’s a good chance that a lot of the directors, writers and producers tackling game adaptations just didn’t understand video games. They weren’t gamers, or even if they were, they were so beholden to other stakeholders that any expertise they could bring to the table was shouted down by a chorus of monkeys in suits who had no idea what they were talking about. If that’s the case, there’s hope for the future, because gaming has grown to the point to which almost everyone does it to some degree, and theoretically, this should mean more movies adapted from games will be made by people who have a clue about the appeal of those games.
Alas, this is probably not the only issue, or even the biggest one. There’s something about the nature of games themselves that makes it hard to adapt them to the screen: Video-game stories don't really make great movie stories. Early on, games had only the most perfunctory story — the princess is kidnapped, rescue her from bad guys! — and while that’s enough to make you want to move Mario from left to right while jumping over any obstacle you encounter, it’s hardly enough to keep your attention for ninety minutes. Then again, the best story games suffer from nearly the exact opposite problem: They’re too goddamn big! Your average epic RPG probably offers something like ninety hours of gameplay, and while a lot of that isn’t story-driven, it does mean dozens of hours of dialogue and story throughout. Even a big action game might have three to five hours' worth of story and dialogue spread out over its twenty-hour play time. While those stories tend to be convoluted, rambling and bloated, it won't be easy to boil them down to their essence, at least not in a way that’s going to please the existing fan base.
Those are the two big issues I see. The first is self-correcting, or should be. The second is a harder nut to crack, but surely that can be done. Comic-book movies suffered from both of the same issues for years, along with a lack of the kind of effects technology needed to make them look good, but eventually both issues were resolved, and now we get decent comics movies on a regular basis, with the occasional good-to-great one. As with comics movies, someone will figure it out, and that film will lead to a formula that leads to subsequent successes. Perhaps Duncan Jones will nail it with his Warcraft movie — we’ll know within a month — or perhaps it will be another decade. In the meantime, we can always just play the games themselves.
If you want to embrace the shittiness of video-game movies, let the humor of Mile High Sci-Fi smooth the way for you when the crew takes on the legendarily bad Street Fighter film at 7:30 p.m. Friday, May 20, at the Alamo Drafthouse. For tickets, $12.50, and more info, visit the MHSF VS Street Fighter event page.