This is a guest post by Maria Ramos.
It seems like no matter how hard they try, filmmakers will never get the hang of making consistently good video game movies. For every Resident Evil there is a BloodRayne. For every Mortal Kombat there is a Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. Since the 1993 release of Super Mario Bros. – based on the popular Nintendo game but bearing little resemblance to the source material other than having two plumber brothers as the heroes – audiences have been disappointed over and over again by films based on their favorite games and characters. So why do filmmakers and production companies keep trying to make video game movies? And why can’t they figure out the formula that will create a truly great adaptation?
Happy Madison Productions’ Pixels is the most recent of video game-based films. It’s definitely aesthetically pleasing with impressive special effects and an interesting premise. But this is buried beneath a generic and sometimes confusing storyline, unbelievable hero, and lackluster or totally misused supporting cast (Peter Dinklage could do so much better). The plot centers on the concept of aliens attacking Earth through the use of classic video game characters, known through a radio broadcast in the 1980s. The only one on the planet that can defeat these villainous video game monsters is a previous video game champion.
There are elements in Pixels that are interesting (watching Pac-Man and Tetris blocks destroy a city is actually quite cool) but they are buried under a nonsensical main character, the drama surrounding him, and his improbable love story.
Not all types of film adaptations are a failure. In the last few decades, many comic book stories have made the leap from page to screen with great success. But where a comic book property usually has a large well of backstory and character development to draw on, the same can’t be said for many video games. Even franchises such as Super Mario Bros. only have so much plot to work with when creating film content. Though the heroic plumber brothers, Mario and Luigi, appear in dozens of games, you are given little insight into who they really are, why they are constantly searching out Princess Peach, why Bowser is so obsessed with kidnapping her, and what kind of world it is they really live in (though there are some fan theories explaining some of these questions). The creators of the Super Mario Bros. movie made most of the plot up as they went along, and they ended up with a weird, boring, confusing film that no one wanted to watch or if they did, deeply regretted it.
With the advances in special effects and digital technology over the years it would be more than possible to create a video game film that had the look of the game and the feel of a great movie. But special effects aren’t enough. The Tron sequel from 2010 proves that point. Still available through Xfinity and DTV, Tron: Legacy has the look of a video game, from the flashy light cycles to the glowing armor uniforms. And it includes characters that play types of in-program “games” to survive. Yet while it looks like a movie that could be plucked off the screen, inserted into a gaming console, and played quite easily, it’s lacking in plot and character development. It inevitably ends up a “beautiful to look at but nothing special to see” kind of film.
Now, just because most video game movies fail at the box office and with fans, doesn’t mean they’ve all been terrible. There have been some good or at least watchable films based on video games over the years. The first Mortal Kombat included a great soundtrack, impressive special effects for the time, and a plot that followed the premise of the game pretty well. The first Resident Evil movie adaptation was similar, with a talented lead actress and well done graphics and effects. Both had scenes that felt like they were adapted directly from moments in their respective games, but both also had some more character-driven moments that gave audiences something to enjoy on a more emotional level.
More video game adaptations are in the works that are highly anticipated and will hopefully be worthy films to already-existing fans. Recent news of more video game adaptations have made many internet headlines. The Last of Us, an incredibly popular zombie survival game from 2013, has spawned the developments of a film coming out in 2016. With its complex storyline and character development, The Last of Us could potentially break the video game film curse.
Similarly, the Assassin’s Creed movie, also premiering in 2016, has the potential to be an action-packed piece with incredible special effects. Of course, there are many other video game franchises that would translate well in theaters: Mass Effect, Halo, Gears of War, and even Grand Theft Auto. However, in order to successfully create adaptations that will do justice to their originals, it would take time, money and actual effort from studios and filmmakers – not just the capitalization on an existing fanbase.