Why are Video Game Movies Doomed to Fail?


For most of my life movies and video games have been two of my strongest passions, and it’s impossible for me to decide which one holds a dearer place in my heart.  However, one thing I am certain of beyond a shadow of a doubt is that I despise video game movies.  I don’t just hate the ones that actually have been released I hate the very idea of them.

...ain't no movie neither

...ain't no movie neither

While I’ve never been personally "burned"  by a disappointing video game movie, my issues lie more with the problems they embody within the film industry as a whole.  From my perspective, video game films represent the worst in a trend of creative bankruptcy which has been plaguing Hollywood for the last few years.   Original movie ideas are becoming increasingly infrequent, with studios looking to squeeze out every cent they can out of any intellectual property they can get their hands on;  whether it’s making the twenty-seventh entry in the painfully bad Transformers saga, or thinking that a story about emoji’s would somehow not be the worst conceivable idea for a movie.  There seems to be no depths to which filmmakers won’t sink, and video game movies are swirling right there at the bottom of the creative barrel.  

Why do they fail?

I think I’ve made it abundantly clear that I don’t particularly like movies based on games, but the question on your mind is likely, “Why don’t good games ever translate into good movies?”

Pulling from my experience, I’ve been able to narrow it down to a few key reasons - the first of which is that these movies are typically produced by studios that don’t respect the source material and are only looking to cash in on a popular name.  They see their audience as drooling morons who will pay for anything so long as the movie has even a passing resemblance to the original product.  It’s this attitude that leads them to enlist the cheapest possible talent in order to maximize the profit margins.  Hack directors are hired to slap the movie together as quickly and frugally as possible.  Uwe Boll has notoriously made a career out of this art form, with productios such as House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, and Bloodrayne.  These films are also populated by D-tier actors who look like their only experience was a middle school production of Annie Get Your Gun, not to mention the cheap special effects that wouldn’t be fit for a student film let alone a feature length movie.

Remember the  Doom  movie? Remember the first person sequence? Remember anything else............?

Remember the Doom movie? Remember the first person sequence? Remember anything else............?

But let’s just say a movie does end up with a reasonable budget and a semi-competent cast and crew - this still does not guarantee success.  Sometimes filmmakers just don’t get the point (or don’t care) of the original game and end up altering the details so much that it’s essentially a different product altogether. 

Nowhere is this more apparent than the (hopefully concluded) Resident Evil film series, which has deviated so much from the games that the only thing they seem to have in common is the featuring of zombies.  These sorts of films will rely on gimmicks from the game in order to anchor it to the original material in some way, oftentimes they will rely too much on these bits of fan service as a replacement for actual storytelling.  Familiar characters and settings will be shoved into the plot with little to no reason as to why other than the fact that they were from the game.  However, the biggest challenge in this endeavor is that studios never seem to pick the right sort of game to make a movie out of.  They pick games that either don’t have enough plot to fill a feature length movie, or one that has too much to parcel down into two hours.  Fighting games like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter barely have plots to speak of inside the game other than ‘there’s a tournament and these guys have to fight each other’.  Any attempts to make it more than that tend to get a little contrived.  On the other hand, the Warcraft movie attempted to shove copious amounts of lore and fantasy concepts that just left anyone who wasn’t already a fan confused as hell.

Now I want to be clear, it is perfectly ok to like any of these movies.  Personally I enjoy some of them, odd as it may sound.  The Super Mario Bros movie, in all its infamy, may actually be my single favorite video game film.  It’s one of those cases where a film misses the mark so spectacularly that it almost ends up succeeding in a strange way, similar to The Room (for those who are familiar).  All I am trying to do is explain why there seems to be such a universal constant when it comes to the critical reception of these types of movies.  Which brings me to my next point…

Can you make a good one?

With its well-developed characters and emotionally driven story,  The Last of Us  has massive potential as an adaptation.

With its well-developed characters and emotionally driven story, The Last of Us has massive potential as an adaptation.

With all that said the only question left to ask is “How can a good video game movie be made?”  Honestly, if it was up to me I would be happy if I never saw another video game movie as long as I lived but for the sake of speculation let’s see what it would take.  As I said before it’s important to pick the right type of game to adapt before committing to production.  I would look for a game with a concise, focused plot that can be trimmed down enough to fit in a standalone film without compromising the narrative too much.  It’s important to have characters that aren’t just stand-ins for the player but can actually give the audience something to invest in.  The Uncharted series seems like a good starting point, with fun charismatic characters and the prospect of a globe-trotting adventure.  The only issues is it’s been done before…with Tomb Raider.  It runs the risk of just becoming a silly, generic action movie with a wooden script, which is why the second half of this equation is so important.  It is critical to have a reasonably talented cast and crew.  I’m not asking for Scorsese and De Niro here but at least someone capable of pulling off a vision and some solid acting chops to see it through. 

Now it might be tempting to attempt to adapt a lore heavy game series such as The Witcher or Metal Gear Solid, but this may end up backfiring terribly.  It may not be possible to adequately establish the complex settings of these games within the timeframe of a movie and a result characters may suffer in their portrayal and the plot will be less impactful.  The only exception would be if you were to receive a three picture deal a la Lord of the Rings but this prospect seems unlikely at this point in time.  Interestingly enough this concept would probably work far better in a television series format, in fact a Witcher series is already in the works for Netflix.  By having an entire series spanning many episodes it would allow you to explore and set up the world at a far more leisurely and digestible pace. But if you would like to hear my opinions on video game TV shows...that conversation will just have to wait for another day. 

Matt O'NeilComment