It seems like every year we get a new movie or two based on popular video games. It also seems like every single one of them has flopped! Are these video game movies as bad as we think they are, and if so, why do studios keep making them?
Before we get into that, however, I want to make a quick distinction. Movies like Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Wreck it Ralph, and Ready Player One do not fall into this category. While it’s true that the phrase “Video Game Movie” does describe them, I’m talking about movies that are based off of video games, not about video games.
Lets go back to 1993, where we get the first ever movie based on a video game, Super Mario Bros.
A movie where two regular New Yorker plumber brothers accidentally get involved in a conspiracy and get thrown into an alternate reality where the dinosaurs are still alive…or something. This movie lost over $27 Million. A huge loss, surely Hollywood doesn’t want to recreate that!
They did though! Next up we have Street Fighter starring Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1994, which turned a profit of over $64 Million. Maybe Mario was just a fluke! Lets keep going! Lets make a bunch of video game movies!!
|Year||Movie||Net Profit||Rotten Tomatoes Score|
|1993||Super Mario Bros.||-27mil||15%|
|2001||Lara Croft: Tomb Raider||+159mil||20%|
|2004||Resident Evil: Apocalypse||+84mil||21%|
|2010||Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time||+136mil||36%|
|2010||Resident Evil: Afterlife||+240mil||23%|
|2012||Resident Evil: Retribution||+175mil||31%|
|2016||The Angry Birds Movie||+276mil||44%|
|2016||Resident Evil: Final Chapter||+272mil||36%|
|2020||Sonic the Hedgehog||+211mil||64%|
|2021||Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City||+13mil||31%|
(As of this writing, Uncharted is still in theaters)
The answer then is: Yes, video game movies are bad. The other answer is: studios keep making them because they are making SO MUCH MONEY! This ties into a previous article about how people are only going to see sequels, not original screenplays, because those Resident Evil movies are almost consistently going up each time.
So many of these movies are making so much money, and yet, are getting dragged through the critical mud. When the highest scoring movie on that list is this…
…then you know there is a problem. To try and be fair and hope for future positive outcomes, in the past decade the ratings have slowly started to rise. Does the rising trend mean there is bound to be a movie soon that will break this curse?
How to Fix It
The problem isn’t lack of onscreen talent, seeing as how we had Michael Fassbender, Ryan Reynolds, and Angelina Jolie take on leading roles. So then it has to be behind the camera somewhere. Sometimes studios don’t understand what it is that fans like about the story, like in Assassin’s Creed, where having a character be in some sort of prison is not the part we care about. Maybe it’s the writing, like in Resident Evil, where it has barely anything to do with the games, besides saying “Raccoon City,” “T-Virus,” and “Umbrella Corp.” Warcraft had a hard time, because ever since Lord of the Rings, every high fantasy project has been in the same vein. We haven’t had giant magic portals and huge green orcs set somewhere that is clearly not our world. All the popular fantasy lately has been LoTR, Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, The Witcher etc. It’s going to take more than some previews to get people back into that old school fantasy.
Really what it comes down to is the inability to convert hours upon hours of interactive media into a two-hour, non-interactive media. You don’t need to try to just be a cut-scene from the game, like Mortal Kombat, and hope that the lack of a story is good enough. You also shouldn’t make an unrelated movie, and change some details to fit the game, like Resident Evil. Apparently not even bullying a studio into spending millions of dollars to fix the character design is enough to break through to the masses (good try though, Sonic). You should find a story in the game that doesn’t get the focus it needs, because the story the game is playing doesn’t need it. I think Warcraft had the best grasp of that idea, but took a concept that was too obscure to take on properly.
So what can Hollywood do to actually make a good video game movie? Well to start, take a look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Start off with a character that people don’t know as well, so there will be less disappointment. Then find a way to put them into a situation that we can all understand, and empathize with. Iron Man was a C-List character, and while not many people can relate to being a billionaire super genius who gets kidnapped by terrorists, we can relate to having a traumatic event that changes how we see our priorities in life. Lastly, you need to see the hero working for what they are doing. We don’t walk into Rocky when he already knows how to fight, and he is kicking butt, we see him struggling to get to that higher place so he can accomplish his goals. Stories aren’t about worlds, they are about people. You need to focus on the people.
Recently, we have some new contenders that are getting ready to step up to take on this behemoth of the curse. Notably, Mortal Kombat, that spent a few decades in development hell after the failure of 1997 is slotted to come to theaters and HBO Max streaming service on April 16th, 2021. Does it look cool? Of course it does! It has all the classic characters saying their catchphrases and executing finishing moves and it gets us excited! Will it break the curse? No, no it won’t. Even a quality production can’t fix the fact that there are too many characters and people will be upset that there isn’t enough screen time for their character.
A few others that perhaps have a little more potential would be Uncharted starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg that is currently slotted to be released February of 2022- of course this film has also already had the issues of release dates being pushed back several times and a directorial change recently, so don’t hold your breath on that one either. If that fails at least The Last of Us has a TV show in development via HBO. With Pedro Pascal (Mandalorian) and Bella Ramsey (Game of Thrones) on the docket there is yet some hope. Though not technically a film but a TV show, if this upcoming production were to be as good as everyone wants it to be, it would be a great breakthrough.
There was at one point a rumor going around about a Netflix The Legend of Zelda series. That would also have been a good chance, however, to create a high quality show on a “network” that has proven themselves with unknowns, such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones.
Mortal Kombat flopped, and Uncharted isn’t looking great at the moment. So far, the only two movies that made a profit and are rated Fresh on RottenTomatoes are Sonic the Hedgehog and Detective Pikachu. It’s no wonder that Sonic has a sequel coming out this year, and people are half-joking about the Smash Bros. Cinematic Universe, especially with the new Mario movie with Chris Pratt coming this year. Are Nintendo/Sega characters the only ones that can manage to figure it out? If so, then maybe we CAN get a Legend of Zelda show/movie here soon.
At the end of the day, movie producers just aren’t sure how or what to translate onto the big screen, and what to leave behind on the console. Maybe someday someone will come by and be the Iron Man of video game movies, showing us what we could have.