Continue? Yes / No: The Troubled History of Video Game Adaptations

With the one hundred per cent badass trailer to a brand spanking new Mortal Kombat movie having just dropped, now is the perfect opportunity to talk about the video game industry and the film industry’s extremely rocky and complicated relationship.

Beginning in 1993, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures (formerly known as Buena Vista Pictures) created the exemplar of video-game-to-film adaptations with the notorious Super Mario Bros.. A financial failure and a critical catastrophe among its unfortunate audiences. So poor that it remained the only live-action film based on a Nintendo game to be made and released until Pokémon: Detective Pikachu in 2019.

A year later Street Fighter received the same mistreatment. Although the Capcom-produced action film was a box office hit, critics and audiences alike were less favourable towards the Jean-Claude Van Damme led Street Fighter. Condemned for the over-the-top special effects, its campy tone and mostly dreadful acting, this wasn’t what fans of the fighting game franchise had hoped for. The only positive takeaway from Steven E. de Souza‘s dud was Raúl Juliá‘s performance as M. Bison, which subsequently earned him a posthumous nomination for Best Supporting Actor at the Saturn Awards. Juliá died of a stroke two months before the films release.

Back-to-back in 1995 and 1997 came Mortal Kombat and its sequel Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. The first instalment largely received enthusiastic reviews, the sequel however did not. Unlike its predecessor, Annihilation was outed for its sloppy low budget special effects, mindless fight scenes and abysmal acting. And whilst it isn’t deemed a financial failure, its universal panning meant its intended third film was cancelled. Fortunately for MK fans, the James Wan-produced reboot will arrive in April on HBO Max…in North America and South America at least. Fans in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world will begrudgingly have to wait a little longer.

It wouldn’t be until 2001 until we saw another majorly-distributed video-game-to-film blockbuster. From the same filmmaker who directed the music video for Rick Astley’s ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’, came Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Starring Angelina Jolie as the titular character, the film shattered box office expectations grossing a total of almost $275 million worldwide. Its financial success however wasn’t matched with its critical (un)success. Whereas Jolie was praised for her performance as Lara Croft, the general consensus from critics and fans alike was depressing. A sequel – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life followed in 2003 which was met with improving praise but failed to match the box office success of its prototype.

Next up was a biggie! After a handful of instances where the project never seemed to get off the blocks, in 2002 moviegoers and die-hard fans alike finally got the highly-anticipated adaptation of beloved survival horror franchise, Resident Evil. Brought to us by Mortal Kombat director Paul W. S. Anderson, Resident Evil was loosely based on the video game series of the same name. It showed little resemblance to its source material. No Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine. No S.T.A.R.S. No Spencer Mansion. The only resemblance Anderson’s film held to the Capcom video games were the existence of Raccoon City, the Umbrella Corporation and the mutant, Licker, which mirror Zack Snyder levels of sloppy CGI. Almost a decade on from Super Mario Bros., Resident Evil proved to be the very antithesis of a sought-after video game adaptation.

The mid 2000s and early 2010s proved to be a time that was host to a legion of shameful video game movies. Regrettably for cinema, the world was introduced to supreme troll, man-child and video-game-to-film adaptation (un)specialist, Uwe Boll.

In the wake of Resident Evil’s zombie film rejuvenation, Boll’s tirade of utter trite began with House of the Dead – based on the arcade game of the same name. Following this monumental cock-up came the eternally unforgivable, unintentional barrel o’laughs, Alone in the Dark. Dubbed as one of the worst films ever made, Boll was quickly cemented as a “schlock maestro”. Somehow, Boll was able to go on to make a few BloodRayne vampire hack and slash flicks, a trilogy of Dungeon Siege fantasy movies, a Far Cry movie and surprisingly well-executed but nonetheless totally tasteless Postal. Mercifully after this gallop of hot garbage, Uwe Boll‘s second phase has mostly gone unnoticed and consisted of forgettable independently-made action films that haven’t delved into the video game realm.

Anti-Uwe Boll ramble over, it wasn’t completely hopeless in the 2000s and early 2010s. We got a half-decent attempt at a Resident Evil film among the slew of let down RE sequels that followed in Resident Evil: Apocalypse. Its most satisfying and crowd-pleasing qualities were the much-needed inclusions of Racoon City, characters Jill Valentine and Carlos Olivera, supersoldier and S.T.A.R.S. obliterator Nemesis, and Mike Epps‘ ever-hilarious standout performance.

Two unsung heroes from the mid 2000s and early 2010s are Doom and both Silent Hill movies.

Starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, British titans Rosamund Pike and Dexter Fletcher, and Karl “I Am the Law” Urban, Doom took its inspiration mainly from Doom 3 as opposed to its iconic 1993 counterpart. The end result was by no means perfect, but its heart was in the right place. The hellish demons on the Mars UAC facility looked top notch and the inclusion of the “BFG” weapon was absolutely awesome! And that first-person shooter sequence was the ultimate pleaser for die-hard Doom fans; the most iconic five minutes of any film from the mid 2000s and I am prepared to die on that hill!

Silent Hill – and its sequel Silent Hill: Revelation, similarly to the Konami games were plagued with muddled, mystifying psychological horror storylines but both masterfully create a sense of sheer terror through its faithful lore and set pieces. The cinematography in both films is undisputedly gorgeous. To this day, I squirm at just the thought of the scene in the mental asylum with the nurses. In my opinion, Revelation and its forefather are the closest we’ve got to truly being immersed in the interactive aspect of video games and the heart-racing gravity that comes with them.

After a billion more Resident Evil sequels, a handful movies came over the next few years that saw even more A-list Hollywood stars dip their toes into the domain of forbidden territory. “Marky Mark” Mark Wahlberg was Max Payne (no Funky Bunch sadly). Timothy Olyphant was Agent 47 in Hitman – which to this day is one of the worst miscasting in cinematic history. Jake Gyllenhaal was Prince “Dastan” in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and Michael Fassbender was an ancestral master assassin in Assassin’s Creed.

The release of the ass Assassin’s Creed became the catalyst for a turning point in video game movies. Everything that has followed since has been of much higher merit. I must stress though, still a long way off excellence.

The landmark moment began with a Tomb Raider reboot, aptly-titled, Tomb Raider. After Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix’s reboot in the game franchise in 2013, the Alicia Vikander-fronted action adventure film seemed more in harmony with that than the original, pointy-breasted Lara Croft games from the 90s. A more concise product with entertaining action and healthier performances across the board. Even though Vikander was undeniably brilliant as the not-so-pointy-breasted Lara Croft, I still would have preferred to see the “quintessentially British” Daisy Ridley as the eponymous character. Vikander over Ridley is like when you go to a restaurant and ask for Coca-Cola and your waiter asks if Pepsi is okay instead. Sure, it isn’t quite what you asked for but it still hits the spot. Sometimes you have to settle for second best.

Tomb Raider at the time of its release was the highest-rated movie based on a video game across the general consensus. It was a breath of fresh air; a sigh of relief for long-time fans of the Tomb Raider franchise and for critics who love berating video game movies.

In 2019 came that long-awaited live-action (of sorts) film based on a Nintendo game. No Italian-American plumbers this time. Nope, it was time for Pokémon to make its live-action debut after a great many of anime films.

The (Mew)two biggest takeaways from Detective Pikachu were Ryan Reynolds‘ performance as Pikachu, as well as the overall design of Pikachu and the other myriad of Pokémon characters that made an appearance. Where the family-friendly mystery film slacked was its storytelling. Not featuring enough Pokémon-frenzied action, the PG affair focused more on its character arcs than unlocking its full potential of wonderful madness. Regardless of its minor blemishes, Detective Pikachu would go on to gross a worldwide total of over $433 million at the box office. A colossal financial success but bizarrely only the second highest-grossing video game movie of all-time, somehow behind 2016’s godawful Warcraft.

Less than a year later another iconic Japanese video game character was set for his live-action debut. This time the blue, lightning quick collector of golden rings, Sonic the Hedgehog.

Voiced by Ben Schwartz and starring Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik, Sonic the Hedgehog was another PG movie that both families and fans of the Sega franchise could enjoy. The most substantial applaud was Carrey’s riotous performance as Doctor Ivo “Eggman” Robotnik. A masterclass from one of the finest slapstick comedic actors of our time.

At this moment – according to Rotten Tomatoes, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu is currently the highest-rated live-action video game movie of all-time at 68% with Sonic the Hedgehog just behind it at 63%. A gigantic improvement when you go back to 1997’s Mortal Kombat sequel which sits at a 2% score or Alone in the Dark‘s properly rotten 1%.

Husband and wife combo, Paul W. S. Anderson and Milla Jovovich struck again in 2020 with a moderately-received Monster Hunter kaiju movie. It boasted a cinematic pageant but was narratively thin. Still, it’s plainly wholesome that Anderson includes his wife in the majority of his work. She’s a splendid actor that lands not-so-splendid roles.

Consequently, what is the key to the growing success of this new wave of video game movies? The answer is that the major Hollywood film studios and their filmmakers have finally begun to listen to the audiences. They’re giving the fans what they want to see through dream casting choices, release-delaying tweaking and reshoots but most importantly, simply being more faithful to the source material instead of deviating from it entirely [Coughs] Resident Evil/Paul W. S. Anderson [Coughs].

A strong case in point for this would be the monumental outrage that test footage and original teaser poster for Sonic the Hedgehog caused in 2018. Sonic’s frightful humanoid appearance was universally panned by all who had the misery of seeing it. It spawned several hundred hilarious internet memes and would even receive criticism from members of the Sonic Team, as well as co-creator Yuji Naka. By May 2019 Paramount Pictures caved, as director Jeff Fowler announced that Sonic would be redesigned. Its slated release of November 2019 was now pushed back to February 2020. Proof that with enough whinging, those mighty corporate companies will surrender. We have more power than they realise.

So, what next? What does the future hold for video game movies? Can filmmakers and the film conglomerates keep up this hot streak?

Well, that Mortal Kombat reboot will be next to prove its worth. Despite its severe lack in eurodance techno music, the extremely violent first trailer exhibits that we are in for one hell of a spectacle!

Currently slated for a September release, we’ll get that super necessary Resident Evil reboot. And this time we’ll get Spencer Mansion, more of Racoon City and no Milla Jovovich as the anti-Umbrella superhuman Alice. No silly and far-fetched science fiction elements. It’s going back to its roots of pure survival horror. Hopefully we’ll get a teaser trailer sometime soon!

Beyond that, a sequel for Sonic the Hedgehog has been teased for a 2022 release. Also slated for a 2022 release is an Uncharted film starring the insanely loveable Tom Holland as Nathan Drake. Tomb Raider is receiving a sequel, now being directed by Misha Green who took over from Ben Wheatley after dropping out of the project due to scheduling conflicts and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. And perhaps most exciting of all a Jordan Vogt-Roberts-helmed Metal Gear Solid adaptation, starring Oscar Issac as Solid Snake which has no confirmed release date.

On a more personal note there’s a small handful of video game franchises I’d love to see adapted into movies, the first being the perpetually petrifying Dead Space. Other than those trademark Zack Snyder levels of convoluted CGI, I wholeheartedly believe Hollywood has mostly reached a point of being able to intertwine modern CGI and SFX hand-in-hand without it being obviously detectable. With a carefully chosen filmmaker [Coughs] William Eubank [Coughs], I reckon audiences and hardcore fans could get a genuinely fantastic Blockbuster movie of Isaac Clarke plasma-cutting his way through hordes of Necromorphs in space.

I would also adore to be taken to Rupture Farms. Whether it be part live-action, part animation, the struggle of Abe – along with his fellow Mudokon slaves and their battle to avoid countless Sligs and Scrabs, could provide for astronomical cinematic exploration.

And finally, based off of The New Order onwards and not the 3D DOS game of yesteryear, I would relish in seeing William “B.J.” Blazkowicz kicking some Nazi ass! The closest we’ve got to anything of this pandemonium was with 2018’s goregasmic action horror film Overlord. I would argue that even Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds could pass as a good Wolfenstein movie. Who does loving seeing Nazis being submachine-gunned to death!?

Going back to what I specifically said about Silent Hill: Revelation, the fundamentals of creating a truly successful video game movie is for the experience to be as close as possible to the interactivity of the material its based upon. An almost impossible endeavour to accomplish. Not to sound like a defeatist, a scripted film created by writers, directors and their film studios will never be able to hold a candle to openness of playing a video game and you being the master of every possible outcome.

Still, the irrefutable improvements with modern, constantly-evolving technology, good-intentioned fan outrage and Hollywood hiring people that genuinely care about the product(s) make it a bright future ahead. A point where we can forgive and forget about the trails and tribulations we as video game and film fans have had to endure up to now. At last, it is a genuinely exciting time to co-exist as a video game fan and a film fan!