28 May 2010

War of the Decades: The Evolution of Video Game Movies


This is a rough topic. But it needs addressing today. This may be the day in history that we see the release of the greatest Video Game Movie every made in human history. As we'll see through this anticipatory post, that really wasn't that difficult to achieve.


Yes, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) launches across the globe today and could very be the most successful film based on a video game both critically and commercially of all time. It already has the highest Rotten Tomatoes score of any Video Game film (um...yeah, at 58% pre-release). So, why does this genre have such comically low standards? That's what we're exploring in this long-awaited edition of War of the Decades: The Evolution of Video Game Movies.

1990s: Plumbers and Raiden
There are so many kinds of sources for films. Books, amusement park rides, anecdotes, toy lines, other movies, the list goes on and on. For the most part, these kinds of films based on questionable material are a bitrough. At the same time however, we can call out the exceptions to prove that source material shouldn't really determine the quality of a film. There's one pretty good film made from all these that proves that with the right story, writing and talent it's possible to make a good film out of just about anything. Except video games. There's nothing that compares to the widespread catastrophe that is the Video Game Movie. It's insane.

Video games first became pretty widespread, ie affordable in home domiciles and fully integrated into culture in the 1980s and has really only grown with technology from there. One of the most phenomenally popular early games was Super Mario Bros. (1985), so it made sense that this would also become the first film adapted from a video game in 1993. If you look even slightly closer at the Mario story though, you can immediately see this is a bad idea. It's a simplistic platformer at heart with bizarre enemies, friends and power-ups. None of this is possible to gel into a coherent story without either a ton of irony or massive retooling of source material. Actually to be honest, that 5-minute adaptation is far better than that Dennis Hopper film.

So basically in the 1990s, people didn't really know how to make the movie bigger than the game. They tried attaching loose or weak stories to mediums that worked best with no story. Honestly, who really remembers why the fighters in any Mortal Kombat game were fighting? It's not important - it's not why you play video games. Films lack the level of direct interaction integral to video game experience. Weak stories are supplanted by good gameplay. When this medium is transferred to a more passive film medium without proper adaptation and forced padding, the result is lacking.

Regardless, Mortal Kombat (1995) is probably one of the best video game movies, although remember, the best of this crop is still fucking awful.

Early 2000s: Increased Scope, Zombies and CGI
By the time around Ocarina of Time (1998) came out, video game storytelling was getting to become more advanced. With the increased memory and graphical capabilities of Sixth Generation Consoles, video games started to become more cinematic by their nature. Two games I included on my Top 5 Video Games of the Millennium list, Conker's Bad Fur Day (2001) and Halo: Combat Evolved (2001) included heavy cut scenes as well as a more film-like focus on depth of story, from there the industry changed. I can't believe a Halo movie hasn't been pulled off yet. Truth be told, my guess is that for the most part, the games already simulated the filmic experience. There's not much left for a film to cover after playing these games with both their high-arcing stories covered both in cutscenes as well as actual gameplay.

So certainly video games themselves were moving more towards the quality of film. By the end of the past decade there were easily a handful of video games with stories to rival great films. So how did film respond? By just throwing up the same shit really.

Definitely larger budgeted and more mainstream than Double Dragon (1994), the decade led off with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) and never looked back. This definitely resembles a lot of other early 2000s movies like Charlie's Angels (2000) or The Fast and the Furious (2001), just flashy rapid action-humour with a constant nod towards the extreme. It's important that a video game film finally got a big budget and a big, A-List cast, I mean, this film actually made some careers! ...But it sucked, though.

The early part of the decade wasn't all too bad really, you got Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001) which bankrupted Square Pictures but is actually a good landmark in film and CGI use. Then there's the Resident Evil franchise which I think is actually one of the best ways to transfer video game action into action movie action.

The Resident Evil films are not really good films by any standard, but they're pretty watchable. They also merge video game and film format to a very high degree. They all have a good amount of wandering and exploring to reach a set goal point, hundreds of enemies that merges the Stormtrooper Effect with common video game tactics of defeating smaller enemies, and the films even have the Big Boss at the end. Again, these aren't great movies, but if you're going to adapt a video game, they pull it off flawlessly. The story doesn't matter at all, but the films are built on a game-like progression, which is cool. To demonstrate that this doesn't come automatically with watchability, just Netflix Doom (2005). I've proven my point.

Let's flash to the future for another film/comic series that seems to have virtually introduced video game-like principles seemlessly into the rules of its universe, check out the trailer for the upcoming Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010):



Notice a few things - the film (from what it looks like) appears to integrate video game lingo, tropes and styles into an entertaining and refreshing package. Video Game Movies should attempt this level of integration and assimilation, acknowledging their own tropes and strengths rather than bill themselves as something they're not. Innovation, not imitation.

Late 2000s: Utter Shit
Once Uwe Boll threw his hat in the ring things really went to shit. I mean, he's directed 5 video game adaptations and his highest RT rating (by far) is Postal (2007) at a whopping 8%. Beyond this we've got a lot of misguided attempts at making pretty naturally cool video games into forced-cool movies like Hitman (2007) and Max Payne (2008). I'll keep talking about Resident Evil (2002), that film is well cast with characters and plotting that make the film work rather than hokey shit that purports the movie to be more than it should be.

Again, it's tough to make something cinematical out of a medium that more and more is becoming cinematical in its own right. When you're adapting a novel or even a comic book there are elements that are exciting because its source material either exists in a completely mental realm or at least a 2-D, soundless realm. Adapting a complex video game who may make up for its sub-par story and cutscenes with excellent gameplay is difficult, if not impossible.

2010s: Persians!?
So, here we are. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2003) is a really well done video game. It's well done, however because of the aforementioned cinematic quality. It's scope is huge, gameplay intriguing and characters compelling. As I've postulated this entire post, all this seems to point towards the failure of its adaptability rather than success.

It's funny though, as it seems like the producers are stars are well-aware of this fact. This of course makes their imminent failure slightly more painful. They are trying so hard not to make just another shitty video game movie. At any rate though, this is definitely more Tomb Raider than Hitman. Whether or not it has some genuine action and drama as well as finding something interesting to do with the video game's time-dagger gimmick we'll find out. Gyllenhaal already looks painfully miscast, though and any semblance of plot from the trailers is indiscernible. Also we can talk about Mike Newell turning the best Harry Potter novel into the worst Harry Potter film somehow.

In the end, this still has a good chance to be the greatest video game movie ever made, if only because the two decades prior have thrown so much shit into the wind. I guess we'll just have to find out. At any rate this film's success, critically, commercially as well as how well it adapts its source material, should determine the path of video games as they become even more immersive in the next decade. They've always got some potential, but the mediums at this point seem incompatible.

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