Why video game movies just don’t work

With Angelina Jolie in Tomb Raider on the TV, Tom Cole investigates why video game to film crossovers so often fail...

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Has there ever been a good movie made of a video game? I ask because Lara Croft: Tomb Raider’s on TV today (6:55pm, Channel 5), and just seeing it there in the listings reminded me how stonkingly bad that film is. But then again, aren’t they all?

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You know how some books make brilliant films because they’ve got well-drawn characters, filmable settings and a coherent narrative? Well, historically, video games have had none of these things. Sure, that’s changing nowadays, with something like Modern Warfare 3 pitched between a cinematic first person shooter and an immersive RPG, but for years games haven’t exactly been the most fruitful source of inspiration to film-makers and screenwriters. And why? Oh, you might well ask…

1.\tLost the plot? It was never there!

Many games exist solely to enable the player to do things that they can’t in real life. A good example of such a game is House of the Dead, an arcade shooter by Sega in which players use lightguns to blast their way through hordes of zombies in a hokey sub-Hammer world of graveyards and haunted houses. While the game’s fine to play, it’s just a shooting gallery with a horror theme. 

I’ve played and finished the thing a couple of times and can’t remember one shred of plot, but that didn’t stop German auteur Uwe Boll making a film of the game, which was inexplicably set on a fantasy version of Ibiza overrun with the living dead. The film had about as much to do with the game as Bambi, and the fact that it was so bad it’s still on IMDb’s bottom 100 list perfectly illustrates the peril of trying desperately to make a plot out of something that isn’t there. As is often the case with these things: good game, shame about the film.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaF3dN_fVfY

2.\tLost in translation

Remember the Super Mario Bros film? You know, the one that starred Bob Hoskins and, despite being called Super Mario Bros, made Mario and Luigi look like a father and son pairing? I know, I know, it’s terrible, but how could it ever have been any good? 

The Mario games, at least those made up until Mario 64, featured the titular plumbers running around a Technicolor paradise called the Mushroom Kingdom, jumping on turtles and collecting gold coins. How the heck would that ever translate as a live action feature? 

Answer: it wouldn’t, and we got a bizarre reimagined Super Mario universe in the movie instead, which did away with everything apart from Mario’s red overalls and bushy moustache. They changed everything. I mean, for instance, here’s how a goomba looked in the game compared with one seen in the movie:

What were they thinking? I haven’t a clue, but presumably the person who decided to ditch the colourful worlds of the video game in favour of setting the film in a sub-Blade Runner dystopia is to blame…

3.\tTerritorial warfare

Back in the early 90s everyone was playing Street Fighter 2, Capcom’s revolutionary one-on-one beat ’em up, which coined the term hadouken and introduced the Tiger Uppercut to the world. The game itself required players to pick one of eight fighters from around the globe and engage in a bit of the ol’ fisticuffs with the others. It was simple but really, really good fun. The problem for Hollywood when the film-makers came a-callin’ was that the main character in the game, Ryu, was Japanese.

However, the game featured an American character called Guile, who the film was quickly built around, and who went from being a bushy-haired Air Force pilot to a crew-cut sporting Allied Nations commander. But the oddest change was that, rather than being played by a proper Yank, they yoked in Jean-Claude Van Damme for the role. 

So now we’ve got a film based on one of the side characters from the game, whose back story has been completely rewritten, played by a man with an overpoweringly strong Belgian accent pretending to be American. Again, what were they thinking? Demographics and market research can really botch a project…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKVNAlO4uuo

4.\tPutting things in perspective

Doom is one of those games that perfectly demonstrate the beauty of simplicity: it’s a first person shooter, in which you blast your way through a diseased space colony, seeing everything through the eyes of a personality-less marine. The game’s effect is to totally immerse you in the experience, to make you feel like you’re the one trapped in this hellish world. It’s one of the most solipsistic gaming experiences there is. 

So obviously, when it came time to make a film, an entire cast of characters was dreamt up, as well as an elaborate back story that had naff all to do with the game’s vague stabs at exposition. Guess what? It didn’t work, and the movie version of Doom comes across like a second-rate rip off of Aliens. Though to give the film-makers their due, they did at least include one scene shot first person, which feels a bit like the game:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=45jgCxucL0k

Why they didn’t shoot the whole thing this way, I can’t fathom.

5.\tShoddy graphics

While there’s lots to say about Resident Evil, about the fact the game is one of the worst written and voice-acted in history (sample line: “Jill, here’s a lock-pick; it might be handy if you, the master of unlocking, take it with you”), its simple haunted-house setting or its basic story of law enforcers in peril, I’ll leave all that to one side. 

Looking at the first film made of Resident Evil, the first thing the seasoned player will note is that it has absolutely nothing to do with the game, save a couple of names and the presence of zombies. The second thing to note is just how godawful the effects are.

The movie builds to a climactic battle with a “Licker”, a supposedly fearsome beastie designed to strike terror into the hearts of viewers. Pah, fat chance. All it does is inspire snorts of derision at how bad the CGI is. C’mon guys, if you’re going to make a movie of a game, you could at least attempt to get the computer generated parts to look as good in the cinema as they do on the PlayStation…

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FE5yo1-IIX4#t=04m50s

Phew. Feels good to get all that off my chest. And don’t get me wrong, the films I’ve talked about here are all pretty bad, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a good time watching them. So, if I were you, I’d call some friends over and settle in for a night of fun before you tune in to Tomb Raider. And hey, if it all gets too terrible to bear, there’s always Harry Hill on the other side…

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What’s your (least) favourite video game movie? Got any games you think would make good films? Come on, pipe up, and fire your suggestions into the comments below.