Can Video Game Movies Be Good? (Siskoid Edition)

I've been thinking about this since my friends over at the Council of Geeks asked the question and came up empty trying to name an actually good one. (They missed one, stay with me gentle reader.) And it's true that it's slim pickings as far as that goes. At best, video game movies are "okay" but not all that memorable (Tomb Raider? Angry Birds? Warcraft?), or else are nostalgic candy for certain generations (Super Mario Bros.? Mortal Kombat?). No one's actually arguing that these are objectively good, though some do achieve the level of cult film (Street Fighter?). And obviously, some have rated sequels, and even franchises (Resident Evil, Hitman).

But while you may have your favorites, none have achieved any kind of critical momentum. Is there hope? Plenty of studios are banking on making it happen. There are movies in development for Rampage, Minecraft, and Dragon's Lair, for example. And it's true that the superhero movie was once considered trash, and has found a way to win both at the box office and at the critical reception party.

The Council of Geeks argues that a video game movie can't easily be good because the medium has a quality that cannot be 'ported over: interactivity. When the source material puts you in the driver's seat, giving it away to a director and actors while you sit there passively actually REMOVES something from the franchise being adapted rather than adds to it. Interesting. That could certainly account for video game movies not really bringing in the gaming crowds they apparently cater to.

Of course, there are a lot of turkeys that don't need an explanation. Hollywood makes bad movies in all genres.

But I think part of it is also that so many of these films don't embrace their video game roots, or are ashamed of them (which is a criticism I've often levied at bad superhero movies). The dank Mario Bros. has nothing to do with the style of the classic game, for example. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within has nothing to do with the games EXCEPT its animation style (and a weak philosophical thread I guess). Need for Speed could be any car movie, they're just trying to get name recognition. The more successful attempts (like the ones with sequels) have, I think, openly embraced the preposterous nature of their video game universes. My favorite of the lot, a much misunderstood crazy-ass fighting movie, D.O.A. Dead or Alive:
When I look at every video game movie every released... well, that's an awful lot of movies I haven't seen or wanted to see... but when I look at video game movies I HAVE seen, they all elicit indifference or irritation from me. EXCEPT DOA which I have watched with glee several times and would again. I KNOWS its video game universe is silly cheese and beefcake, and goes the extra mile with a completely ridiculous kung fu plot, video game graphics as part of its grammar, and Eric Roberts as a slimy B-movie villain (there's no one better). If you play video games because they're fun, then these movies ought to be as well.

Even if you don't believe me about this undeniable classic, we KNOW good video game movies can be written and made because we've HAD them. Not licensed game adaptations, not yet, but video game movies nonetheless. I was watching TRON and TRON: Legacy this week, the first of which is not considered a video game movie because the arcade game was based on the film, not vice-versa, but it is most definitely a movie based around a video game (or several games). And both it and its sequel are generally better (and better regarded) than most video game adaptations.
As is The Last Starfighter. As is... wait for it... The Matrix! If the VR in that film series (and the first one is impeccable no matter the later films' failings) isn't a video game, then I'm a machine's uncle. And what's different about those films? They are all, in a sense, about the EXPERIENCE of gaming. What is it like to take on a role, to feel the adrenaline pumping, to hit the high score, to level up? Instead of seeing their old avatar they have no control over, gamers instead see and recognize THEMSELVES.

(And even without that conceit, I think you could make a case that the Lego movies are partway video game movies at this point. Wreck-It Ralph. Scott Pilgrim. vs the World. All fine video game movies without drawing from a licensed source.)

Video game worlds started out pretty simple and limited, so exploring them on film required either complete invention to the point where it's not the game anymore, or a necessarily shallow story. They're more complex now, but if that's your thing, would you rather discover the story of Warcraft, Mass Effect, Fallout or Skyrm in a 2-hour movie, or through hours of game play? These may seem opaque to the non-gamer anyway, dooming the film in theaters. Film goers don't seem to want to explore video game worlds cinematically... unless they actually see themselves on screen.

At least, that's one theory. What do you think? Feel free to invalidate the entire thesis by defending your favorite video game movies if you have them!


Toby'c said...

A couple of good if not great ones that come to mind are Ace Attorney and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children. And maybe a few of the Pokémon movies, though none of them are really based on the games' plots.

Randal said...

I can think of nothing wrong with Mortal Kombat. I remember sitting there in the dark theater...wondering if something was broken because it seemed like we were waiting a long time after the trailers ended...and then....I can only imagine my eyes, ears, and nose were bleeding and I DID NOT CARE.

And it doesn't count but King of Kong rocks.

Unknown said...

I feel that Wreck-It Ralph while not necessarily based on one particular game hits those same nostalgic buttons that the Lego Movie did.

mmo24 said...

Mario the best yeyeye


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