Video Game Movies: What Makes Them Fail So Hard?

What makes a video game movie fail hard and what makes them successful...

Whenever a film adaptation of a popular video game is announced, you can almost feel every eye in the video game community performing a collective roll. Much like video games that are based off of movies, it seems that many of them try to make it just based off the fact that it has a well-established name tied to it. As easy as it is to be cynical about video game movies, though, not all of them have turned out to be a complete and utter disaster. With that being said, let’s see where the differences lie between good and bad video game movies.

[Related: 32 Video Game Movies in Development]

There are very few out there that would deny every movie Uwe Boll has made about video games has been bad. Besides the fact that they are broken on almost every fundamental level from a filmmaking standpoint, there are also a couple other problems with his approach, starting with the games he picks to make movies out of.

Far Cry Movie

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Let’s first take a look at Far Cry. While the premise of the first game was very B movie, with an ex-special forces soldier taking on a simple job as a charter boatman who is swept up into a conflict when he brings a reporter to a remote Pacific Island, it still didn’t make a lot of sense to make a movie out of it. Having only two full-fledged releases in its canon at the time with Far CryFar Cry 2 there really wasn’t enough star power behind the name.

The same could be said for Bloodrayne and Alone in The Dark, whose names don’t really carry a lot of weight. What made Bloodrayne an even stranger pick to make a film out of was that the games were by no means masterpieces, having received pretty mixed reviews upon release. With the wildly popular Underworld movies having already been released when the movie came out, there was just no reason to even go see a poor man’s version of those movies. If you’re going to make a movie of a game, at least pick a name with some star power (more on that later).

Not only do some directors seem to pick video games that don’t seem to need a movie to make one out of, they also tend to just not do their damn research. I understand that they need crossover appeal, but they end up alienating everyone when they don’t stay at all faithful to the source material.

resident evil movie

Far Cry, for example, was turned into a damn buddy action flick with an obnoxious sidekick thrown in for comic relief, Alone in the Dark was about friggin’ aliens, and Resident Evil has pretty much morphed into an all-out action movie, with the first film totally throwing away any potential it had to capitalize on the haunted-house thrills of the 1996 survival horror game.

In addition to picking games that don’t really need movies due to their lack of any star power in name, there are also films being made out of games that just don’t have enough there to go off of. House of the Dead is an arcade lite-gun game, with no real plot threads worth exploring. You can give Resident Evil credit for at least making a movie out of a game that had characters and a well of established lore to draw from, even if it was, for the most part, ignored.

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What about Street Fighter, a game that has never really worked on establishing any kind of story? Go to Street Fighter II’s Wikipedia page and tell me if you see any subheadings about plot. I’ll wait. You didn’t see any, did you? That’s because there is nothing for anyone trying to make a movie out of the work with. Perhaps if the movie had been adapted by someone that already had experience making great kung-fu movies that really didn’t need a plot, this could have had a chance, but it wasn’t, so it didn’t. Once again, you can credit Mortal Kombat with at least having a little more to work with, since that game did have some light story elements to it.

This article can’t be written without mentioning the atrocious Super Mario Bros. movie, either. The fiction of the game is simply incompatible with movies. A story about a plumber rescuing a princess from a castle by jumping on giant mushrooms and navigating underground sewer pipes with no story tying any of the levels together is simply nothing that can be made into an appealing movie. This was a game that was fun to play based on the virtue of its mechanics, not because its story or characters kept people glued to the screen.

So, with bad video game movie adaptations, we have directors paying no respect to the source material or working with games that have no star power or no plot to work off of. What about video game adaptations that turn out alright? There are several worth mentioning, and they all follow a pretty specific pattern.

video game movies

Let’s start with the Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life. Right out the gate, they stuck with the source material by picking an actress that is just as sultry as her video game counterpart, Angelina Jolie. I’m sure there are many that disagree, but for all intents and purposes, Angelina made for a great Lara Croft. The Tomb Raider name had also been around for seven years at that point and the original Tomb Raider had a massive cultural impact when it was released, so there was plenty of crossover appeal that could appease both the fans of the video games and your regular moviegoer.

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What else they did was stick to the source material. While not basing itself wholly off of the long-running video game franchise’s canon, it did capture the spirit of those games. We have Lara Croft pursing an ancient artifact that, if uncovered by the wrong person, could mean the end of the world. She visits ancient locales, searches for clues as to where to go next, all while fighting off ancient creatures and modern day ne’er-do-wells that would use the artifact for evil. I was never left thinking, “this would never happen in a Tomb Raider game,” while watching the movie.

One video game movie notable for having the largest budget of any video game movie, Prince of Persia also succeeded as a good film adaptation. First of all, while the games aren’t heavy on story, they are set in a universe that is very friendly to writers trying to fill in the gaps. A prince trying to save a princess in an Arabian-Knights-esque world filled with swords and sorcery? How can you not make that work? Not only were plot elements from many of the games in the Sands of Time series of games incorporated, the light-heartedness of the adventure never made a joke of the source material, much like Uwe Boll did with Far Cry.

It may stand in contention as to whether or not Forward Unto Dawn belongs in this discussion, given that it was a web series and not given the full box-office release, but it does stand as an example of a live-action film that simply gives the fans what they want – a closer look into the Halo universe. Given that 343 was directly involved with the game’s development, it made sure that the series never stepped outside of the already established lore of the Halo universe. Though the first half of the series played host to some boring characters, the second half picked up the action considerably and finally put Master freaking Chief onscreen. It didn’t win any awards for a master-stroke of film writing genius, but it was successful in giving the people what they were asking for.

When it comes down to it, there are a few things that set great video game movies apart from poor video game movies. First, they pick video games that are known both within and outside of video game culture. If a video game whose name isn’t as well known the general public is chosen, a game is picked whose premise and fiction are friendly with a transition to the big screen. In the case of Prince of Persia, they are also given a healthy budget to work with, allow the directors and writers get some good acting talent and special effects into the mix.

When it comes down to it, though, a little fan service and staying true to the source material is what can really set a video game movie up for success. How would the Harry Potter movies have turned out if they were about a boy trying to rescue his parents from an evil robot warlord wielding futuristic gadgets? It would have sucked. It would have really sucked.

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