A Slightly Better (but still pretty bad) Decade of Video Game Films

Kicking off the decade was the utterly average ‘Prince of Persia: The Sand of Time’ which was a welcome change from the utterly awful. It’s probably been best remembered for causing a huge whitewashing controversy. Not only was Jake Gyllenhaal cast, the film doubled down by making sure no one else was played by an actor of Iranian, Middle Eastern or Muslim descent. This was obviously a huge issue and rightly so, (one that still plagues our screens today but is looking like it’s on the way out) but the film isn’t awful. Unlike most of the other adaptations before it, you didn’t feel like you’d wasted your time going to see it. You probably didn’t remember it a week later either, but this small improvement felt like a big deal at the time. Was this the turning point when studios realised that video game adaptations didn’t have to be awful? Not exactly.

Later that year we got the dull ‘Resident Evil: Afterlife’, which went all in on the action as they realised that was all it’s core audience cared about. It’s pretty common for a fourth film within a franchise to become stale and formulaic, so there was no real surprise here. Two years later, ‘Resident Evil: Retribution’ was more of the ‘been here, done that’ but was probably my personal favourite of the series, but that’s like picking a favourite brand of plasters, not that impressive. In the same year, we received a belated sequel to ‘Silent Hill’ called ‘Silent Hill: Revelation’. After an average and two not entirely awful adaptations starting off this decade, we returned to the realm of truly awful. Pathetic characters, a muddling story and just soul-crushingly dumb. The only thing this did better than it’s predecessor was that it was a lot shorter. Easily the worst video game film this decade.

We had a 2 year gap before the next adaptation, and this is when things started to change. Studios took more risks and gave these films a bigger budget and attracted more star-studded casts. Before 2014, most attempts had all made their budget back so their logic was that if films as awful as those could, surely a more ‘mainstream’ looking adaptation would rake in the big bucks. By picking ‘Need For Speed’, they could also try and piggyback off of the success of ‘The Fast and Furious’ franchise. Throw in Aaron Paul mere months after the end of ‘Breaking Bad’ and Michael Keaton who was on the award-season radar for ‘Birdman’, this was a sure fire hit. On the financial side of things, it was, on the actual cinematic side, it really wasn’t. The car stunts were impressive as they opted to not use CGI, but like so many before it, ‘Need For Speed’ forgot to give the audience any sense of a story. Picking a game that actually doesn’t have a plot was probably a big mistake. It also managed to turn Aaron Paul, one of the most likable stars in America, into the worst protagonist ever. He had as much enthusiasm as a wet sock.

One thing ‘Need For Speed’ can be pleased with is that it was sandwiched between two of the worst video game adaptations ever. ‘Hitman: Agent 47’ genuinely made the dreadful ‘Hitman’ look like a masterpiece. It had a really effective opening scene with Agent 47 takes out a group of soldiers by sticking to the shadows and never being seen, in vein with the game series. It was almost like director Aleksander Bach felt this was enough to appease the fans and was then free to blow everything up and have lots of gun fights. If you’ve never played the game, big firefights are not a part of it. If you find yourself in one, you’re not going to last long. If ‘Resident Evil: Extinction’ was a middle finger to it’s series, this was a streaming pile of poo left on your doorstep. As well as disregarding it’s source, it turned every scene and character into one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs. I genuinely forgot Zachary Quinto was even in it, let alone the main villain. This film had one job, to beat the incredibly low bar set by the original. It somehow not only failed, but failed rather spectacularly.

‘Need For Speed’ proved that a bigger budget can help a film’s financial success, so maybe it was the catalyst for ‘Warcraft’ getting a whopping $160 million budget. ‘World of Warcraft’ is one of the most recognisable gaming franchises to non-gamers, as well as having one of the biggest fan bases going, so it was a calculated risk there was enough interest for this to succeed. It did, smashing the previous record for a video game adaptation and still to this day being the only one to gross over $400 million. It’s visuals were outstanding compared to what had come before but, again, that was about all it had going for it. There was no depth to the characters and the story was ultimately forgettable as it tried to incorporation too much into its rather lean 123 minute runtime. If one adaptation would’ve benefitted from a longer runtime, it was this one, but other adaptations abusing theirs before made them weary. Another issue ‘Warcraft’ gave itself was assuming this was the start of a franchise and spent time building towards something bigger instead of putting all it’s focus on the events unfolding in real time.

Fast forward a few months and another mainstream game series got the film treatment, and this was one for all the family. ‘The Angry Birds Movie’ was one of the safest bets a studio took as it was guaranteed to bring in a younger audience instead of alienating them. Now, while it’s no ‘Inside Out’ or ‘The LEGO Movie’, it is harmless fun and does make you laugh sporadically. There nothing ground-breaking about it, but there’s also nothing foul within. Also, this game series has even less of a story than ‘Need For Speed’, the plots makes enough sense for it not to be a distraction. It’s a sad fact, but the truth is, ‘The Angry Birds Movie’ is the best video game adaptation we’ve ever received.

Why this is even harder to swallow is one of the latest attempt should’ve topped them all. A film with a critically acclaimed cast, a director coming off of a film that earned widespread praise and based upon a game series with one of the richest and most interesting plots ever, ‘Assassin’s Creed’ should’ve been incredible. It was dreadful. It’s clear that the mistakes made by ‘Laura Croft: Tomb Raider’ and ‘Resident Evil’ 16 YEARS AGO had still not been learnt. Fans of the series had complained for years that the modern day sections were the weak link, so what did the film do? Based 80% of the film in the present day. What made this even more baffling is that the scenes during the Spanish Inquisition were undoubtedly the better parts of this snooze fest. It was almost as if they were scared a setting without phones and laptops would put audiences off when they should’ve realised the game series had enough fans to bring everyone in, as was having Michael Fassbender star. Then there was a ‘twist’ that was so poorly written everyone who was a fan of the games knew it from the offset, while newcomers were left even more bemused as to what was happening. This was a series I was personally invested in, playing and loving the entire series, so this film probably stung me more than others, but there’s still no denying it such a waste of everyone’s talents. To this day, it’s still the only time I’ve got jealous of someone falling asleep in a film next to me instead of annoyed.

With so many of these films failing to start a franchise, it seemed like something of a minor miracle ‘Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’ actually happened. The sixth (SIXTH!) film in a franchise without a single good film is quite embarrassing, and the last one didn’t change this. It was actually considered one of the stronger entries by fans, but still managed to do a lot wrong. The main criticism was that it didn’t bring back enough characters which left a lot of plot points without closure and make the whole affair feel anti-climatic. There’s not a lot more than can be said about this film without feeling like I’ve copied and pasted comments about the previous instalments. It’s felt more like a relief this franchise was ending rather than a celebration of the journey leading to it.

And so we’ve reached today, where I stand by my lack of enthusiasm about the upcoming ‘Tomb Raider’. Because of all this nonsense that pre-dates it, I really can’t be excited despite casting the stupendously incredible Alicia Vikander. Are we going to receive a plot that keeps us engaged? Or is there a reason games work better fleshed out over twenty hours instead of two? Can casting arguably one of the best actors in Hollywood right now help elevate it beyond mediocre? If Michael Fassbender couldn’t, I can’t see how anyone can. The actions scenes will probably be well put together but might they forget what the core values of the series are about and concentrate on a generic survivalist tale? I really hope not.

Later this summer we also get the Dwayne Johnson led ‘Rampage’, a film that most people won’t even know is based upon a video game. With Johnson in the lead role, I’d be surprised if this didn’t become the highest grossing video game adaptation of all time and unlike ‘Tomb Raider’, I have a sneaky suspicion this one may actually be decent or, dare I say it, good. Apart from ‘Baywatch’, Johnson’s track record is rather solid and this seems like a film that, if done right, will actually be a lot of fun, if nothing new. Right now, I think all gamers would be happy with that outcome finally happening.

Video games have always been a huge part of pop culture and that’s not going to change. With the advancement of graphics and the core functions of games, do we really need to see our favourite series’ in film, when it never improves or even comes close to the enjoyment of playing the actual game? If we do, maybe TV would be a better medium in this day and age. At the start of the century, TV was seen as lesser quality, now we have ‘Game of Thrones’ on a higher budget than some blockbuster films. It would allow the story to be told over a more appropriate amount of time rather than rushing through it like a speed run. If we are to keep getting the adaptations, perhaps companies should finally look back on every single mistake that has been repeated time and time again and do something crazy, like not repeat them. Or maybe stop trying to adapt the most complex stories going. ‘Warcraft’ and ‘Assassin’s Creed’ have so much backstory it’s impossible to know where to start and what to leave out. Something like ‘Heavy Rain’ would make a great story as it is a crime noir where you make all the choices. There are around twenty endings too so whatever route they chose for the film’s plot would be a surprise to fans of the game as well as the general audience. The budget would also be relatively low, making it more credible for studios to fund it.

Whatever changes needs to change soon, perhaps this decade will usher in a new era of good video game adaptations. ‘Detective Pikachu’ and the forthcoming ‘Minecraft’ movies both sound like their doing something different to try and get out of the poor place video game adaptations have ended up in. They keep being looked down upon by audiences which is fair enough but what’s worse is they actually affect negative buzz around the games themselves, and all of these adapted games are significantly better than the films they were given. Hollywood, sort it out or just stop ruining them. It’s as simple as that. Sincerely, a gamer who has had enough of you dragging respectable series’ through the dirt for a quick buck.

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