Feature film adaptations of video games are, by and large, garbage. That’s not a hyperbolic or inflammatory statement—over the course of Hollywood’s 23-year attempt to bring video game stories to the big screen, not a single one has succeeded on a critical level. A few get by on niche genre appeal or small but devoted fanbases, but we have yet to see the great video game movie.
However, 2016 brings us a pair of opportunities for that to happen. Two feature film adaptations of video games are on tap, but unlike past films, these have accomplished filmmakers at the helm. This weekend sees the release of Moon and Source Code director Duncan Jones’ Warcraft (which, admittedly, isn’t off to a great start), and this November brings us Assassin’s Creed from Macbeth director Justin Kurzel and starring prestige actors galore.
So with this in mind, now feels like a good time to look back on Hollywood’s history with the video game movie in an effort to pin down why, after 23 years, we still don’t have a good one.
It all began in 1993 with the infamous Super Mario Bros. On the heels of the video game boom in the 1980s, Hollywood made its first attempt to bring this new fad to the big screen to spectacularly disastrous results. The high profile film netted prestige in the form of Bob Hoskins as Mario and Dennis Hopper as King Koopa, and directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel—hired based on their work on the British sci-fi satire Max Headroom—got admirably ambitious with the adaptation and made a number of changes to make the Super Mario Bros. characters realistically carry over to the big screen.
But audiences and critics weren’t buying it. The film made less than half its budget with a worldwide gross of $20.9 million, and critics savaged the movie as one of the worst films of 1993. The reaction was so strong that Nintendo has since refused any further offers to adapt their properties for the big screen. Admittedly, this movie is weird, with sci-fi nuttiness galore and a strange plot device involving NYU student Daisy (Samantha Mathis) coming to learn that her father is now living as a sentient fungus. But it gained a cult following and some devotees over the years (including yours truly). It’s the kind of craziness that rarely makes it to the big screen, and some of these narrative turns are so out there they’re begging to be admired for sheer ambition.
The year following Super Mario Bros.’ release, Hollywood tried again, this time with a martial arts bent. 1994 gave us the low-budget, B-movie-esque Double Dragon as well as the Jean-Claude Van Damme–ed Street Fighter. Despite Double Dragon being more endearing, it was the latter film that was the first video game movie to catch on with audiences, scoring nearly $100 million at the box office. Critically, the film was panned—it’s fan service and 90s blockbusterism at its worst—but its box office success led to Hollywood assuming this as the kind of video game movie audiences were craving.
So in 1995 we got director Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat, yet another martial arts-centric video game adaptation that performed extremely well at the box office—it grossed $122 million against a budget of only $18 million. Mortal Kombat isn’t wholly terrible. Anderson at least attempts to take the story seriously while reveling in the fantasy aspects of the mythology, unlike Street Fighter, which feels like it’s winking at you the entire time. But as a film, the structure and characters are certainly lacking, and Mortal Kombat continued the trend of suffering from poor reviews. It spawned a less successful sequel, Mortal Kombat: Annihilation, in 1997, but by and large Hollywood seemed pretty dubious about the whole video game movie prospect, and the genre laid semi-dormant through the second half of the 1990s.
In 2001, we got a new kind of video game movie: the movie star version. Angelina Jolie had just won an Oscar for her turn in Girl, Interrupted, and on the cusp of movie stardom, anchored Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. This particular video game movie presented an entirely new set of problems. While prior adaptations suffered from a lack of interesting story or characters given the simple quality of the games, Lara Croft comes complete with a complex and, to be honest, not necessarily compelling mythology. Under the direction of Simon West (Con Air), the film doesn’t know what it wants to be—an Indiana Jones-style adventure, a combat-driven actioner, an Illuminati mystery—and fails to be engaging at every turn.
Ultimately, while Lara Croft followed in the footsteps of its predecessors and suffered negative reviews, it was a box office success, scoring $274.7 million against a budget of $115 million. But much like Mortal Kombat, its 2003 sequel Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life—despite more favorable reviews for more finely tuned storytelling—failed to match the original’s box office.
But sandwiched between Lara Croft and its sequel was the video game movie that would become the ol’ standard for Hollywood for years to come, and would serve to solidify the genre as second-tier: Resident Evil. Having crafted the first Mortal Kombat film, Paul W.S. Anderson tried his hand at a different property with 2002’s Resident Evil. This adaptation took a horror-centric video game and made a horror-centric genre film out of it, which proved to be a formula for box office success—the first three sequels all grossed more at the box office than their predecessors. But Resident Evil also solidified the video game movie as a niche genre, garnering middling reviews for each outing but a sizeable box office performance nonetheless.
Films like Doom and Silent Hill would follow in Resident Evil’s footsteps to varied results, and the video game adaptation would attempt to evolve into a more grounded iteration in the wake of Batman Begins with the arrival of Hitman in 2007 and the Mark Wahlberg-fronted Max Payne in 2008, both of which were fair commercial successes but again failed to crack the code of a critically acclaimed video game movie.
And then in 2010, Hollywood went for the “go big or go home” approach with the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The project had a promising start—director Mike Newell was coming off of helming Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and star Jake Gyllenhaal was making a firm blockbuster play after a series of critically acclaimed turns. But the film suffered from the same mistakes as Lara Croft in trying to hew too closely to the mythology and mechanics of the video game, resulting in a muddled, cheesy, and non-sensical time-travel story with plenty of white washing for good measure. It was a commercial and critical failure, with wide-reaching effects. Gyllenhaal would eschew blockbuster material going forward in favor of character-driven material, and it would be six years before Hollywood attempted another ambitious fantasy-driven video game adaptation.
Hollywood even tried to go super basic with 2014’s Need for Speed in an effort to produce a good video game movie—all they needed to keep the spirit of the game was to make cars go fast! And even then, the movie turned out to be terrible. So what gives? Why are video game movies always bad?
Perhaps it’s the inherently dull premises. Video games are meant to be played, not watched (although there are folks who enjoy watching video games, which explains why something like Twitch exists), and when Hollywood tries to stick too close to the source material, the result is, well, pretty boring. Moreover, characters are purposefully lacking in striking characteristics, which allows the player to more fully immerse him or herself into the role of said character. So when you try to bring that character to the screen in a way that honors the game iteration, you get a pretty one-dimensional protagonist.
Maybe Super Mario Bros. had it right in some ways. That film is crazy, but it also takes some serious liberties with the source material. Bob Hoskins’ iteration of Mario is very Bob Hoskins-esque, and Dennis Hopper’s King Koopa is absolutely nothing like the video game version. Granted, the changes didn’t exactly result in something good, but at least the film made some interesting leaps of faith.
Warcraft, unfortunately, doesn’t look like the great video game movie we were hoping for, but perhaps that groundbreaking adaptation is closer than we thought. Assassin’s Creed has prestige to spare and looks to be taking some serious liberties with the source material, only keeping the simplest nugget of story from the games. And Jake Gyllenhaal is wading back into the video game movie waters with Tom Clancy’s The Division, only this time he’s spearheading the adaptation as a creative force in putting it together.
Or maybe we’re destined to see bad video game movies forever, with a few making lots of money here or there. Given its box office performance, The Angry Birds Movie could be the start of a trend of app adaptations. God help us all.