Movies of Games – The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

With The Oscars 2012 running on my TV right now, I figured this would be a good time to think about the awkward arena of movies based on video game franchises. And oh boy, is this one a doozie of a topic to pick.

Generally speaking, movies based on video games fall into three catagories – okay, bad but entertaining and utter tripe. It is unlikely for the foreseeable future that you will see a movie based on a video game get nominated for a raft of Oscars – but generally speaking, that isn’t the point. These movies are transitioning the games to a new audience – and it is often in the transition that things go awfully sour.

That isn’t to say ALL movies of video games are bad, because they are not. Silent Hill (2006) was for all accounts and purposes a faithful, intelligent attempt at transitioning the oppressive, dark and twisted Silent Hill games to a movie format. Sure, it had gaping plotholes but the games do as well. It followed almost blindly the story to the first game, later retold in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories, and it was this that made the movie seem extremely canon and faithful to the games.

Likewise, as much as it is easy to mock the Tomb Raider movies, there was method to the madness. They were action movies, big-budget attempts at entertaining and enthralling. That the movies felt somewhat legitimate to the source material was a revelation, because it would have been so easy for them to just keep Angelina Jolie in a state of near-permanent undress. They weren’t meant to be deep, complicated affairs – just fun movies, and they accomplished that with aplomb.

The next breed are those which are so bad they are good – camp-tastic masterpieces that live on because they’re just like watching a train crash, you know it is going to end badly but there is a certain enjoyment and schadenfreude in them. No more obvious than Street Fighter, which was terrible but it had three saving graces. The first of which was a corny, camp script with an abundance of cheesy one-liners, endlessly quotable in and out of context. The second was Kylie Minogue as Cammy (yes, Kami is pronounced as Cammy, it’s just stuck, please don’t judge me!), at the time people wanted to see her in that skin-tight leotard. A lot of people still watch it for that purpose alone. But for me, the main reason Street Fighter worked was Raul Julia as M. Bison – a masterstroke of utter genius, Raul Julia hammed it up so brilliantly and so eloquently that he was the real star of the show. No-one, not Kylie or Jean Claude Van-Damme or anyone else could measure up to him. Where everyone took it so seriously and played it so straight, Raul Julia was the ingredient that gave the movie life and credibility – he wasn’t taking it seriously. He played it like a pantomime villain, with all the cheese and sharp delivery that was required. And even though many will mock the movie to this day, and lament it being Raul Julia’s last movie, to me it was an example of just how much presence and talent the man had – he made the movie. He WAS the movie. And even though the movie wasn’t much cop overall, his performance in it shone the brighter for it. A true professional to the last…

And of course, you have the multitude of movies which, quite frankly, are just plain awful. It would be rude of me not to mention the prolific stain on the industry that is Uwe Boll, and his monstrosity version of Alone in the Dark – a movie so bad, I physically wanted to be ill, and not because the movie was gross or anything – it was just nauseating. For me, the defining moment in the movie is the love scene between Tara Reid and Christian Slater – directed with all the grace and charm of a bull in a china shop, with the song “Seven Seconds Away” playing over it – never has a song been so out of place in a movie scene. It couldn’t have been any worse if they just played The Benny Hill Show tune Yakkety Sax over the scene.

And then we come to the real crux of where movies and games collide – Resident Evil. The first movie was actually, to be fair to it, rather good in an offbeat, low-grade kind of way. It wasn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t terrible. The subsequent movies – with a fifth on the way this year – have seen a reasonably good concept be run into the ground, taking ideas from the games and repurposing them to be totally out of context, and not at all canon.

The problem is, as the movies progress onwards and make more and more money despite their woeful accuracy, Capcom have decided – in their infinite wisdom – to bring Alice into the games series as well. Which frustrates me as Alice is as big a Mary Sue as is possible to come across in movies today – a character with no real depth, charm or purpose. I don’t particularly hate the movies, but this is a cross-breeding that the industry could probably do without.

That said, there are movies of games coming that are interesting. Gears of War – although I still maintain the first mention of lotion and I am so out of there. Devil May Cry may be an interesting one to see – although I hope it is based on classic Dante and not DmC Dante.

But the one movie I am hopeful may buck the trend is Shadow of the Colossus – yes, there is a movie of that brilliant, artful, delicately paced game in the works, and I for one think it could – and should – be a wonderful movie. Whether it ends up that way is, of course, another matter.

So why don’t movies of games work? Partly because games allow us to immerse ourselves in a world – a story, take a role and be the protagonist. Movies lead us to an unquestionable conclusion on a linear path, and so often in games it isn’t the plot, the characters or the ending that makes it work – it is all the bits in between, the game part of the games. We shape and mould the story, or at least are given a hand in it, and it is when this is taken away that you can often see the woolen, stiff and cliche that is present in many games. Without the distraction of the game, there is often nothing much present to make a movie out of. Plots are often nothing more than a framework to drape things over – remove everything on top and you can often see how barren they really are.

Of course, it would be corny of me to say that no movie of a game would work. For example, there is a movie being made based on the classic LucasArts game Zombies Ate My Neighbours! – whilst it won’t win awards, I am sure, it is a game that reveled in genre cliches and tropes and had fun with them, so the movie should in theory follow the same path, and be indulgent watching. There is a movie in the works based on Dead Space – although I maintain Dead Space is just The Thing set far into the future, it’s still interesting enough to warrant a mention. And of course, let’s not forget that a new Tomb Raider is in the works as well.

But to win awards, a movie needs to have a standout performance or a strong script. The movie industry itself has an issue with movies based on games, a sort of disquiet malice and suspicion that is understandable based on previous examples. Movies based on games all too often fail to capture any magic of the games – any sparkle, any charm. It is because this is often part of a whole, part of an amalgamation of concepts and ideas that blend into a cohesive, complete package. Removing the game part and hoping the rest will stand up to scrutiny is a fallacy that directors and script-writers keep wishing would work, but know can never happen.

But the reality is, it is extremely hard to pinpoint what makes a movie truly great. As tastes vary, you will get a very broad spectrum of movies touted as the best on offer – pleasing everyone is hard, pleasing a fanbase that already exists and is suspicious of your motives harder still. There is no real logical reason why there haven’t been any truly great movies of games – there is no rational, set-in-stone guideline to how to make a great movie, let alone a movie of a game. Success and failure are balanced on a knifes-edge, where it can go either way.

But we must not give up hope, because there are plenty of franchises out there that may work as movies, and should – with some time and money – be very good as well. There probably will come a time when a movie of a game is not only amazing, but worthy of an Oscar. Are we there yet? No, of course not, but to argue that this can never work is silly, otherwise no-one would make any movie. Movies, like games and sometimes the games they are based on, are creative risks. Sometimes it all clicks – sometimes not. That’s creativity for you. One mans art is another mans trash.

So enjoy the Oscars, and just think that one day, we will see a game be rewarded with a good, award-winning movie version. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow… but soon, oh so soon, we will see a flash of utter brilliance that is both inspiring and amazing.

Enjoy your evenings. I got money on Meryl Streep winning Best Actress… because my friend thinks she’s won a BAFTA, and therefore that will count against her… I think my money is pretty safe.

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