OPINION: The Trouble With Video Game Movies
Hollywood has been trying to make video game movies work for years. You can trace the start of their efforts back to 1993, when the film adaptation of Super Mario Bros. released to generally poor reviews (holding a whopping 13% on Rotten Tomatoes) and public criticism by several cast members. Throughout the rest of the 90’s and most of the 2000’s, many studios tried to turn various game franchises into films, giving us movies from games like Prince of Persia, Silent Hill, Max Payne, and Resident Evil. In the entire fifteen-year history of game-to-film adaptations, only two of them have managed to get more than a 50% on Rotten Tomatoes: 2018’s Tomb Raider and Rampage.
What makes these movies so hard to pull off? For one, part of the appeal of video games is their interactive nature; even in more simple and linear games, the game is still the player’s journey, creating a sense of investment that can’t be captured by any other media. By translating a game into a movie, you are immediately removing that element of interaction and investment, making the adaptation feel empty by comparison. Another reason that video game movies tend to fail is the clash in tone from one medium to another. Making all-out action films works fine for adaptations like Doom or even Mortal Kombat, but for something like Hitman - whose “get in-get the job done-get out quietly” structure lends itself more to a heist movie, an action-focused film exists at a disconnect from the very core of the franchise. Another big reason the films don’t work is the difficulty of translating certain visuals into live-action. A Goomba looks fine in the colorful and animated world of the Mario games, but in live-action, a dinosaur-human hybrid creature looks almost unbelievably bad.
Is there a chance that some day, Hollywood might finally get a video game movie right? The optimist in me wants to think so. Kong: Skull Island director Jordan Vogt-Roberts wants to make a Metal Gear Solid film, which would normally be cause for alarm, but a recent interview with him about the project shows that he loves and understands the franchise and all of its unique tonal challenges and wants to create something faithful, which gives me confidence in him and the project, provided he gets to make what he wants to make without too much interference. Next year’s Detective Pikachu movie could end up being good if they lean into the Detective part of the title and make something noirish. Hollywood needs to start embracing the unique qualities of video games when adapting them for the big screen, and perhaps one day we might have a truly great video game movie.