When the original Mortal Kombat film from 1995 is held up as the best video game to movie adaptation in existence, something must be seriously wrong with the genre. Double Dragon. Street Fighter. Doom. Max Payne. The list goes on and on and on and on. Why do video game movies suck so hard? Why isn’t there one, just one great video game movie in existence? I understand that Hollywood does nothing but absorb known properties, and craps them out just as quickly, but you would think that at some point, one of them would have accidentally turned out good. To be completely honest, I’ve barely seen any of these video game movies because of how utterly atrocious the trailers come across. Seriously, that Prince of Persia trailer a few years ago was pure torture to sit through. These poor trailers are usually confirmed with seemingly unanimous negative word of mouth. For whatever reason, video games just haven’t been able to make that jump from controller to bucket of popcorn. With the release of Need for Speed, another video game movie poised to stink up the joint, I thought it would be productive to examine why video game movies have failed in the past. So get ready for a little Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A, and let’s talk some video games!
Remember the Super Mario Brothers Movie…
First, a little history lesson. What are the origins of video game movies? It made sense for the first real attempt at this to be Super Mario Brothers, released in 1993. I went to see this with three other friends for my ninth birthday party. I was so pumped for this movie, it was sickening. After seeing the film though, I was just confused. How was I supposed to react to this? Remember that part in the video game where Mario and Luigi dress up in tacky suits, go to a night club, and Mario has to dance with a character named “Big Bertha?” I don’t either. This movie was about as faithful to Mario Brothers as Super Mario Brothers 2, except this film wasn’t a dream. It was all too real. In fact, the making of this film was so bad, John Leguizamo (Luigi) famously stated in his autobiography that him and Bob Hoskins (Mario) hated working on the film so much, they would actually drink on the set. And if you’re out there hoping for a Metroid or Legend of Zelda movie, it will never happen. This experience singlehandedly scared Nintendo away from allowing Hollywood to make any more live action films based off their material. To this day, Super Mario Brothers is the only movie based on a Nintendo franchise. For over twenty years now, Nintendo has stayed true to its word. That’s pretty incredible.
This first foray into video game movie hell set the tone, and that stink hasn’t left yet. Super Mario Brothers truly is the prime example of why almost all video game movies fail, which leads us to our next topic.
Embrace Your Video Game-ness!
I understand it’s extremely difficult for a screenwriter to adapt the story of Super Mario Brothers and make it viable for a two hour movie. I get it. But you can’t go so far off the rails that the material becomes unrecognizable. This is the primary reason why video game movies fail – they don’t embrace the game. Stop coming up with hackneyed plots and storylines that have nothing to do with the game, and then call it Double Dragon. Double Dragon is about two bad ass street punks named Billy and Jimmy Lee. Their girlfriends get taken away by a bunch of mohawk sporting tough guys, so the Lee brothers go around the city beating criminals to a bloody pulp. That should have been the movie. Just do that! I’m dead serious. Oh, but what do we get instead? I don’t know, some mystical crap, there’s a medallion I think, The Lee’s are raised by some woman who looks younger then they are, T-1000 plays the bad guy, whatever. Who cares, it sucked.
The biggest culprit of this though in my opinion is Street Fighter, released in 1994. This was another video game movie I was really jacked up for. I remember watching a commercial for it and losing my shit. E. Honda! Ryu! Vega!!!!!!!! They’re all here! But what did I get instead? Some lame story about Guile leading the military against M. Bison, Chun-Li was a reporter or something, E. Honda was her camera man, and don’t get me started on Dhalsim, we’ll be here all day. Why the hell didn’t they just put all these guys in a big tournament? That’s all you had to do! That’s your movie! Just make it Bloodsport with Street Fighter characters, and don’t try to incorporate some lame plot just because you’re too scared the material can’t sustain a film.
Now when I say “embrace the video game-ness,” I’m not saying do what the Doom movie did, and film it like a three person shooter. I think we can all agree that was a terrible no good very bad idea. Ugh. Just thinking about it makes me want to puke up game cartridges. But when you look at some of the better video game movies (I’m using the word “better” very loosely), they mirror the game fairly well, such as the Resident Evil and Tomb Raider films. The one that does this the best though is Mortal Kombat, which we talked about earlier. It’s a tournament that decides the fate of the Earth. There’s fatalities. The sets look like the game. The characters seem dead on. That’s why Mortal Kombat for me is the best example of a video game movie.
Bottom-line: Embrace the game, and don’t force clichéd crap.
Get Good Filmmakers
The best genre we can compare video game movies to are superhero films. If you’re a superhero fan, you’ve had enough great superhero movies to last you a lifetime, yet we still complain when a dot on Spider-Man’s costume is two inches off where it should be. But when you look at some of the better superhero films, what do they all have in common? Great filmmakers at the helm. Christopher Nolan. Richard Donner. Bryan Singer. Kenneth Branagh. All these guys had directed remarkable films before putting on the capes. But who does Hollywood get for video game movies? Uwe Boll. That’s the problem. The genre is constantly getting either unproven filmmakers, or Wal-Mart bargain bin directors. No wonder they stink.
What really boggles my mind though is that most of these video game movies bomb at the box office, yet Hollywood still hasn’t learned its lesson. In fact, going back to our previous examples, if we look at some of the video game franchises to get sequels (Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil), they were the only films that had half way decent directors behind them.
Bottom-line: Get a good director!
Well, that’s the sad state of video game movies. Will we ever see a great one? Yes. I believe someday it will happen. It might even be as soon as 2015. Warcraft is the first video game movie that has a truly talented filmmaker at the helm – Duncan Jones, who’s directed such acclaimed films as Moon and Source Code. Warcraft just might be the one to do it.
For me personally though, aside from a few games here and there, my passion for video games died a long time ago. I’m very much an old school Mario/Punch-Out/Sonic type gamer. They are simple – you run forward and jump on things. Video games today are way too time consuming and complicated. I just don’t have the energy, I’m sorry. Unfortunately for me, the days of a video game from my time being adapted into a great film are long passed, sucked into the abyss of a green pipe, forever being lost in World 7 from Super Mario Brothers 3, the greatest video game ever made.