The thrilling video game movie conclusion, until part 3 is announced.
We’ve covered the glorious bomb known as Super Mario Bros. and explored the life and times of Uwe Boll. The journey from there to the modern era isn’t quite as bumpy in comparison, but there are some noteworthy stops along the way. Let’s pick up where we left off.
The Uwe Boll-less Films of the Uwe Boll Era
The problem with covering a character like Uwe Boll is that he makes his contemporaries look boring by comparison. Unfortunately, the quality of their respective video games movies through the late 2000s didn’t help.
Within a year’s time, we got movies based on Doom, Silent Hill, and Dead or Alive respectively. Of the three, Doom is notorious from departing too far from the source material. Yes, somehow “guy goes to hell and kills demons” was too difficult to make a movie out of, but that’s neither here nor there. Conversely, though critics found Dead or Alive schlocky, at least its fan servicey source material lends itself to schlock well. It’s hard to criticize something that was deliberately designed to be lowbrow.
Meanwhile, Silent Hill was a low-key success at the box office. While it still made less than Mortal Kombat or the first Resident Evil at the box office, it was successful enough to get a direct sequel six years later. Some Silent Hill fans think the movie is okay, but the vast majority agree that the games are superior.
It’s worth noting that this era also saw the rise of direct-to-video movies based on video games too. We notably got Final Fantasy VIII: Advent Children in 2005, which differentiated itself from The Spirits Within by strictly appealing to Final Fantasy VII fans. Street Fighter also came back in 2009 in Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, a movie so memorable that I only recalled its existence as I wrote this sentence. It’d be impossible to track all these movies through the course of our tour, but their mere existence shows how the video game movie industry was growing despite the relatively low quality of the films being made.
It Gets “Better.” Again
2010 marked the beginning of a decade, and so too did it mark a new beginning for video game movies. Two movies in particular started to turn the tide for the better, and while they didn’t quite meet the mark of “first great video game movie,” they did move the genre forward in significant ways.
First was Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, led by best director nominee Mike Newell. Based on a narratively strong video game and backed by Disney, Prince of Persia looked to finally break the curse of bad video game movies. Unfortunately, Prince of Persia didn’t fare well with critics, though its 36% score on Rotten Tomatoes was technically record setting for the genre. The film also usurped Tomb Raider’s long standing box office record with over $336,000,000. Prince of Persia wasn’t the revolution some hoped it would be, but it was a relative breath of fresh air following Uwe Boll’s work.
On the other corner of the spectrum, we have the film adaptation of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Yes, this is a comic book adaptation, but its source material is unabashedly structured like a video game. As a result, Scott Pilgrim wound up being a movie thick with video game style conflicts, fight scenes, and references. It’s essentially a movie version of a boss rush mode that serves as an allegory about the weight of our pasts in relationships. Even if Sonic the Hedgehog sound effects weren’t used abundantly, this movie would still feel like a video game with its over-the-top aesthetics and story.
Scott Pilgrim was loved by fans and critics, though it unfortunately flopped at the box office. Still, Scott Pilgrim demonstrated that a movie could be great and feel like a video game. We just needed a film like Scott Pilgrim based on an actual video game.
The Uptick of the Modern Era
From here, the presence of video game movies skyrocketed at the theaters. The reviews didn’t get that much better, but the box office consistently showed successful results. Movies like Need For Speed and Assassin’s Creed weren’t making waves critically, but they raked in serious cash against relatively small budgets.
A potential explanation for this uptick is exemplified by 2016’s Warcraft movie. Despite working off of some of the richest lore in the gaming landscape, Warcraft launched to poor reviews and weak sales during its United States debut. However, thanks to massive success in China, Warcraft broke $433,000,000 at the box office and set the record for the highest-grossing video game movie. The influence of international movie markets is stronger than it’s ever been, and we should expect these markets to shape the movies we get in the future.
Video game movies gradually grew in quality from here on out. 2016 gave us The Angry Birds Movie, a movie critics generally disliked but still considered better than they expected it to be. We also got Tomb Raider again in 2018, this time based on 2013’s rebooted Tomb Raider universe with Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft. With a 52% at Rotten Tomatoes, this would be the first time a video game movie skewed slightly positive on the “mixed” critical ratings. And a mere month later, we got a movie about Rampage that truly no one asked for. Yet with a surprisingly positive audience reception, Rampage nearly matched Warcraft‘s box office numbers. That’s a lot of action for just a couple of years
Fun fact: Uwe Boll also made a movie series called Rampage during the height of his career, yet it was somehow not based on the Rampage video game. As a result, he became very upset with the recent Rampage movie because it would confuse the brand recognition of his movies. We live in truly bizarre times, don’t we?
Many fans consider even these films to be mediocre, but the stigma surrounding video game movies has started to ease for the first time in decades. And much like Scott Pilgrim, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One set another example of how to structure a movie like a video game and win over critics. We’re on the verge of an era where Hollywood will start getting video game movies right.
A Bright Future?
It’s been a long journey to get to this point. We’re quickly approaching the release of Detective Pikachu, and early feedback has been positive. Even our own impressions of trailer footage suggests the movie knows how to blend the new with the familiar. And with a Detective Pikachu sequel already greenlit, it seems the studio has serious faith in the movie too.
Aside from that, who knows what the next great video game movie will be? A sequel to 2016’s Tomb Raider was recently announced, which will hopefully fix the issues of the first movie. Resident Evil director Paul Anderson is taking on Monster Hunter, which looks… well… hopefully we’ll be pleasantly surprised? Sonic the Hedgehog is even getting some silver screen love, though the titular hedgehog’s design has become meme magic among the internet’s denizens. Though we should all wish for the best, it’s good to keep expectations in check to prevent disappointment down the line.
Still, if Detective Pikachu is the only good video game movie of the next three years, that will still be a victory for the genre. That would mean Hollywood gains a successful blueprint to build off of, and we could one day see video game movies attain the consistent high quality of comic book films. Movies like Wreck-It Ralph have shown that movies about video games can be loads of fun, and more importantly, they show that audiences of all ages are hungry for these movies. It’s a tough job to adapt a video game into a movie, but maybe, just maybe, Hollywood will crack the code in the next 5 or 10 years.
The history of video game movies shows us that we shouldn’t get our hopes up whenever our favorite franchise gets a movie adaptation. But it also shows us that we have a lot of reasons to be optimistic for the future. We’ve come a long way since Super Mario Bros., and for the first time in forever, the princess of great movie making might not be stuck in another castle.