Rewind: What Happens When Movies Get Game?

'Doom' has us wondering — what does it take to make the leap from joystick to multiplex?

In case you didn’t get it from the trailer’s use of first-person, gun-totin’ POV, “Doom” the movie is based on the video game of the same name. And while it might be a tad patronizing to suggest that audiences need reminding, the legacy of movies based on video games doesn’t exactly resemble a Fellini film festival.

As filmgoers we think nothing of movies based on other media such as books, plays, comics or TV shows. But every time Hollywood announces another film that’s adapted from a video game, everyone groans. Even rabid gamers shake their heads. Why is it that almost everything that springs from PlayStation or Xbox to the big screen struggles to connect with an audience?

It all started with Mario and Luigi. In 1993, Hollywood brought Nintendo’s leaping “Super Mario Bros.” to life, as played by Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo. From the first frame, this movie was a headache-inducing mess that failed to live up to its tagline: “This ain’t no game — it’s a live-action thrill ride!” You could blame it on the lack of technology available to filmmakers (and the fact that it took four directors to make the movie), but then again, the Nintendo video game technology at the time was fairly primitive as well.

The biggest hook that multimillion-dollar movie adaptations of “lower” art forms (like video games, television shows and comic books) have is promise of the expansion — or the explosion — of our preconceptions, i.e., making a spectacle of what might have remained rather mundane. We’d seen Spider-Man swing through the canyons of Manhattan thousands of times in the comics, cartoons and (sort of) in extremely low-budget network TV shows. But when Sam Raimi and his team of FX nerds brought Spidey to a realistic swingin’ life (much more so in “Spider-Man 2″ than in the first film), the 40-year-old webspinner felt fresh again.

But video game graphics are getting so complex and advanced that movie-making CGI isn’t that much better than what the gamer can control with a joystick. In fact, many critics enjoy pointing out (pejoratively) that a lot of today’s movie effects look like they’ve come from a video game.

And then there’s that pesky exposition that movies demand.

By their very nature as serialized media, TV programs and comic books (and their cinematic offspring) create the time and the space for character development and back stories; video games, quite simply, often don’t bother. Video games start with a “Bang!” and they don’t stop banging — unless it’s to slash, crash, smash, slice, dice, blam, body slam, raze, blaze, immolate or detonate. Any attempt at giving Maniac from “Wing Commander” a fully fleshed-out personality in a movie seems almost as silly as sticking a car chase in “The Hours.” But leaving the characters without any personality or depth makes for a bland, nonstop-action pic — and that’s no good, either.

One could also perversely speculate that certain fans of video games reject live-action film versions because of physical human limitations — and we’re not talking unbelievable wire-work, here. Perhaps some gamers prefer their characters to be, well, more unrealistically proportioned than real, live actors and actresses. Few people would deny the hotness of Angelina Jolie, but short of some massive CGI enhancement, even she can not replicate Lara Croft’s figure on display in the video game version of “Tomb Raider.”

But one inherent problem with video game movies rises above the rest — one that puts characters like Reaper (“Doom”) and Sub-Zero (“Mortal Kombat”) in the same league as Oliver Twist and Hamlet. No, seriously: While it might seem ludicrous, consider that video game movies actually have more in common with film adaptations of literature than anything else. It’s all about interaction versus passivity.

Reading a book is not a passive activity. You have to use your mind — not just in order to take in and comprehend the words on the page, but to make use of your imagination to enhance them, to build a visual vocabulary of your own that fits the author’s verbal imagery. We read a book and direct the movie in our head, casting it ourselves, whether it’s with movie stars, friends and family or personae of our own creation. And the more books you read, the more honed your imagination becomes (hopefully not turning you into one of those annoying snobs who believes that movies are always inferior to the books from which they’re adapted).

While video gamers have some say as to the appearance of their digitized proxies, they have far more control over their proxies’ actions. Which is why watching a movie of a video game is so frustrating: It’s entirely passive; you can’t dictate what happens onscreen. (Imagine a level 10 player pulling his hair out when Master Chief kills one of his own teammates in “Halo: The Movie.”)

In fact, the only time a movie really tried to replicate the unpredictability of game play the film wasn’t based on a video game, but rather on an old fashioned board game. “Clue” (1985) brought the murder-mystery game to life with a unique twist: the film had three different endings. Depending upon which version you saw, the killer turned out to be one of three people. Perhaps Mrs. White with a rope in the billiard room? The gimmick actually hurt the film’s box office, but made it a minor cult hit when it was released on video. It seems only a matter of time before a video game movie attempts a similar alternate-ending trick, perhaps with some sort of digitally based audience participation.

But it still seems as if the experience will pale with the thrill of battle that video game fans can enjoy on their home systems, fighting on the couch in their underwear.

In the end, the lack of a truly satisfying video game movie (so far) may not be the fault of Hollywood. Maybe the studios should learn the lessons taught by the “Pac-Man” cartoon: Some games are best left in the console.

Check out everything we’ve got on “Doom.”

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