Weekend Discussion: It’s Your Fault Video Game Movies Are Terrible (Okay, And Mine)

On paper, 2005’s “Doom” didn’t seem like it needed to be the completely ridiculous mess that it ended up becoming. It starred one of this generation’s most charismatic action stars, The Rock from a screenplay by one of the guys responsible for “Arachnophobia,” directed by the noted cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak who made the otherwise bad “Devil’s Advocate” look good, based on a beloved franchise.

Oh, it was a video game franchise? Oh, jeez. Well, then let’s tool around with the origins of the monsters a bit (moviegoers might be think demons from hell might be weird, but they’d be alright with mutants, or something, right?) and toss in a first person sequence because the games are first-person. The Rock? He’ll play a bland hardass and the villain because the last thing we want this movie to be is fun. “Doom” is a terrible movie, but I can’t wholly blame the studio responsible for it because the source material isn’t all that great.

Bear with me here.

“Doom” and “Doom 2″ are excellent, genre-defining games (and “Doom 3″ has some good spots to it), and what made them work so well has absolutely nothing to do with an interesting movie. The same goes for “Tekken” which assembles a roster of colorful, weird fighters or “Super Mario Bros.” which is pretty much the definition of childhood whimsy in game form. And both spawned a pair of listless, cheap, at times bizarre adaptations bearing only a passing resemblance to their source material.

Ditto “Dead or Alive.”

Or “Bloodrayne” (we can just lump all of the Uwe Boll stuff here under the category “special, awful filmmaker circumstances”).

In fact, there have been an overwhelming number of punishingly bad video game movies that were not only rejected by fans of those series, but soundly ignored by audiences in most cases. And yet, over the last few weeks, Ubisoft’s moved ahead with Tom Hardy as the lead in a planned “Splinter Cell” film while CBS films enlisted the director of “Sinister” to bring “Deus Ex” to the screen. A “Mass Effect” movie has been kicking around, “Assassin’s Creed” recently found a home and Hollywood (and studios beyond) are pumping money into these properties left and right. And I get the instinct–no one wants to be caught without a big video game movie ready to go the way most studios were caught unawares when Disney launched their big Marvel shared universe offensive.

It’s like ignoring money on the table.

But they’re also chasing after some of the weakest (or at best, mid-level) storytelling around. Again, each movie or would-be movie I’ve listed up above is based on varying levels of good to excellent games. Brilliant games, in some cases. But when you attempt to extricate the game parts from the story parts, you find the latter lacking more often than not, a skeleton of worn-out tropes, empty repeats of the same tired heroes’ journey (if even that much) or just a mish-mash of plot points lacking a compelling character.

What was “Doom” the game about? A space Marine finds and shoots at a bunch of demons on a Martian base. Or let’s use a more recent example with a more sophisticated story: “Assassin’s Creed” is about a magic memory machine that allows a man in the future to revisit the memories of his ancestors in order to kill people in the past and find treasures from a an advanced, ancient race. Okay, that’s more complicated but it’s also nuts.

But these are the games we buy, the ones we support with our hard-earned dollars, and that get reviewed by people like me very positively–because they’re great games. And those are the properties that Hollywood snaps up. I personally think the creepy “Manhunt” (which didn’t exactly perform for Rockstar) would make a stronger entry than any of these. You have a troubled man dropped into a hell not of his own making, forced to kill (or be killed) by gangs of oddly-dressed sociopaths in order to earn his freedom. Rockstar, you just made “The Running Man”-meets-“The Warriors” and that’s awesome. You can identify where an actual human lives in that story, what the stakes are for them, and what they have to do to succeed. I dare you to tell me anything about any character in the “Modern Warfare” games that’s not Captain Price (and you can’t say “He’s the hard-to-kill dude with the mustache). Infinity Ward’s games are a weird case, because they’re most clearly a pastiche of modern action films and don’t really have any sort of narrative identity. I would have a little more faith in something like “Mass Effect”–although its hero/heroine is a more fluid entity, the universe is pretty clearly defined with (again) human-scale stakes and circumstances alongside the big, galaxy-saving drama.

We don’t ask for a lot in video game storytelling and that’s about what we get. I do have hopes that some of the talent associated with the projects in development will spend the time crafting characters around the basic scenarios from the games, but again, that feels like part of the problem. For instance, the solution Paul W.S. Anderson found with the labyrinthine plots of the “Resident Evil” franchise was to add zombies, slo-mo, and fetishwear to a series of Milla Jovovich movies, but those movies, while enjoyable in their own ridiculous way, are still mostly pretty bad.

What say you, readers? Do you think I’m being too hard on the game writing (and game movies) as a whole? What do you think it’s going to take to finally get a great movie based on a video game?

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