A long time ago, in a movie market far, far away, studios released what they presumed would be their biggest hits of the year in the summertime. That was the pattern in 1993, when dinosaurs once more ruled the earth in Jurassic Park and a physician wrongfully conviced of his wife’s murder set out to clear his name in The Fugitive. Those were the year’s No. 1 and No. 2 highest-grossing films, adapted, respectively, from a Michael Crichton bestseller and a 1960s TV show. Super Mario Bros., the first live-action theatrical movie to be derived from a video game, was also released that summer. It came in at No. 74.
One need only play a few minutes of Bowser’s Fury, the newest entry in the venerable Mario franchise, to appreciate how far games have evolved in the nearly three decades since Super Mario Bros.-the-movie flopped. But despite a warm reception for last year’s Sonic the Hedgehog and an only slightly cooler one for this year’s R-rated, faithfully ultraviolent reboot of Mortal Kombat, it’s impossible to argue that video game movies have enjoyed a commensurate upgrade in quality or sophistication.
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Simply put, the vast majority of the more than three dozen video game movies released since Super Mario Bros. are abysmal. Most of them aren’t even bad in a fun-to-watch sort of way. They’re just flat and uninspired, with a depressing tendency to ignore their gaming lineage by coming off merely as ripoffs of popular movies. Certainly, none of them is as rewardingly bizarre as Super Mario Bros., a film that for all its flaws is exactly the sort of tangy stew one might have expected when the husband-and-wife directing team from the short-lived 80s cult TV series Max Headroom hired heavyweights Bob Hoskins, John Leguazimo, and Dennis Hopper (as Mario Mario, Luigi Mario, and Bowser, obviously).
All of which begs the question: why?
Here’s one idea: A great game puts the player in the driver’s seat, allowing them to make the kind of decisions that in the time-compressed environment of a feature film reveal character. Audience sympathy for, if not identification with, the characters is one trait nearly all beloved movies share. And characters, not plots, are what film audiences tend to remember.
Filmmakers understand this intuitively. That’s probably why the video game hierarchy of plot-above-character has confounded even the best of them. Only 18 months after Super Mario Bros. fizzled, not even Steven E. de Souza, whose scripts for 80s megahits like 48 Hrs., Commando, and Die Hard had made him one of the hottest screenwriters of the era, could make a big-budget adaptation of the hand-to-hand CAPCOM classic Street Fighter work. (Maybe he shouldn’t have directed the film himself.) The best thing that can be said of Street Fighter is that it climaxes with the mano-a-mano between Jean-Claude Van Damme and Raul Julia (in his final role, sadly) that it never occurred to you, or to anyone, that you wanted to see.
Inspiration for a great film can come from anywhere, of course. Arriving a generation after the hack division of our film-critic press corps began routinely describing formative blockbusters like Raiders of the Lost Ark as “a roller-coaster ride,” 2003’s franchise-launching Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl—the first literal film adaptation of a theme-park ride—pleased critics and audiences alike, earning a 79% Fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes and finishing second place for the year at the box office. And while this year’s hit Jungle Cruise may not be a bulletproof argument for more theme-park movies (though its sequel has already been announced), it at least displays a baseline narrative competence that historically has eluded the great majority of video-game films. And while we’re on the subject, let us not fail to pay Jungle Cruise star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson due respect for for, um, stretching his wings with this theme-park movie, after two video game adaptations—2005’s DOOM, which actually turns into a first-person shooter film for several minutes, and 2018’s Rampage—and two sequels to Jumanji, which was adapted from a picturebook for children.
The maturation of the superhero movie in this century (with all due respect to Richard Donner’s seminal 1978 Superman, and Tim Burton’s two Batman movies, and 1998’s Blade, of course) should be proof that high-quality adaptation of video games are possible: After all, most Marvel and DC movies distill decades of comics lore spanning hundreds of thousands of pages into 140-minute increments (give or take) that each offer at least some sort of narrative resolution—enough of an ending to make the audience want the next installment, without making them feel gypped by this one. In theory, it shouldn’t be that hard to give a movie based on a game a similar sense of closure. And yet, more than comic-book movies, more than big-screen reimaginings of old TV shows, something about the videogame flick chews up proven talent and spits it out.
Witness 2007’s Hitman, which accomplishes the tall order of making the versatile Deadwood, Justified, and Santa Clarita Diet star Timothy Olyphant seem like a vapid, charmless actor, or 2016’s Assassin’s Creed, which does the same for Michael Fassbender and Marion Coitillard and Brendan Gleeson and Charlotte Rampling and Jeremy Irons and Michael K. Williams, may he rest in peace. Given its lopsided ratio of talent to quality, Assassin’s Creed might be the most disappointing wannabe blockbuster of the 21st century. Of course, it faces some stiff competition for that title from Warcraft, wherein Duncan Jones, the gifted director of thoughtful, original sci-fi flicks Moon and Source Code, tried and failed to make a first-rate game series feel like something more enveloping than a third-rate Lord of the Rings knockoff. The film disappointed longtime fans of the Warcraft games and took in an embarrassing $47 million at the U.S. box office, and yet strong international performance—particularly in China—made Warcraft the highest-grossing video game movie to date. (It still lost money.)
That the consistent underperformance of video-game films hasn’t dampened studios’ enthusiasm for making them is no surprise. Video games are simply too popular; too rich a target for a film industry whose appetite for movies not based on preexisting IP has all but disappeared over the last 30 years to ignore. In the generation since Super Mario Bros., the cultural footprint of movies has shrunk while that of video games has only expanded. That calculus, more than any one or ten video games movie’s box office gross, is why we’re getting Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City (rebooting the six-film Milla Jovovich-starring horror franchise loosely adapted from the Resident Evil games starting in 2002) for Thanksgivingthis year and Uncharted and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in the first third of 2022. Next year will also bring horrormeister Eli Roth’s adaptation of the tongue-in-cheek space-western game franchise Borderlands, with Cate Blanchett, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and Jamie Lee Curtis in the principal roles.
And those are just the ones that have wrapped production and/or have confirmed release dates. There are dozens more video game films that have been announced, some with A-list talent attached. If you’ve been waiting years to see Oscar Isaac play Solid Snake in Metal Gear Solid, or to have John Wick director Chad Stahelski bring the PlayStation samurai game Ghost of Tsushima to the big screen, you’re in luck.
Just keep your expectations modest. After all, we’ve been burned before.
Once or twice…
…or twenty or thirty times. But who’s keeping score?