Video game movies: What could make them great?

With so many video game movies coming up in the next few years, I set out to find out what are the key factors that could make them successful.

Adam Sandler is back this week in theaters with yet another atrocity. And maybe the movie itself might not be a total cringe-fest, but his acting skills (or lack thereof) are — read our review. Now, could Pixels be considered a video game adaptation? No, it only brings video game characters like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong to life and a sense of nostalgia that we can also appreciate from Space Invaders and Tetris. But is that enough to succeed? Clearly not, without some kind of story or specific tone that stems from the proper video games.

From Tomb Raider (2001) with Angelina Jolie to the upcoming Assassin’s Creed (2016) with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, we know that movies based on video games attract interest, both from the public and from A-list actors who want to be associated with a large money-making (possible) franchise. Certainly, some of the bigger titles can end up taking in hundreds of millions. Still, are they actual good movies? Not really.

I reached out to Jake Baldino (Pretty Much It, BecauseVideoGames, Gameranx), and he identified what makes video game movies great adaptations: the type of story, the actual narrative and the tone of the game.

“Myself and many game fans believe that, like superhero movies, video game movies can take many liberties with story and characters so long as it uses the name well — captures what the game stood for or the message it conveyed in the first place. It needs to keep the thing that made the game special.”

Video game moviesAll in all, three aspects related between them that can make or break video game movies and that Hollywood studio executives should have in mind when creating them. Baldino states that the closest movie to success based on the previously mentioned characteristics was Silent Hill (2006), but most others have failed terribly. We’re looking at you, Resident Evil. In terms of box office, Jake Gylllenhaal’s Prince of Persia (2010) “had a huge budget and big stars but fell just short of greatness and flopped”.

Another element that I thought could play an important part when adapting video games into movies is the type of game they are based on. Pixels incorporated arcade games into the movie, in the same funky way Jumanji could have featured Crash the bandicoot, maybe. But the point of an adaptation is to make a feature film somewhat close to the actual game. Baldino says:

“I think any type of game could work as a movie, but ultimately one with a story, characters, or world is best.”

And this is why we’re getting movies like Warcraft and Uncharted, but Hollywood also has a very bad habit of putting popular titles to movies that don’t have a lot to do with the concept, like Need for Speed. Why make racing, platform and shooter game-based movies have a narrative that any “original” movie with a different title could have? Ever seen The Fast and The Furious?

video game movies

Apart from that, how important is it to hire not only well-known actors, but also a capable director? Pixels was decently led by Chris Columbus on his part; the movie adaptation of Metal Gear Solid, for example, is close to being directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who signed the acclaimed Kings of Summer (2013), and Duncan Jones, director of the fantastic Moon (2009), is manning Warcraft. These last two could be on trend with hiring indie directors for big movies, but they could also turn out to be brilliant choices, if they can pull it off.

Finally I wonder, now that video games are becoming more and more cinematic and we have access to virtual reality gadgets, what is the point of video game movies like The Last of Us? While it might get close to hitting the three aspects fans look for, we can already experience it for hours and hours, with it being a strongly story-driven game. And for sure it won’t actually sell more copies, in Baldino’s words:

“Video game companies don’t often jump shipping a game when a movie based on the name is releasing. They’re often starkly apart in communication and everything — the rights are usually just sold off completely.”

This might be happening to reach a different target audience. Gamers already know that in the game there’s a (potentially) superior version of the story from the movie, but they’d still want to compare them, whereas general audiences might go for the zombie apocalypse appeal, no matter what title the movie has.

What do you enjoy about video game movies? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Elisabeth S. Contreras
Elisabeth S. Contreras
Film enthusiast and sharer of words. Don't underestimate a woman with an opinion.