Is There Really a Video Game Movie Curse?
This week sees the release of Rampage, the latest movie from Dwayne Johnson. In case you were worried, this is indeed a movie where The Rock plays a primatologist whose gorilla BFF is mutated into a giant, forcing him to stop said creature from engaging in the eponymous rampage. Early box office projections are solid: Not Black Panther business, but certainly better than one would imagine a giant monkey movie not involving King Kong doing. A lot of that is rooted in the sheer dominating force that is Johnson, one of our few real movie stars in the franchise age. Who else could open a movie like this and have people go, ‘Yup, I’ll be there’? Such is his Hollywood power that it doesn’t seem worth mentioning that Rampage is an adaptation of a video game series. The Rock is such a big deal that the apparent video game movie curse has no place in conversations around his work.
The video game industry is a multi-billion-dollar titan of influence, creativity and fan loyalty. It’s also one that still terrifies certain demographics. Games are still blamed for real-life violence, their mere existence baffles many, and then there are the smothering issues of fandom bullying, harassment movements and a little thing called GamerGate. All of this can make the prospect of optioning games for films a hesitant prospect before we even get into the many problems with the adaptation process itself. There are plenty of films that have been adapted from video games, but if we’re honest, it would be a struggle to find one that ranks above ‘decent’. Generally, we consider video game movies a mess waiting to happen.
One would think that certain video games would be natural fits for the transfer to the big screen. Games like Uncharted and The Last of Us are narratively driven and already borrow so much from Hollywood in how they compose a story. Then again, these aren’t the games that the industry has chosen to adapt (at least not yet - we’re apparently getting an Uncharted movie that’s a prequel to the games, starring Tom Holland). Instead, we’ve gotten Super Mario Bros. reimagined as a hellish dystopia run by dino Dennis Hopper, Street Fighter with Van Damme, and about 60% of Uwe Boll’s output. Even in recent times, more serious efforts like Assassin’s Creed and the revival of Tomb Raider struggled to inspire more than apathy in audiences. When the peak of your genre is Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft - movies I legitimately have a ball watching but will be the first to admit aren’t exactly masterpieces - then there’s certainly something weird going on.
There is something about the medium of video games that scares some writers and directors silly. The prospect of turning an inherently participatory medium into one of spectator-ship is certainly a challenge. True, it isn’t as much fun to watch Jake Gyllenhaal jump around CGI cities as it is to control the character he plays in Prince of Persia. Taking out they key feature of your medium will inevitably suck some of the fun out of it, but it doesn’t explain why the batting average is so low across the board. Even if you’re not the one making the characters from Assassin’s Creed do all the fun stuff, surely there would still be audience enjoyment and creative opportunities to appreciate in the game’s style and content? It shouldn’t be this tough to make fun action-adventure movies.
In my opinion, the root of the so-called video game movie curse is in the seeming frivolity of the medium. To be clear, I don’t think video games are frivolous or in any way lesser to any other method of storytelling. Still, it’s hard to deny that, in the 30+ years video games have been on the planet, it’s taken way less seriously than film, literature, or even TV, and television’s been the punching bag of media studies for decades. For large swaths of the population, the topic of video games conjured up images of basement dwelling nerds, sunlight starved arcades and incomprehensible jargon. Never mind that anyone with Angry Birds on their phones is a gamer these days; it’s still a no-go area for many.
Games seem simultaneously silly and overcomplex, something to take either way too seriously or not seriously enough. You see this approach throughout the various adaptations that made their way to theatres: Silent Hill couldn’t be as tense or eerie as the game, so they had to make it louder and stupider; Uwe Boll gets to tamper with truly wonderful games because obviously no serious director would want to bother making such films; You can’t make a vibrant, fun-loving film out of the Super Mario franchise, so obviously you have to turn it into a grimdark Blade Runner for very stupid kids.
I hesitate to say there’s a curse on video game adaptations because the mere notion of such an overwhelming and uncontrollable force implies that people don’t even need to try making something good if it’s going to fail anyway. I’m not sure anyone sets out to make a bad movie from a video game, although I’ve heard of worse business strategies. The problem is that few seem willing to do the hard work required to make a game a cinematic experience, all while maintaining what made the games so exciting in the first place. Perhaps it’s inevitable: Tropes that seem fresh in games may be more derivative in film, or in an attempt to remould the work into something more suitable for film, the familiar is shoehorned in. To do justice to a story like Assassin’s Creed, a big budget is necessary, and you aren’t given that kind of money by making risks.
Inevitably, we will get a truly great video game movie. Even if it happens by sheer accident, it’s got to occur at some point. These properties are too lucrative and too well-known to be ignored by an industry that thrives on pre-existing intellectual properties. Given every network’s desperate attempt to replicate the success of Game of Thrones, it’s surprising that video games like Skyrim haven’t been optioned for TV yet. There’s been much talk of the ever popular Call of Duty franchise becoming its own unnecessary shared universe - my dad will be thrilled - and we may finally get a Super Mario Bros. movie that does the film justice (although it is set to be made by the same folks who unleashed the Minions onto the world so enjoy that news with a pinch of salt).
Maybe Rampage will be the movie that breaks this supposed curse. If you can’t make a fun movie out of a story with a giant mutant ape and The Rock, you deserve to fail.
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