A 'rocky' road: Decades of video-game-to-movie adaptations have left critics, viewers underwhelmed
Posted June 11, 2016
In a rare example of dogged perseverance for movie studios, which are usually quick to determine rules about what does and doesn’t sell, Hollywood has tried to make video game adaptations a thing for more than two decades.
But critics and viewers alike have been underwhelmed by these adaptations, as evidenced by the films' consistently low ratings from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, an aggregator of movie reviews.
“Decades after the debut of ‘The Wizard,’ a thinly disguised, feature-length Nintendo commercial, the marriage between Hollywood and gaming remains rocky at best,” technology analyst Scott Steinberg wrote in an article for CNN.com.
One of the challenges in adapting a video game to the big screen is that when playing a game, players have some measure of control over the characters’ actions, but when watching a movie, they don’t.
"Movies based on them don’t work because a critical element that’s central to the gaming experience has yet to be successfully incorporated, an element that may be impossible to implement properly: the participation of the viewer," wrote Derrick Rossignol in "Why Don’t Video Game Movies Work?" on consequenceofsound.net.
In "Why There Will Never Be a Good Video Game Adaptation" on fandom.wikia.com, Drew Dietsch wrote, "Unlike adapting a book or another form of written fiction, video games offer a 1:1 level of interactivity. You are directly controlling the events that happen on screen."
Movie critic Roger Ebert wrote in a review about a video game adaptation, "The movie has been 'inspired by' the famous video game. No, I haven't played it, and I never will, but I know how it feels not to play it, because I've seen the movie. (It) is like some kid came over and is using your computer and won't let you play."
Could 2016 be the year to break the curse? With “Warcraft” doing crazy business overseas, it might be. But if not, denofgeek.com reports that there are more than 40 video game adaptations in development right this second, so sooner or later, something has to pan out, right?
"It's been frustrating watching Hollywood fumble its video game adaptations for more than two decades, but it's encouraging that the studios haven't stopped trying, and that adaptations on the horizon seem to be far more promising," Scott Meslow wrote in "How Hollywood can make a truly great video game movie" on theweek.com.
In the meantime, here’s a look at the history of film adaptations of video games.
“Super Mario Bros.”
Rotten Tomatoes score: 15 percent
As Time magazine remarked in reference to 1993’s “Super Mario Bros.” in a list of the 10 worst video game adaptations ever made, “The trailblazers always die of dysentery.”
“Super Mario Bros.” was Hollywood’s first real foray into video games, and it still holds the title as arguably the worst — quite the feat given the nearly quarter-century of awful game-to-movie adaptations audiences have had to endure.
Watching it now, “Mario Bros.” plays like a parody of the trend in modern adaptations to make everything “dark and gritty.” In lieu of the kid-friendly, colorful cartoon landscapes, the filmmakers opted to emulate the grimy visuals of ’80s sci-fi such as “Blade Runner” and David Lynch’s “Dune.”
Bob Hoskins, who starred as Mario, would later refer to “Super Mario Bros.” as “the worst job″ he ever did, according to The Wrap.
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 8 percent
Remember this old-school beat ’em up? Probably not, unless you grew up in the ninja-obsessed ’80s.
Fresh off his role as the T-1000 in James Cameron’s “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the decidedly not-Asian Robert Patrick plays the evil gangster Koga Shuko opposite Scott Wolf (“Party of Five”) and Mark Dacascos (better known as The Chairman on “Iron Chef America”) as martial artist brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee. The action is transposed to a dystopian sci-fi future for no apparent reason other than it was 1994 and that was cool.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 12 percent
Because nothing screams “America” like Jean-Claude Van Damme with a U.S. flag tattooed on his bicep.
In all fairness, casting the Muscles from Brussels as the aggressively American character William F. Guile from Capcom’s classic 2-D fighting game franchise is only one of many, many problems with this movie.
Unlike the previous attempts to adapt a video game for the big screen, 1994’s “Street Fighter” (PG-13) had at least one thing working in its favor, at least on paper: writer-director Steven E. de Souza. Prior to this, de Souza was among the sought-after scribes in Hollywood, having penned such ’80s classics as “48 Hours,” “The Running Man,” “Die Hard,” “Die Hard 2: Die Harder” and “Hudson Hawk.”… Oh. OK. Maybe they should have seen where this was headed.
A full 15 years later, an attempted do-over starring Kristin Kreuk as Chun-Li proved it actually is possible to make an even worse Street Fighter movie.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 33 percent
Director Paul W.S. Anderson, who would later go on to “adapt” Capcom’s Resident Evil series, made his first foray into the world of video game movies with this action flick based on the other major 2-D fighting game franchise of the ’90s.
While not a great movie by any stretch, “Mortal Kombat” (PG-13) at least tried to stick to the source material, albeit without the gory “fatalities” that made the games so popular with kids (and so unpopular with parents).
The 1995 film was successful enough to spawn not only a sequel, “Mortal Kombat: Annihilation,” but also a short-lived TV series as well as a cartoon.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 10 percent
Based on the popular series of space combat games from the ’90s, 1999’s “Wing Commander” (PG-13) looked poised to succeed where every other video game adaptation had so far fallen short.
The games were already pretty cinematic to begin with, featuring live-action cutscenes with actors such as Mark Hamill, John Rhys Davies, Malcolm McDowell, Christopher Walken, Clive Owen and John Hurt. On top of that, the series’ own creator, Chris Roberts, was hired to direct, so what could possibly go wrong?
As always seems to be the case with video game movies, though, the answer is apparently “almost everything” — not least of which was swapping out the real Luke Skywalker for ’90s-era Freddie Prinze Jr.
“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider”
Rotten Tomatoes score: 19 percent
Oscar winner Angelina Jolie stepped into the role of British explorer Lara Croft for two movies, beginning with this 2001 adventure film co-starring a pre-Bond Daniel Craig and Jolie’s own biological father, Jon Voight.
"Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" (PG-13) was met with a fair amount of box-office success, marking the first potential bright spot in the thus-far rocky history of video game movies. However, it was savaged by critics.
The Resident Evil series
Rotten Tomatoes score: 33 percent (for the first one)
The most consistently successful game-to-film franchise in history by a wide margin — to the eternal puzzlement of critics, who have almost universally panned every movie in the series — began with 2002’s original “Resident Evil” (rated R).
According to Box Office Mojo, all five Resident Evil films made more than $100 million worldwide, and the fourth film, 2010’s “Resident Evil: Afterlife” (R), managed to pull in $296 million at the global box office.
But despite the series’ financial success, the movies have surprisingly little to do with the source material, focusing instead on the nongame character of Alice.
“House of the Dead”
Rotten Tomatoes score: 4 percent
German director Uwe Boll is among the most vilified directors of all time. Metacritic called him “the century’s most legendary bad filmmaker,” and in 2008, there was an online petition signed by more than a quarter of a million people "demanding that he stop making movies," according to an article in the New York Times.
Outside of his movies, Boll has become a minor celebrity in his own right thanks to stunts such as challenging his critics to boxing matches, the New York Times article reported.
His first of many video game adaptations, 2003’s “House of the Dead” was based on a Sega arcade game. Despite abysmal reviews and the fact that it only made $13 million on a budget of $12 million, according to Box Office Mojo, he somehow managed to parlay that minor success into a stream of video game movies that so far includes titles such as “Alone in the Dark,” “In the Name of the King: Dungeon Siege,” “BloodRayne” and even Ubisoft’s “Far Cry.” All but the latter film have Rotten Tomatoes scores in the single digits, with 2005's “Alone in the Dark” earning just a single positive review out of 117 total reviews by critics.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 19 percent
You know it’s bad when even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who’s got a reputation for singlehandedly reviving stagnant or dying franchises (he joined the cast of The Fast and the Furious franchise for "Fast Five," which made almost double in terms of worldwide box office totals than its predecessor, according to Box Office Mojo), can’t make something watchable.
2005’s “Doom” (R) is yet another example of a game-to-movie adaptation where the core concept is inexplicably changed for the worse. Instead of space marines battling the minions of hell on Mars, it’s dumbed down to an infectious disease that turns people into mutant zombies.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 29 percent
Another R-rated adaptation of a survival horror game, this 2006 movie starred Sean Bean (Lord the Rings series) and Radha Mitchell (“Olympus Has Fallen”) as a couple whose search for their missing daughter leads them to the mysterious limbo town of Silent Hill.
Unlike “Resident Evil,” “Silent Hill” tried hard to appease the game’s fans, using a lot of the original music by composer Akira Yamaoka. Visually, as well, it looks like the game brought to life. Unfortunately, the source material's surprisingly brainy narrative didn’t survive the transition.
A sequel, “Silent Hill: Revelation,” was released in 2012 but was absolutely slaughtered by critics — even compared to the first one, as evidenced by its 5 percent critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Rotten Tomatoes score: 14 percent
Fan-favorite actor Timothy Olyphant (TV’s “Justified”) gave up his hair to play the skinhead assassin Agent 47 in 2007's R-rated production based on the stealth-action game series by the same name.
Amazingly enough, one of the few critics who took a shine to “Hitman” was Ebert, the longtime enemy of video games as a medium who wrote that “video games cannot be art.” He gave it three out of four stars.
“Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”
Rotten Tomatoes score: 36 percent
Technically, Disney’s 2010 action-adventure flick “The Prince of Persia” (PG-13) is the highest-grossing video game adaptation of all time, according to Forbes.com, but it also cost just about as much as most of the other movies on this list combined. So, even after pulling in more than $300 million worldwide, it was a major bomb for Disney.
According to The Telegraph, the film’s creators were accused of “whitewashing” by casting white actors, including Jake Gyllenhaal and Gemma Arterton, to play lead roles as Asian and Middle Eastern characters.
According to an interview Gyllenhaal did with Entertainment Weekly, the movie’s failure ended up having a galvanizing effect on his career, causing him to take a long, hard look at the kinds of projects he wanted to be involved in.
“Ratchet & Clank”
Rotten Tomatoes score: 16 percent
2016 is the year Hollywood has seemingly decided video game movies are going to make it as a trend. This animated adaptation of the Ratchet & Clank series was just the first in a slew of movies this year trying to be the first great video game adaptation.
However, with the success of other family movies such as “Zootopia” and “The Jungle Book” at the box office, when the animated “Ratchet & Clank” (PG) hit theaters, it turned out to be yet another bomb, earning just $8.8 million on a budget of $20 million, according to Box Office Mojo.
“The Angry Birds Movie”
Rotten Tomatoes score: 42 percent
But after all the terrible movies and box-office duds, Hollywood’s persistence might finally be paying off.
Although the reviews weren’t stellar, “The Angry Birds Movie” (PG) arguably marks the first real sign that things might be getting better for video game movies. Not only does it have a better cast than any game based on a cellphone app has a right to, but it also scored the most generally positive reaction of any movie on this list.
It still doesn’t cut it as a “great” video game movie, but hey, after so many just plain awful ones, “pretty good” ain’t bad.
Jeff Peterson is a native of Utah Valley and studied humanities and history at Brigham Young University. Along with the Deseret News, he also contributes to the film discussion website TheMovieScrutineer.com.