What We Can Expect From Video Game Films

Films based on popular video games are trending like never before. Ratchet & Clank, an animated film married to a reboot of the long-running R&C series produced by game studio Naughty Dog, was released in April. Angry Birds, another animated film based on the wildly successful mobile game, hit theaters in May. Then there was the June release of Warcraft, the long-awaited live-action adaptation of the Warcraft franchise. With the upcoming release of Assassin's Creed in December, that makes four game-based films in 2016, the most we've ever seen released in one year. Are video game films a hot ticket now? The short answer: Yes. Definitely expect to see more video game movies, but don't expect too much from them!

Young Genre, Aging Audience

Video games are a relatively new innovation. Pong, the well-known 2-D table tennis game made by Atari, was made in 1972 and was probably the first video game to reach mass appeal. Super Mario Bros., which might be the first film adaption of a video game franchise, was made in 1993. Now, nearly 20 years after that, we're knocking on the door of immersive virtual reality with hardware that is poised to once again revolutionize the game industry and possibly the way we watch films. Video games are riding the awesome wave of technology and are constantly pushing the limits of computing power. But can they make the leap from interactive computer program to film? 

To help answer this question, consider how long it took superhero comics to mature as a film genre. Let's take Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's original Superman comic, started in 1938. Forty years later, the 1978 film Superman premiered and became the second highest-grossing film of the year. Nearly another forty years after that, both DC and Marvel regularly produce some of the highest-grossing films in theaters. Granted, this is a generalized comparison, there are stark differences between comic books and video games, but they have a lot in common:

  1. Video game fans have a vast understanding of their games and get as much enjoyment from recognizing obscure series and characters as comic book fans who "get" Marvel's post-credit teasers.
  2. Many role-playing games (RPGs) that have gotten film adaptations often involve an archetypal hero character, an archetypal villain, and a hero's quest not unlike those seen in Superman or Batman.
  3. Their film adaptations rely heavily on giddy action and spectacle.

Video game films already have fan-teasing, heroic journeys, and eye-catching action sequences going for them. If they had the experience that Batman or Superman has had (case in point: two Batman films directed by Tim Burton, two by Joel Schumaker, and two by Christopher Nolan) they could potentially be great films. Could be, but so far they've been very disappointing.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As with any genre, game films have their ups and downs. The highest-grossing game-based film is Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, grossing $335 million worldwide. Wreck-It Ralph, a 2012 Disney film that hearkened back to video game arcades and video game franchises like Sonic the Hedgehog, grossed $189.4 million in the U.S. and topped the box office opening night weekend with $49 million. The 2014 Lego Movie, aided by the quirky personalities of its highly successful video game franchises like Lego Batman and Lego Star Wars, grossed nearly $260 million in the U.S. and has a near-perfect score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. Although neither film was cemented into a singular video game franchise, they brought the spirit of video games to life and were adored by many.

There's also the bad ones, the movies that might have earned back their budgets with a little extra but were ultimately rejected by film critics and film review aggregates like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. The 2015 film Pixels, starring Adam Sandler and a few arcade legends like Pacman, grossed about $244 million worldwide, but was roasted by film critics from The Atlantic, The Rolling Stones, and more. Films from the Resident Evil franchise and the recent Silent Hill: Relevation film were modestly successful at the box office but were harshly critiqued.

I saw Pixels as a 3-D metaphor for Hollywood’s digital assault on our eyes and brains. Not funny. Just relentless and exhausting.
— Peter Travers, Rolling Stones

Then there's the really bad ones. Although Ratchet & Clank received mixed reviews, it bombed at the box office, grossing $12.3 million worldwide with a $20 million budget, making it a near $8 million loss for Rainmaker Entertainment. Alone in the Dark, released in 2005, grossed about $10 million worldwide, half of its budget. 

More (Of the Same) Down the Road

Here I must confess that I am a video game fan, starry-eyed with nostalgia, so I may be a little biased. But that does not mean game-based films are an easy "Yes!" for me. The quality of these movies so far ranges from meaningless yet passable eye-candy to laughably terrible. And yet more game-based films are inbound. Assassin's Creed is on the way, and ideas for Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Uncharted, and Sonic the Hedgehog are being knocked around. No matter how well they'll perform, we can expect to see others. The merchandising incentive to make game-based films is too great to stave off forever, and therein lies the problem.

If every game-based film can be nothing but a cheap cash-grab on an already successful franchise, they are doomed to eternal mediocrity. The Ratchet & Clank movie is a prime example. Developed simultaneously with the Ratchet & Clank reboot of the game series, it serves as little more than a promotional hood ornament. What we wanted was an animated film with the heart of Pixar's lovable, dynamic stories. What we got was a passable space adventure with spastic action and no feeling.

So if slap-dash action films are your thing, and you'd like to see more of it, check out Assassin's Creed and future game-related releases when they pop up. But don't set your expectations too high.

Assassin's Creed movie still (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

Assassin's Creed movie still (Photo: 20th Century Fox)