Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lost Planet, and Video Games to Movies

Yet another video-game-to-movie deal has been announced: Warner Bros. is set to distribute a film version of Capcom's Lost Planet. David Hayter, who worked on the scripts for the X-Men and X2 movies, is set to write the screenplay (Variety).

A couple of in-production movies based on video games have caught my eye lately, namely Prince of Persia and BioShock. BioShock has Gore "I made a billion dollar movie franchise out of a lousy Disney ride" Verbinski attached to direct. Prince of Persia is about to begin filming, with such stars as Jake Gyllenhaal, Ben Kingsley, Alfred Molina, and Gemma "You'll know who I am on Nov. 007*" Arterton directed by the likes of Mike "Potter number 4" Newell.

I've never played any of these games, so I don't know much about them (Jake Gyllenhaal? Prince of Persia? Please explain.) beyond what I can gather from a quick skim of their respective Wikipedia articles. Not being familiar with the games, I can't make a qualified prediction of the movie adaptations' prospects. But I will comment on the track record of video-games-to-movies thus far.

It's not good, and sadly it can't all be blamed on Uwe Boll. Looking down the Wikipedia list (whatever did people do before Wikipedia?) of theatrical release films based on video games, from Super Mario Bros. to In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, the movie with the highest IMDb user rating (these are users like you and me, folks, not critics) is... drum roll... Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within--with a whopping 6.4 out of 10 stars. No joke. The "best" movie based on a video game is a box office bomb that has nothing to do with video games except for Hironobu Sakaguchi.

Let's lay aside the fact that the Final Fantasy movie can hardly be said to be "based" on a video game. The important point is that IMDb users deem all the other video game movies to be worse. They scored less than an already poor 6.4. Several of the movies are even in the esteemed "Bottom 100" with such bedfellows as SuperBabies: Baby Geniuses 2 and From Justin to Kelly. How do the studios keep producing such consistently bad movie adaptations of video games? Is there something about the source material that makes it innately unsuitable for film?

I have played some role-playing games with exciting, insightful stories and fun, interesting characters that I think could make good films (well, at least better than the recent Resident Evil). The problem is, I would hate to see any of them made into movies. These particular games allow a wide range of character development that would make it difficult for the director's choices not to enrage every fan of the game. For instance, I fear if Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic were for some reason made into a movie (it won't be), it would surely have a male protagonist (since judging from the Star Wars movies women apparently can't use the Force as well as men**), which would spark in me and other fans much anger, leading to hatred of the movie and box office suffering. Furthermore, there's the question of whether this protagonist would uphold the side of Light or fall to the Dark Side. In the game the choice is left up to the player, and making that choice adds a whole dimension to the story experience. Lara Croft is a character established independent of the player, with a look and a personality that Angelina Jolie can emulate, but in the games I'm talking about, the appearance, personality and role of the character are shaped over the course of the game by the player's choices. That is what makes these games great, and it's what makes players like me so attached to the characters and their stories. But it is also what would make it impossible to please all the fans with both the casting and the way the plot unfolds in a movie version. And while movies based on video games attract audiences much larger than the player base of the games, the gamer fans are the core of the audience and the instigators of that all-important buzz.

To be fair, movies adapted from all media face considerable hurdles. The only way for any movie adaptation to be great is for the makers to recognize the drawbacks of the medium of film and take advantage of what film has to offer in order to add enough to the story to justify the existence of the adaptation. This may be possible to do for RPGs. But how do you compensate for revoking such a fundamental component of the original story as free will?

If games that allow too much player choice are out, then games with predetermined characters and a set linear storyline, or no storyline at all, must be the better candidates for movie adaptations. The latter brings us movies like Street Fighter. The former has some potential. But here's another problem: in almost any video game (at least, the action games I'm talking about here), the story is merely a vehicle for the fighting. I don't spend 40 hours playing a story. I spend those hours kicking monster/alien/bad guy butt (and collecting better equipment and gaining skills--gosh, can you imagine how boring it would be if they included that part in the movie? And here's our hero, shuffling through her unrealistically enormous backpack... equipping a new weapon... no, changing back...). So movies based on video games like these tend to be action movies that focus entirely on the action, rather than the plot (and writing) or characters (and acting). That is not a critic-pleasing formula, and it isn't often pleasing to the general viewership, either.

The movie studios will continue to churn out new movies based on video games because, despite invariably universal criticism, some of the movies make considerable profits at the box office and on DVD. But each failure adds to the collective feeling that the genre itself is bad. This is discouraging indeed, since the "mainstream" hardly needs another reason to question the tastes of video gamers. So when will we get a video game movie to validate the genre? Who knows, maybe Sands of Time will be 2010's Incredible Hulk (I won't be so ambitious as to hope for anything more). Maybe BioShock will be a surprise hit--Verbinski has proven he can turn an unlikely source into an enjoyable movie. But historical trends are not in their favor.

I believe that a good movie based on a video game is possible. There are games with great stories and memorable characters that can be fleshed out by a good writer and director to satisfy movie standards. And now that the new fad seems to be hiring movie makers to write the scripts for video games, the products of these collaborations may turn out to be ideally suited for movie adaptations (though if a video game is too cinematic, what's the point in the adaptation?). We just need a filmmaker who really wants to make a good movie and knows how to embellish the plot, bring out the characters, and integrate the action into the film, rather than one who just wants to use the film as a showcase for stunts and explosions. A good adaptation is out there. Fans are waiting.

* Note 8/22/08: The movie has been bumped back a week to 11/14/08. Kind of a shame, since they had the whole 007 thing working for them.

** I should note that female Jedi do get some love in other Star Wars media. And that the ambiguity of my phrasing there is intentional. 10 points to anyone who understands what I mean by that.

Note: A follow-up post of sorts prior to the release of Prince of Persia is here.

No comments: