Essays · Movies

The Best Video Game Movies Aren’t Actually Video Game Movies

Studios could learn a lesson from movies like Scott Pilgrim and Edge of Tomorrow.
Scott Pilgrim Honest Trailer
By  · Published on March 13th, 2018

In 1993, Walt Disney released the first live-action video game movie, a $48 million adaptation of Japan’s popular Super Mario Bros. franchise. The film was a bomb in every sense of the word; critics panned it outright, and audiences largely ignored it, to the tune of only $20 million in box office returns. On top of that, Super Mario Bros. ended up satisfying none of its intended audience. Fans of the games complained that the film forced vague gameplay concepts into a traditional plot, and those unfamiliar with the games were put off by the excessive strangeness that came with tossing game references in for the fans.

The reception to Super Mario Bros. is the rule when it comes to video game movies, and there are few exceptions. In the 25 years since it bombed, more than 30 films based on video games have been released. Not a single one of those movies have managed to scrape a positive rating on review aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. And box office success is hard to come by because video game films are notoriously expensive. Even the highest-grossing video game adaptation, Warcraftcame in $17 million short of breaking even.

But Hollywood continues to return to the video game well, and each time we convince ourselves that this time it has to work. The 2010s have seen a steady succession of talented filmmakers take on video games that seem tailor-made for the big screen. When Mike Newell made Prince of Persia for Disney, it was going to be the first good video game movie. When Duncan Jones tackled Warcraft, that was going to be the first good video game movie. By the time Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed came out in late 2016, audiences knew nothing good was coming down the pipeline; the film opened at #5 to a paltry $10 million.

It’s time for studios to admit what they should already know: Video game movies are dead. There isn’t a single worthwhile adaptation to speak of, and there have been plenty of chances (Resident Evil apologists, take your cacophonous nonsense elsewhere). While studio execs have been desperately throwing useless brand names at talented journeyman directors, an entirely separate genre has arisen, one that uses video games as fodder for storytelling without actually falling into the trap of slavish adaptation.

Edge of Tomorrow Tom Cruise

The best example of this new movement is 2014’s Edge of TomorrowDoug Liman’s surprisingly inventive sci-fi blockbuster riff. After he accidentally kills an alien leader, Tom Cruise’s character is trapped in a time loop, endlessly repeating the events of the day and slowly learning how to proceed further into enemy territory. It’s vaguely lifted from Groundhog Day, sure, but the film’s hook is also strikingly similar to the experience of a gamer replaying a level over and over again until they’ve mastered it entirely. Instead of adapting a game that’s better suited to the medium in which it originated, movies like Edge of Tomorrow borrow gameplay mechanics to tell a story that fits into and subverts a classic Hollywood structure.

Or take something like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Edgar Wright’s 2010 love letter to goofy Mortal Kombat-style fighter games. It’s based on a series of graphic novels, but Scott Pilgrim owes much of its rapid-fire cleverness to video games, from its level-up structure to countless throwaway gags. It’s a movie that delights in the specificity of its source material, from “pee bars” to bosses who explode into geysers of quarters. Scott Pilgrim has been embraced by the nerd community since its initial poor showing at the box office. One supposes they haven’t picked up on the fact that it’s a thinly veiled story about geeky toxicity. But it doesn’t get nearly enough credit for pulling off the structure of a video game in a more successful fashion than most video games.

There are countless more examples. Wreck-It Ralph borrows arcade game tropes and uses them to tell a sweet Disney story about an unlikely friendship. Much of the successful comedy in the surprise hit Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle came from its exploitation of a clever trapped-in-a-video-game concept. Even something like the John Wick franchise owes a great deal to modern first-person shooters.

So what’s stopping Hollywood from borrowing these mechanics for an actual video game movie? Why are they so determined to snap up “cinematic” video games for adaptation, instead of letting video games inform cinema? In 2018 alone, Warner Bros. is releasing Tomb Raider and Rampage movies that appear determined to capture what audiences “like” about the spectacle of those games without realizing that neither of those properties offers anything new to the cinema if an audience member isn’t participating in the action. Games like Tomb Raider and Rampage are exciting because they allow players to run and jump and punch giant lizards. Put that on the big screen, and all you have is the same type of blockbuster that those games are aping.

Essentially, what separates something like Edge of Tomorrow from the likes of Warcraft is a certain level of self-awareness. Where a talented filmmaker like Duncan Jones gets bogged down in mythology and desperate attempts to please die-hard fans of the games, better movies borrow a killer concept and leap past the dull exposition phase into something more exciting. Instead of looking at the plots of video games and seeing something that needs to be explained to an audience, successful filmmakers look at the mechanics of video games and see something that audiences are already familiar with. Movies like Edge of Tomorrow rest on the foundation of cultural awareness of how video games function and they’re all the better for it.

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Writer and student based in New York. Ask me about my Blu-Ray copy of The Book of Henry.