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Arcade dire: the past, present and future of video game movies

Sprites, camera, action

It is a question that has echoed down the ages ever since Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo strapped on metal jump-boots for Super Mario Bros in May 1993: will there ever be a good video game movie? The short but dispiriting history of gaming IP being repurposed for the big screen is like a high-score table filled entirely with clunkers, from the cheeseball flexing of Van Damme in Street Fighter to the constipated gothic grimace of Marky Mark's Max Payne. To make things worse, the whole sub-genre will forever be dragged down by slapdash cash-in king Uwe Boll and his unforgivably amateurish efforts at adapting games like Alone in the Dark, BloodRayne and Far Cry. (Not even the mighty Jason Statham as a hardnut ploughman could salvage Boll's aggressively banal medieval epic In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale.)

Some of these early disasters could be written off as the growing pains of working out how best to combine the strengths of two similar but divergent art forms. But in recent years, gaming movies have had some serious investment and actual talent thrown at them - like the slick but soulless Aaron Paul vehicle Need For Speed, or Duncan Jones's monolithic passion project Warcraft - and yet have still struggled to make any critical or commercial headway. It is bewildering. Even by the law of averages, surely one of these films should be good? What makes it even more vexing is that comic book movies - based on a cheerfully disreputable art form that was being attacked for corrupting young minds for decades before games replaced it as the public's preferred scapegoat for social ills - are now absolutely dominant at the box office. When will video game movies have their surprise Iron Man moment, or even a Tim Burton/Batman-style breakthrough?

It takes a while but Vikander does eventually raid a tomb in the new Tomb Raider, even if the specifics of how she solves puzzles remains opaque.

In the space of just a month, three major video game (or at least game-adjacent) movies are coming out in the UK and US, an interesting cluster of releases that provide a snapshot of how far things have progressed. First came Tomb Raider, an attempt that - on paper at least - felt the most likely to hit the bullseye. Here was a video game movie that seemed like a genuine collaboration between the film-makers and the creative talent behind the source material. From the prestige casting of Alicia Vikander to the earthy, sun-bleached colour palette, the movie hewed so closely to to the current era of Tomb Raider games - centred on a younger Lara learning the arrow-twanging, baddie-choking ropes - that at times it seemed almost indistinguishable, right down to the red icepick on the poster. While there was no faulting the effort, the end result (as Oli noted in his recent review) was strangely lacking: Croft unoriginal, if you like. 

There was a similar problem with the Michael Fassbender-led Assassin's Creed movie, another big-budget swing that treated its inspiration with respect yet, despite the considerable creative and financial input of Ubisoft, still struggled to fashion an enjoyable film out of it all. (Fassbender is married to Vikander and one wonders if they compared notes on their day jobs leading potential gaming blockbuster franchises over dinner or a two-player game of Arms.) While hardly a box office disaster, the tepid response to Tomb Raider suggests a straight-up sequel is unlikely. The next film-maker to tackle Lara could even make a convincing argument they be allowed more creative leeway rather than sticking to a template laid down by the current game.

From its massive battle scenes to its Borderlands-branded weapons store, Ready Player One is saturated with games and gaming culture.

Next up is Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, a futuristic Easter egg hunt crammed with knowing cultural Easter eggs that - in one of its more successful jokes - is actually coming out at Easter. While it may be based on Ernest Cline's 2011 novel, Ready Player One is a film that desperately wants to speak the language of gamers, from that title down. To give Spielberg his due - remember, this is the man who brought us Boom Blox - he has overseen an extravagant chase movie that doubles as a staggeringly expensive advert for VR. Games and gaming culture are given equal prominence alongside movies, music and TV in Ready Player One's brimming pop-culture gumbo. There are prominent shoutouts for GoldenEye on the N64, a scene-stealing cameo from Mortal Kombat's grumpy Goro plus excellent background crowd work from Street Fighter characters and any number of Halo Spartans. Most of these gaming nods are in addition to the ones mentioned in the book and while Spielberg probably delegated some of the specifics - or maybe he really is a Tracer main when playing Overwatch? - it seems obvious he wanted players to feel like they were a crucial part of Ready Player One's epic fizzing-neon sweep, even if the end result feels a little shapeless.

Then, in early April, comes a stealth video game movie, a brawny throwback to those simpler times when film producers would snap up a licence and then proceed to make any old tat. Rampage is based on the 1980s Bally Midway classic but the pre-release messaging has focused more on Dwayne Johnson's furry bromance with a giant silverback albino gorilla than the movie's dusty arcade cabinet origins. In fairness, the movie seems to have retained the classic city-smashing trio of a giant ape, a giant wolf and a giant lizard but otherwise this is just an excuse for The Rock to be a big uncomplicated hero while skyscrapers fall to bits around him. Dwayne has previous when it comes to game movies, of course: one of his first big non-wrestling roles was in the lacklustre Doom in 2005. His charisma has only ballooned since then so if Rampage is a substantive hit perhaps he will be able to get some more Bally Midway arcade classics off the ground, like that Spy Hunter movie he was supposedly attached to for years.

The really wild show: Rampage may not exactly be trumpeting its arcade origins but at least the big gorilla is still called George.

So, three gaming movies in the space of a month: one already judged to have underperformed, one a bit sprawling but likely to be a blockbuster success and one featuring The Rock quizzically cocking an eyebrow at a giant mutant lizard. Perhaps the arrival of that first great video game movie remains somewhere over the horizon but there is still something quite cheering that producers are trying to make it happen. And since the bad old days of the Super Mario Bros movie, it feels like mainstream audiences find the language, rhythms and seemingly arcane rituals of gaming far less intimidating: just look at the global sleeper success of Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle, a movie entirely constructed around video game logic. It feels like a corner is about to be turned, that there's a summit ready to be belatedly crested, a final step toward validation that could banish the spectre of Uwe Boll forever. Only a fool would predict what might finally tip the balance, but there's a Sonic The Hedgehog movie scheduled for 2019. Convince Dwayne Johnson to star in it and we might have finally cracked it.

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About the Author
Graeme Virtue avatar

Graeme Virtue


Graeme Virtue is a writer and broadcaster based in Glasgow. You can follow him on Twitter at @GraemeVirtue.