Over the last decade there have been numerous attempts to translate popular computer game franchises into movies, most of them ending in utter disaster. Indeed, until the arrival of Pokemon mania in 1999 the only computer game movie to enjoy any modicum of success was Mortal Kombat, a mediocre martial arts film starring Christopher "There Can Be Only One" Lambert, which somehow managed to pull in enough money to spawn a sequel and TV series.
Although there had been some fairly entertaining attempts to portray computer games in films before (Wargames and The Last Starfighter spring to mind), the first movie to be directly based on an existing game was Super Mario Brothers in 1993. But despite starring British actor Bob Hoskins (a man with previous plumbing experience, thanks to Terry Gilliam's excellent Brazil) and having Lance Henriksen and Dennis Hopper in supporting roles, the movie was a flop.
Later that year we were treated to Double Dragon, based on the classic coin-up brawler of the same name. The film starred Scott Wolf and Mark Dacascos as brothers apparently trying to recover half of an ancient Chinese medallion by beating up a succession of bad guys. The presence of Robert Patrick (recently assigned to The X-Files) and soft porn star Alyssa Milano failed to spice up the proceedings. Mark Dacascos went on to star as Eric Draven in The Crow TV series, while Alyssa Milano teamed up with Scott Wolf again eight years later .. to provide voices for Lady And The Tramp II : Scamp's Adventure.
Sadly Hollywood didn't learn from these fiascos, leading to a string of duds throughout the 1990s including such classics as Streetfighter, starring Jean-Claude van Damme and Australian soap opera star turned pop singer Kylie Minogue of all people. And the surprising success of Mortal Kombat (which grossed $70m at the box office) only encouraged them to produce more of the tripe.
This trail of misery lead all the way up to the Lord of the Duds itself, Wing Commander : The Movie. While the cheesy dialogue, low production values and dodgy special effects of the Wing Commander series worked well enough for cutscenes in a video game, when translated to the big screen the result was laughable. Fans of the original games were disappointed to discover that the cat-like Kilrathi had mysteriously moulted, and series regulars Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell were nowhere to be seen.
Meanwhile at the other end of the charts, Pokemon was again showing that some people will watch any old tripe, and so damning us to another decade of lame computer game movies. Although it was little more than an extended episode of the unremarkable anime cartoon series, Pokemon fever helped it to earn over $90m in the USA alone. And the ominous subtitle ("The First Movie") gave us fair warning that a flotilla of sequels were already on their way across the Pacific.
Which brings us to Lara Croft : Tomb Raider, the latest abortion of a movie attempting to cash in on a popular video game franchise. Brought to us by Con Air director Simon West, the draw of Lara was apparently still strong enough to help the movie earn back its $80m budget in less than three weeks, despite receiving almost universally poor reviews and being described as unwatchable by many unfortunate viewers. Luckily star Angelina Jolie seems to have put a hold on any plans for an immediate sequel.
Don't Touch It
So what is Hollywood doing wrong? Well, the most obvious mistake is picking the wrong games, with the focus apparently on sales figures and brand name recognition instead of content. Mario, Double Dragon, Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat were all huge in their day, but let's face it, none of them exactly have rivetting storylines or interesting characters.
Where is it going to end? No doubt a script writer somewhere in Hollywood has already noticed that Tetris is one of the most popular games in history, and is at this very moment working on translating that into box office success. I can just see it now - Tetris : The Motion Picture, the touching story of an L-shaped block trying to fit into a square hole while his world spins around him.
And this trend looks set to continue, with movies based on Dreamcast hits Soul Calibur and Crazy Taxi recently announced. Much as we love the games, do you really want to sit in a cinema watching a taxi leaping over the kerbs for ninety minutes? And can even the great Hong Kong actor / director Sammo Hung turn a straightforward beat 'em up into a decent movie while retaining any kind of link to the original games?
Another obvious reason for the dismal showing of some of these movies is that the original creators of the games were given too much input in the project. Most game developers are not good writers, no matter what their egos might tell them, and letting them anywhere near the movie is generally not a good idea. Chris Roberts ably demonstrated this when he co-wrote and directed the abysmal Wing Commander, and we can't wait to see what American McGee does with the film based on his own third person action game Alice. On the other hand, it probably doesn't help that the people who do make the movies often don't seem to appreciate or even care about the subject matter. Apart from the title and a few characters, movies like Super Mario Bros and Street Fighter have remarkably little in common with the games that they are supposedly based on. Which may or may not be a good thing.
Perhaps the ultimate answer though is that computer games just aren't very good at storytelling. There aren't many games which have involving plots or interesting characters that can compare to those of a decent film or novel, and the ones which do come anywhere close are generally role-playing and adventure games. So far these have been overlooked by Hollywood in favour of fast-paced actioneers like Duke Nukem, Crazy Taxi and Mortal Kombat, none of which are exactly renowned for their depth.
To be fair, the computer games industry has only been around for a couple of decades, and compared to television and the cinema it is still in its infancy. Just as most of the early movies look decidely primitive to us today, future generations will probably look back on the flimsy plots of games like Half-Life and laugh. But until that day, the chances of most computer games providing enough depth to make anything more than a run-of-the-mill action movie are fairly slender.
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