For more than 20 years, Hollywood has tried and failed to make a good movie based on a video game.
Warcraft, the latest and perhaps the biggest effort to date, is yet another in a long line of failures. Director Duncan Jones — the filmmaker behind the small-scale sci-fi pleasures Moon and Source Code — tries mightily to rise above the genre’s limitations, but in the end he delivers a lumbering, often bewildering film weighed down by two decades’ worth of video game lore and the expectations that lore has created. The result is simultaneously too devoted to its source material and too unwilling to seriously engage with it in a truly cinematic fashion.
It’s a movie, in other words, that illustrates the challenges of adapting a popular video game to the big screen, and just how hard it is for Hollywood to get it right.
Hollywood has a long history of making bad movies out of good video games
In many ways, of course, Warcraft represents a step up for video game movies: It boasts a promising director with a reputation for bringing strong characters and emotional textures to science fiction storytelling, an array of impressive special effects (in particular its motion-capture orc characters), a budget reported at north of $150 million, and a prime summer release date. It’s a no-expense-spared tentpole epic aimed at true mass appeal.
Previous attempts at video game movies, in contrast, have typically been more modest. The mid-1990s saw a handful of video game adaptations, including movies based on the popular fighting games Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat. Both were reasonably successful at the box office after factoring in foreign returns, but they were modestly budgeted affairs designed to cater mostly to people who were already fans of the games by imagining the two properties as generic schlocky action flicks. They took fighting games and turned them into low-brainpower fighting movies.
The decision to target fans instead of the masses made sense, however, given what had happened with one of Hollywood’s earliest attempts at a video game adaption, the 1993 production of Super Mario Bros. That film boasted an expensive-for-its-time budget of almost $50 million, and a cast that included Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo, and Dennis Hopper. Predicated on a truly bizarre decision to translate the colorful, whimsical world of Shigeru Miyamoto’s incredibly popular and influential Mario games into a dark, weird, and uncharacteristically violent sci-fi dystopia, the movie was a critical failure and a box office bomb, bringing in just $20 million.
In the years since, Hollywood has continued to churn out video game–based movies. But from the forgettable (Wing Commander, House of the Dead) to the truly awful (BloodRayne) to the flat-out bizarre (Dead or Alive), few have attempted much beyond low-level fan service. And the ones that have — Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, the first couple of Resident Evil films — have been positioned largely as mundane genre films dressed up in video game garb.
For the most part, video game movies have been designed as quick cash-ins, intended to sell tickets primarily to people who bought the games — and almost no one else. Games were adapted because they were popular, not because they offered intriguing cinematic possibilities, which is how we ended up with low-grade movie versions of Doom, Hitman, and Max Payne.
Perhaps more than anything else, what connects all of these films is their dismal quality. Look at the Rotten Tomatoes scores for a bunch of video game movies and you won’t find a single one that breaks the 50 percent mark. By and large, they are all some combination of badly produced, badly designed, badly acted, badly written, and badly conceived.
The bigger-budget films tend to look slicker, yes — but with few exceptions, there’s little if any craftsmanship or imagination on display. At best, there’s a good-faith effort to competently dramatize some representative scenes from the source material; not one of these films has a memorable story. In fact, Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of Lara Croft may be the most notable thing to come out of any of these movies, mostly because it proved that she was a star, even in a movie that didn’t shine.
Essentially, Hollywood has spent 20-plus years making movies based on video games, and every single one of them is bad.
Warcraft is the latest example of how seemingly promising game material gets bungled on the way to the big screen
Why is it so difficult to make a decent movie based on a video game? Why is it so hard to translate players and pixels to script and screen? After all, video games would seem to offer plenty of raw material for great — or at least enjoyably entertaining — movies.
Today’s games are driven by visual spectacle set against the backdrop of heavily developed fictional worlds. They feature high-velocity action set pieces and casts of easily recognizable, even iconic, characters. Lots of games now feature dramatic cut scenes — interstitial material that fleshes out the story in ways that are inherently cinematic, at least on the surface.
Warcraft offers some insight into how such seemingly promising material can go so wildly wrong.
The movie’s visuals, for example, are consistently stunning, with intricately detailed orcs that come across as eerily lifelike, despite being created via digital wizardry. Yes, they’re just pixels, but their bodies move with an organic logic, as if connected by the muscles and tendons you can see moving under their porous skin. But if the creatures look real, they also look, well, kind of silly, dressed in over-the-top bone armor and covered in goofy claw trinkets.
The photorealism of the imagery only emphases the ridiculousness; it’s like watching a movie in which half the cast is made up of rejected members of joke metal band Gwar.
The armor and trinkets are there, of course, because such items are integral to the game. I’m far from a deep student of the Warcraft franchise — I prefer single-player role-playing games (RPGs) — but I know that like many RPGs, Warcraft is a game about collecting stuff for your character to wear and use: magic hats and glowing axes, armored boots and fantastical potions. Inside the game, all these accoutrements have a gameplay function, altering your character’s ability to attack, move, and defend. In many ways, the game is fundamentally about the quest to collect more and better stuff.
In the movie, though, it’s just there because it exists in the game. Far too often, then, Warcraft plays like a catalog of shiny objects — shields and swords, gloves and cauldrons, staffs and gems, armories and map rooms. It’s the first movie I’ve ever seen that felt like it needed an inventory system.
Few of these items have any particular value to the story, and their various properties are barely explained. Late in the film, there’s a gag in which one of the characters turns an unsuspecting guard into a sheep. A sheep? What? Why a sheep? If you’re a Warcraft player, you know that it’s because the guard was hit with the polymorph spell, which renders enemies useless for a moment by transforming them into harmless farm animals.
A beat like that could be an opportunity for a funny bit of story and character building, for explaining the sheep spell and its background and cultural context, or even just a running joke about the oddities of magic. Instead it’s just a random, confusing sight gag meant to please gamers at everyone else’s expense.
This sort of gamer fan service even affects the action scenes, several of which are staged in ways designed to lightly mimic the sort of complex combat strategies that teams of Warcraft players often use in the game, with mages standing behind energy shields while they wait for spells to charge up to full power and sword slingers moving in close. But while those strategies work in the game world, they don’t make sense onscreen because they lack meaningful story context.
A movie version of Warcraft should have been an opportunity to flesh out the story and characters of the game world, to ground the game’s strategic systems and fragments of lore in recognizable emotion and motivation — the stuff that movies do well and video games generally don’t.
But while you can occasionally see Jones, who co-wrote the screenplay with Charles Leavitt, attempting to accomplish as much in a handful of scenes that emphasize orc family life, those efforts are ultimately swamped by the dull demands of basic fan service. Warcraft loves its game lore but can’t figure out how to share that love with anyone who doesn’t already feel it.
There’s still a chance for someone to get the balance right
Will Hollywood ever make a good movie based on a video game? The results so far aren’t promising, but I don’t think it’s impossible. Several unmade video game films suggest the genre’s promise.
Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski spent years developing a movie based on BioShock. The game itself boasts one of the strongest narratives in modern video games, and Verbinski’s pitch — a dark, R-rated action-horror picture set in the game’s underwater city — was compelling, as was the concept art for the unproduced film.
Similarly, a short concept film for a movie based on Microsoft’s Halo franchise, which was to be produced by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson and directed by District 9’s Neill Blomkamp, suggests that the final product might have been something genuinely spectacular.
I’m even tentatively hopeful about the forthcoming adaptation of Assassin’s Creed, provided it can depart from the silly writing and repetitive storytelling of the game franchise.
In the meantime, video game concepts have already seeped into Hollywood’s DNA. With its quest-driven structure and its acrobatic shootouts, The Matrix felt like the product of a sensibility shaped by video game tropes and attitudes. Jones’s previous film, Source Code, worked more than a little like a game, with a protagonist who plays an eight-minute sequence, dies, then restarts from the same point over and over again while taking orders from a guide character.
And, of course, there’s Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow, a clever, surprisingly entertaining, and woefully underseen Tom Cruise sci-fi vehicle that is also structured almost exactly like a game, with a character who repeatedly dies and returns on the way to achieving a series of objectives.
So maybe the lesson is that Hollywood can produce good video game films — just so long as they’re not based on actual video games.