In 1995, Paul W.S. Anderson directed Mortal Kombat, a movie based on the popular video game. In the 23 years since the CGI has become dated and none of the fight scenes have aged particularly well – the choreography isn’t bad but isn’t anything to write home about either. Its most high profile actors – Christopher Lambert and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa – both have very hammy performances and none of the other principal actors really had breakout careers. Since then, technology for both video games and movies have improved and video games have more and more interesting stories to tell. And yet, despite all that, Mortal Kombat is still generally regarded as one of the best video game movies ever made and possibly the best of them all – by video game players at least.
These past two days I saw both Rampage and the new Tomb Raider, and I can tell you that neither of them will come close to the best video game movie ever made. Neither of them were the worst video game movie ever made either – I’ll get to what holds that title later on – but they were sufficiently bland enough to knock themselves out of the running to be a favorite.
So why is it that video game movies have such a bad rap? Movies that are based on books, or comics, or TV shows, or pretty much any other form of entertainment – they can turn out well. But when you add “based on a video game” to a movie there’s going to be a loud groan and a fierce rolling of the eyes. It’s almost expected for video game movies to be bad, and people are “pleasantly surprised” when they’re “not awful.” But why? Well, I’m going to dissect Rampage and Tomb Raider and hopefully provide a little insight as to how Hollywood keeps making clunkers out of possible interesting storylines.
Let’s start with Rampage. The video game is pretty simple – you’re one of three giant monsters (George the gorilla, Ralph the werewolf, or Lizzie the lizard) and you have to tear up a city. You destroy buildings and eat people. That’s it. It’s a very simple arcade game from 1986 that doesn’t really have any plot other than to get more quarters out of your pocket. Sequels were made for consoles in the 90s and more monsters were added, but in general that’s all it was – a fun little arcade game that’s a bit of 80s trivia and/or nostalgia.
Yep, I see this and think “Hollywood blockbuster!”
For some reason Dwayne The Rock Johnson and some Hollywood producers got together and decided to make a Rampage movie. Now there’s potential – everyone (and I use the term everyone loosely) loves monster movies and with the very scant plot of the original arcade games you can easily build a movie around giant animals destroying a city. But remember, the focal point of the game is that you get to be the monsters destroying a city. The monsters destroying the city is the most important part of the idea.
But of course, for a vehicle starring Dwayne The Rock Johnson, Dwayne The Rock Johnson must have equal screen time with the monsters. And so the main arc of the story is how Dwayne The Rock Johnson and George the gorilla have had a bond since George was a tiny little gorilla baby. And we spend time at the beginning getting to know Dwayne The Rock Johnson and random side characters that aren’t Dwayne The Rock Johnson – because it’s important to know that Dwayne The Rock Johnson likes animals more than people. And then once George gets turned into a much bigger gorilla due to plot, Dwayne The Rock Johnson gets to emote and be sad that his buddy is changing.
Because, of course, this is what we want to see in a movie based on a game about monsters destroying a city.
In fact, over the course of the 107 minute run-time of the movie, I’d say we don’t actually see any monsters rampaging through a city until the last half hour. There’s plenty of destruction and eating of people before then, sure, but the actual basis of the game is only present in the last part of the movie. It’s no surprise that the best sequence of the movie is the short part where we get to see all three monsters working together as they rampage through the city. It’s almost like if you drill down to the main focus of the game this is based off of you find a fun movie that might be entertaining to watch.
That isn’t to say the movie is all bad – the two human villains are so hilariously campy and over-the-top that every minute they’re being their cartoonishly evil selves is a minute I enjoyed. And Jeffrey Dean Morgan chews up all the scenery as his cowboy government agent to the point where I think he could have destroyed as many setpieces as the monsters if he wanted to. And that’s where I saw potential in this movie. If the entire movie had leaned into the obvious campiness of a plot about three giant animals wrecking a city and eating people, it would have been totally in line with the spirit of the game. If The Rock had gone full Fast & Furious and embraced the cheese instead of trying to emote because his gorilla buddy was in trouble, everyone would have had a great time.
Now I’m not saying Rampage wasn’t successful – it’s already made a ton of money and has been doing pretty well for itself in terms of profitability. But in terms of making video game movies have more legit expectations – well, it hasn’t been lighting any fires.
Let’s switch over to Tomb Raider. In 2013 the video game series was rebooted – we got a younger version of Lara Croft that “we’d want to protect” and we were going to be shown her origins and how she became the confident tomb raider we knew and loved. Taking cues from the popularity of Uncharted, we got more of a story-based game with high-octane action setpieces instead of the puzzle and exploration-oriented games of Lara’s past. It was an alright game overall, it didn’t set any records or make any big waves, but it didn’t do poorly either. It was just sort of the bland, generic origin story wrapped in a historical mystery that’s en vogue in action nowadays. And on top of that, one of the biggest critiques of this game was that Lara barely did any actual tomb raiding in her Tomb Raider game.
So of course when they decide to make a new Tomb Raider movie, they rip the bland plot from the reboot game and put it directly on the screen.
“Gosh golly gee, I sure could use some protecting right now!”
Obviously, this movie has the opposite problem of the Rampage movie. Rampage tried to inject drama and seriousness into a plot that’s about giant animals causing wanton destruction. It used the source material as a basic framework, but the parts they added just didn’t mesh well with what the material represented. On the other hand, Tomb Raider’s source material was generally regarded as not very interesting and generic. But the makers of the movie decided to stay mostly faithful to the dull material with a few changes – and of course these changes were for the worse, usually eliminating what people actually considered good about the game.
In the game, Lara has a whole cast of side characters and established friends on the journey with her that help flesh out her personality and character. The movie morphs this side cast into one person who’s a drunk captain and she meets him for the first time half an hour into the movie, so all the witty banter between them feels forced and out of place. The game starts you right in the middle of the action as you land on the island – the main setting of the game – almost immediately. This movie spends about half an hour establishing how cool and awesome Lara is in London with a bunch of side characters we never see again and we don’t even get to the island and really kick off the plot until a good third of the movie is over already.
Act two involves a bit of faffing about on the island as Lara avoids and then confronts the evil villains (led by the amazing Walton Goggins who is absolutely wasted in this role) and the third act finds Lara and her ally forced to help the bad guys navigate the trapped tomb on the island that everyone is there for. Now, would you be surprised if I told you that in the Tomb Raider movie, the best part of the movie was when they were exploring the tomb? You wouldn’t? Well isn’t that something.
Yes, the tomb exploration part of the movie is the best part. There’s a fantastic sequence where Lara and the explorers are tasked with solving a puzzle quickly under an intense situation and it’s the only part of the movie where I was actually invested in what was happening. The dichotomy of two groups being forced to work together under stressful circumstances despite hating each other is a wonderful framing device for a movie – especially in one where there can be lots of puzzles and life-or-death situations that escalate the tension. But why make a whole movie about that? Why not just relegate that bit to the last thirty minutes as the climax?
You see, the main reason video games aren’t successful are because when Hollywood is making video game movies, they completely ignore what people who have played the video games think about them. They don’t care what gamers like or don’t like about the game – they just want to use the IP as a framing device to make more money and get butts in seats. They’ll throw in nods to the game here and there as kind of a wink to fans, but in general the movies tend to either go off and do their own things and only be tangentially related to the game, or they completely ignore gamer’s thoughts and criticisms of the games themselves and make the same mistakes, just on the big screen.
Take the Assassin’s Creed video games. When the first game was released, it pulled off one of the biggest twists in gaming. Right up until launch, the game had advertised you playing as an Assassin in the historical period of the Crusades. But very shortly after starting the game you realize that you’re actually playing as a guy in modern times, who is using a machine to live through the life of said Assassin in the past to gain information for people in the present. It’s a very interesting sci-fi framing device and the first game got a lot of praise for this twist they kept secret. However, as more and more sequels in the Assassin’s Creed franchise came out, people started hating the modern portion of the games and wanted more focus on the interesting historical time periods.
So when making an Assassin’s Creed movie you would take that into account, right? Nope! I haven’t personally seen the movie, but from what I understand the majority of the movie’s plot actually takes place in modern times and only a little bit takes place in the interesting historical period. Gee, if only they had six or seven games’ worth of criticism to look at to help with outlining their movie.
Doom is a game where a base on Mars accidentally opens a portal to Hell and all sorts of demons come out. So….let’s make a movie about a base on Mars…but it’s some weird genetic experiment that turns men into monsters or something. (I personally love the Doom movie for its cheesiness, but I also acknowledge it is bad and not related to the game except for slight, tenuous connections. Also Dwayne The Rock Johnson is also in this one and he IS in Fast & Furious cheese mode, so I think it’s a good time.) Hitman is a stealth game about carefully assassinating important targets – let’s make it into a generic action movie. Twice. The charm of Max Payne is in its noir setting – let’s remove it entirely! And let’s make six Resident Evil movies that…well, I can’t even begin to get started on how much those deviate from the games.
Yes, Rampage wasn’t Dwayne The Rock Johnson’s first bad video game movie.
Then there are movies that never got off the ground. Uncharted is a very popular video game franchise and turning it into a big movie series should be a no-brainer. Nathan Drake (the main character) is basically a modern Indiana Jones and his adventuers have wild action sequences and snarky humor. It should be a basic fit. But when David O. Russell was tapped as director of the Uncharted movies, he cast Mark Wahlberg as Nathan Drake, and then Robert DeNiro and Joe Pesci as Drake’s dad and uncle, respectively. Nathan doesn’t have a family in the games, but David O. Russell, without playing the games, decided to make it more family drama-oriented because that would clearly be better than whatever the game’s plot was.
And of course, there’s Uwe Boll. He’s one of the worst directors of all time, and not even in a good cult-classic way like Tommy Wiseau. But he got his hands on all sorts of video game properties and churned out absolute trash. House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Far Cry, and what I consider the second-worst movie I’ve ever seen in my lifetime: BloodRayne. These are all awful Uwe Boll movies that are a great example of not only how to waste a video game property, but also how to not make a movie. BloodRayne – a game about a sexy, redheaded dhampir woman that hunts vampires in the 1930s – was boring. Somehow he made THAT boring.
But the worst video game movie I’ve ever seen – and the movie that holds the title of worst movie I’ve ever seen – is Wing Commander. It took a game which lets you pilot spaceships into cool outer space battles and made a movie where there’s hardly any actual space battles and the movie ends with no climax. I mean, there’s an attempted climax, but it’s basically a light drizzle when you were expecting a foot of snow. The entire movie was boring and unfunny, the acting was awful (it was peak 90s Freddie Prinze Jr and Matthew Lillard, before either of them had learned how to act) and yeah, there were hardly any spaceship battles in a movie based on a property ABOUT SPACESHIP BATTLES.
Mortal Kombat is considered one of the best video game movies because it was not only somewhat faithful to its source material, but it was also faithful to the tone of the source material. Sure, it was a cheesy, campy movie. But the game itself was cheesy and campy. By the time the movie came out, the games had Friendships and Babalities in addition to its famous, gory fatalities. Nobody expected a serious drama out of Mortal Kombat, and they didn’t try to give us one. They made the main characters Liu Kang, Sonya, and Johnny Cage. Not some random new characters named Alice Kang, Alice, and Johnny Alice. They embraced the camp of a fighting tournament with an actor, a martial artist, a skeleton posing as a ninja, and a thunder god and ran with it.
Same for Silent Hill, another movie that’s generally praised as being good “for a video game movie.” I don’t know as much about the series as others, but it keeps the horror tone of a weird, dark universe where a monster named Pyramid Head stalks you and murders other people. It embraces the source material and includes what fans loved about the games, and hey, what do you know, people liked the movie, too!
The moral of the story is that the medium of video games aren’t particularly respected. Instead of looking at what the video games have already done and why they’re popular, the directors and producers of the world see the framework and think “I have a better idea.” It doesn’t do them any favors and it doesn’t give the reputation of video game movies any help either. But hopefully someday soon the people in charge of making these movies will also be the ones who grew up playing video games, and maybe they’ll have a better understanding of what it takes to bring a video game from the small screen to the big screen and make it entertaining.