Video Game Movies: Best triumphs and worst fails

Wreck-It Ralph, the new animated film from Disney, is the latest example of the long-running Hollywood tradition of turning to video games for inspiration—or, in some instances, entire movie plotlines. It’s not necessarily been a successful tradition, either. The history of video game-inspired movies is one of more misses than hits, as we discovered when looking back at some of the more memorable—and infamous—instances of video games making the jump to the big screen.

Tron (1982)

Say what you will about Tron, but there’s no mistaking its distinctive look.

Surely every kid has dreamed at some point or another of playing video games for real: Driving futuristic vehicles, doing battle with heinous villains, and, ultimately, saving the world. Genius programmer Kevin Flynn—Jeff Bridges, years before he assumed the mantle of The Dude—may not be a kid, but when he gets sucked into a computer system, he’s forced to compete alongside the film’s eponymous hero for his life as well as, ultimately, the fate of the virtual reality.

Sure, Tron may look a bit dated now, and it may not hold up as well to modern sensibilities—fortunately, there’s a reboot for that. But the film’s rotoscoped aesthetic has been iconic, and the Tron itself enjoys a cult following. After all, not a lot of movies garner a sequel—which, might I add, has a killer soundtrack—almost 30 years after their release.—Dan Moren

Super Mario Bros. (1993)

Nintendo is reluctant to let the crown jewels of its video game empire appear on any platform other than their own, but the company’s not averse to making a few merchandising bucks, either. So it teamed up with Hollywood Pictures to produce a movie based on the already-huge Super Mario Bros. video game, featuring Mario and Luigi (Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, respectively).

A big-budget sci-fi movie marketed squarely at families with video-game addicted kids, Super Mario Bros. debuted on Memorial Day weekend in 1993, and featured Mario and Luigi Mario (yeah, that’s their surname—as in Mario Bros.) as a pair of independent New York plumbers getting squeezed by the big, bad Scapelli Construction Company. This muddled mess included ever-imperiled Daisy, wonky plumbing, an inter-dimensional portal, and a bizarrely-cast Dennis Hopper as King Koopa, the bad guy. A $48 million budget couldn’t save this stinker, which fizzled in the box office worse than a Bob-omb with a faulty fuse, reinforcing the popular notion that you can’t possibly make a good movie based on a video game.—Peter Cohen

Street Fighter (1994) and Mortal Kombat (1995)

This is likely heresy to fans of the fighting genre of games, but Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat always bled together in the recesses of my mind. Yes, one game has M. Bison, and the other has people getting their spines torn out, but at the end of the day, it’s people punching one another with a Far Eastern flair.

The big screen adaptations of the games have the same problem. Street Fighter came out in 1994 and featured all your favorite characters from the video game going up against brutal dictator M. Bison. Mortal Kombat came out a year later and featured all your favorite characters from the video game doing battle in an inter-dimensional martial arts tournament to determine the fate of humanity. Swap around a Jean-Claude Van Damme for a Christopher Lambert if you want, but at the end of the day, it’s still 90 minutes of people punching one another.

One thing that sets Street Fighter apart from its combative counterpart is the presence of Raul Julia, portraying the pivotal role of chief baddie M. Bison. It turned out to be the last major film role for the respected stage and screen actor and reinforced a lesson long-known by fighting game aficionados: Choose your finishing move wisely.—Philip Michaels

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

At the turn of the century, when Hollywood decided to turn the Tomb Raider video game series—and its pneumatically configured leading lady Lara Croft—into a big-screen blockbuster, I imagine the conversation around Paramount Studios went something like this.

Featureflash / Shutterstock.com
Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft! What could possibly go wrong? Other than the script, direction, and entire movie?

Executive No. 1: So we’ll call the movie Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. And get this: We’ll cast Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.

Executive No. 2: Terrific idea! She is not unattractive! But what if she can’t pull off an English accent?

Executive No. 1: With that costume, who’s going to be listening to any nonsense we have the actors spew? Woo-hoo!

Executive No. 2: Woo-hoo!

They high-five repeatedly.

Flash-forward several months to the day before the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider premiere…

Executive No. 1: Woo-hoo!

Executive No. 2: You know, maybe we shouldn’t have spent the last several months high-fiving each other repeatedly and screaming “Woo-hoo!” and instead spent time working on the movie’s script.

Executive No. 1: Script?—PM

King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007)

Back in the glory days of the coin-op arcade, it was common practice for players of popular games to stack quarters on the games’ fascias to let other gamers know it was their turn next. The most terrifying sight, though, was that one kid with a mullet, a Sony Walkman and a swaggering attitude, who put down just one quarter. You knew he’d be there for hours. That’s Billy Mitchell, the Darth Vader of this documentary about two arcade game rivals battling it out over Donkey Kong.

King of Kong follows the story of Mitchell, now an adult and self-proclaimed “Sauce King” of Florida (for producing a line of hot sauces) and Steve Wiebe, a Donkey Kong enthusiast who challenges Mitchell to a battle royale for recognition as the undisputed champion of the game. This story has twists and turns worthy of the most gripping sports dramas: allegations of cheating, challengers who don’t show up, a look at how arcade game high scores are tracked, and a peek behind the curtain at the fascinating personalities that make this their hobby, their sport and their life.—PC

The Last Starfighter (1984)

Those of us who spent far too much time in video arcades in the 1980s comforted ourselves with the notion that all those quarters invested in video games would pay off in a way that doing chores or finishing homework would not. Getting the high score at Missile Commander might catch the attention of the top brass at the Pentagon, for example, or our mastery of Frogger might lead to a sweet gig with the Department of Fish and Wildlife—that sort of thing.

The Last Starfighter took that conceit to its logical conclusion: Master a video game, and you’ll be whisked away from the surly bonds of earth entirely, leaving your trailer park home to become an intergalactic fighter pilot. Hey, the remote possibility that I’d be hailed as the savior of Rylos and vanquisher of Xur and the Ko-Dan Empire would be enough to convince me to part with my hard-earned quarters.—PM

Max Payne (2008)

Max Payne featured 1999's most cutting-edge visual effects in a 2008 movie.

Remedy Entertainment was heavily inspired by hardboiled detective movies and Hong Kong action films when it developed Max Payne, a third-person action shooter that came out in 2001 best known for its liberal use of slow-motion “Bullet Time” action sequences (similar to those slo-mo scenes in The Matrix). So it’s understandable that the game was ultimately optioned to become a movie. Max Payne was released as a big-budget action flick starring Mark “Dirk Diggler” Wahlberg as an NYPD detective tormented by the death of his wife and daughter.

Max finds himself at the center of a murder investigation in which he’s the primary suspect, which leads him to investigate military contractor Aesir Corp., an experimental drug and, well, plenty of “Bullet Time” shots, even though the movie came out years after The Matrix franchise had already driven that stylistic conceit into the ground. Somehow, the writers took most of the elements that made the game so much fun and so interesting and turned them into the exact opposite of both things. Max Payne was a muddled, confusing mess, and it was universally panned, even by the CEO of one of the game’s production companies.—PC

Prince of Persia (2010)

“Remember when I made movies like Brokeback Mountian?” Jake Gyllenhaal asks the Dagger of Time. The Dagger of Time had no response.

If you believe what Wikipedia says—and you always should, without question or hesitation—Prince of Persia is the highest-grossing adaptation of a video game in box office history. This raises a very pertinent question.

Why?

Why did so many people part with so many hard-earned dollars to see a movie peppered with leaden dialogue, ho-hum special effects, and a not particularly compelling story of a droopy-eyed prince and his time-shifting dagger? Nothing good out that weekend? People secretly enjoy watching Ben Kingsley visibly calculating how he’ll spend his money once the paycheck clears? Did they think this was a live-action version of Aladdin, with Robin Williams reprising his role as the genie? That was what they thought, wasn’t it?

Whatever the reason, you people are going to have some explaining to do when a Prince of Persia sequel is inevitably green-lit.—PM

Indie Game (2012)

Sure, today’s video games can be a big budget extravaganza, with companies shelling out tens of millions of dollars for huge development teams and even more than that for marketing budgets to shill them to the public. But if you want to see the real passion for games, the love of the craft, look no further than the humble independent developer. That’s the premise of Indie Game, a documentary that tracks the creators of indie games including Super Meat Boy, Fez and Braid.

Indie Game shows the profound love and passion these developers invest in their creations, which causes them to sacrifice and suffer endless tribulations—loss of sleep, trouble in relationships, legal issues, financial hardship and more—all to see their creative work finally released into the world. It’s a touching and gripping look at a part of the video game industry that many of us just take for granted as a way to get cheap, fun thrills, and it’ll make sure you never look the same way at an indie game again.—PC

Doom (2005)

When casting your next movie based on a video game, please consider The Rock for all your roles.

Most of your video games-turned-movies bear only a passing resemblance to the entity that inspired them in the first place. Not so Doom, which is perhaps the most faithful recreation of a video game ever committed to celluloid. The motion picture takes the intricate story line of Doom the Game—“This tight, compacted space is crawling with horrible mutations that want to eat us—let’s fire at will!”—and manages to wring 100 minutes of storytelling out of it. (You will note there is no modifier like “good” in front of “storytelling.”) The movie casts Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who, frankly, should star in every cinematic video game adaptation—Duke Nuke’em, Castle Wolfenstein, Angry Birds Seasons. In a key battle scene, the movie even co-opts the game’s signature first-person perspective, with the muzzle of some heavy artillery poking into the foreground of the shot and blasting mutants off to their eternal reward.

And that in many ways, is Doom’s undoing. What looks terrific on an LCD monitor when it’s you controlling the action doesn’t really translate too well to a wall-high screen down at your local cineplex. And it’s a reminder that you’d probably be having a more enjoyable blasting bad guys on your own than paying $12 to watch The Rock do it for you.—PM

Resident Evil (2002 - 2012)

As should be abundantly clear by now, video games almost never make for good movies, let alone sustainable movie franchises. Resident Evil is the rare exception to the rule, having spawned five installments (and counting). But it’s not hard to understand why: Resident Evil seems to have tapped into society’s unquenchable hunger for dystopian zombie stories. Both the game and the movies feature the outbreak of an engineered virus that turns its victims into horrible monstrosities with an insatiable lust for destruction, human flesh and carnage. “Zombies” don’t begin to describe the horrible things the T-Virus causes people and other animals to mutate into: It’s somewhere between 28 Days Later and The Thing.

Fact: If you stacked all the Resident Evil sequels end to end, you could build a bridge from the mainland U.S. to Hawaii. (This may not actually be a fact.)

Add to that the athletic, limber Milla Jovovich as the protagonist Alice, the nefarious Umbrella Corporation, creator of the T-Virus and the evil empire of the game and movie franchise, and an endless slew of imaginative (and horrifying) foes of all shapes and sizes for Alice to square off against. (Fun Fact: Alice doesn’t actually appear in any of the games, though she does interact with a number of characters pulled from the game’s stories.) Like the T-Virus itself, the Resident Evil movies continue to mutate from installment to installment, piling on 3D effects and other accoutrement to keep moviegoers interested. Some fans of the game poo-poo the Resident Evil movies, but with a worldwide box office gross approaching $1 billion, the franchise shows no sign of slowing down soon.—PC

WarGames (1983)

For those of us of a certain age, the idea of dialing into remote servers on modems and playing text-based games is filled with nostalgia. For anybody who came after us, it’s probably more of a head-scratching concept. But there was a time when computers and networking were an unexplored frontier, populated only by those with specialized knowledge.

In the 1983 flick WarGames, David Lightman (Matthew Broderick) is one of them—a teenager with a penchant for computer hacking. When he dials his way into a computer he thinks belongs to a video game company and starts a round of Global Thermonuclear War, he unwittingly brings the United States to the brink of actual nuclear war. All because of five simple words: SHALL WE PLAY A GAME? It may be approaching its 30th birthday and its plotline may be a relic of the Reagan administration, but WarGames remains the high-water mark for video game-inspired cinema.—DM

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