Thursday, September 23, 2010

September Q & A: Why are video game movies so lame?

Jason asks, “Why do you think it is that all video game movies suck so badly?  Is it that video games have bad writing overall or is it something else?”

I don’t think it really has anything in particular to do with the overall storylines of the games themselves, I’d say that the main problem comes from how little respect Hollywood (and the writers and directors there) have for video games, and how movies based on them are treated as nothing more than cheap cash-ins. This is not to say that the general poor stories from the games don’t contribute at all, but video game movies have much bigger problems facing them.

We’ll set aside the films of Uwe Boll for the moment (though I do have to appreciate the brass ones involved in just straight up separating scenes in House of the Dead with actual footage of the game) and just focus on the more mainstream ones. In the last five years, we’ve gotten the following in theaters: Resident Evil: Extinction, Resident Evil: Degeneration, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Silent Hill, Final Fantasy VII Advent Children, DOA: Dead or Alive, Hitman, Max Payne, Doom, Street Fighter: the Legend of Chun Li, Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time, the King of Fighters, and Tekken (plus a surprising number of Boll movies that we‘re discounting). Notice that, with the possible exception of Advent Children, every single one of these is either an action movie or a horror movie (and the three Resident Evil films are really action-horror, with Silent Hill being the lone straight horror movie). Now, I have not seen Advent Children, but I did just watch the trailer on Youtube and it seems to be focused almost entirely on big loud action scenes too, which tells me that when Hollywood thinks of video games, they think of people shooting or hitting each other and absolutely nothing else.

I’m not sure it’s that much of a coincidence that my favorite video game movie (or at least my favorite movie based on an actual video game, which discounts Scott Pilgrim) is none other than Silent Hill, which is the only one that actually focuses on anything other than people assaulting one another. Even it isn’t a really perfect film, with its largely nonsensical plot (though to be fair, it’s only taking after the game series there), but it at least succeeds with what it’s attempting to do, which is to create a lot of creepy, horrifying images and set pieces for us to pull us into a nightmare world. The rest of the films could theoretically work as action movies (after all, there’s nothing at all wrong with action movies, if that’s what you’re trying to do), except that they’re generally made lazily and incompetently, with the film studios generally signing up directors with poor or nonexistent track records and assuming that name value from the games alone will be enough to sell the movies. I’ve been picking on Uwe Boll so far here, but it’s not even like he’s the worst offender in this; if you watch his films, he’s very visibly tried to improve as a filmmaker with each of his movies, to the point where he’s become downright competent over the past couple years. Compare his recent work with the film career of, say, Andrzej Bartkowiak, who made his directorial debut with the terrible Jet Li film Romeo Must Die, and somehow managed to get worse over time, giving us Doom and Street Fighter: the Legend of Chun-Li as his last two films. Or there’s the always wonderful Paul W.S. Anderson, who peaked early in his career with the surprisingly acceptable films Event Horizon and Mortal Kombat (made in 1995 and still holds up, I feel, as the single best movie with a fighting tournament that was based on a video game and wasn‘t animated, which I know you all agree is high praise indeed) has since gone on to direct such drivel as Resident Evil and Resident Evil: Afterlife, while also finding time to inflict Alien vs. Predator on all of us (by the way, he was also the one that made the decision to make a movie combining two franchises that had both been hard R in every film, and make their joining a PG-13 affair).

Now, while I admit that a) video games tend to not have really elaborate or, well, non-retarded plots, and b) video games, as often as not, involve the main characters hitting or shooting enemies, that’s hardly all video games (who wouldn‘t love to see a film version of, say, PaRappa the Rapper or Katamari Damacy or Pikmin or Call of Dut--well okay, it‘s not like I‘m saying no games at all are based on shooting people), and yet that’s all Hollywood seems to ever understand from them. Hell, even when a game *is* based around shooting one’s enemies, Hollywood tends to screw it up, like with Hitman. Those that played the games will recall that the series was based around being a competent assassin, sneaking around undetected, generally killing the targets with one shot so they can’t raise any alarms, rewarding players that don’t kill indiscriminately. So of course the movie had Timothy Olyphant running around blasting everyone he saw and getting chased by the police and the mob everywhere he turned because he was the exact opposite of stealthy. Of course video game movies are going to be lousy, if all the studios are doing is reading how many copies of the games have sold, getting a quick one page sheet of the major characters and a sentence or two of plot synopsis, and making the movies based on nothing more than that. But hey, I do have a great deal of optimism that within the next ten or twenty years, we will start getting (a small percentage of) movies based on video games that turn out to actually be really, really good. If nothing else, at his current rate of growth, Boll should start making some really good movies in another five to ten years.

1 comment:

katsucurrys14 said...

advent children is a japanese film that happened to warrant localization in the US. that's why it is so quirky. the heavy-on-action scenes bit is really just fan service. hell, the entire movie is fan service.

as video games become more complex, hollywood will eventually start taking notice. i'd argue certain games have already broken past that barrier long ago.

for example, they are currently trying to create a movie based on "shadow of the colossus." if you haven't played it, let me set the stage for you. you are given no introduction to the world, save what you see. there are no characters in the game except for you, your horse and a dead princess of some sort.

from the scant narrative provided by this imprisoned demi-god type thing, you can conjecture that your character is seeking to revive the dead princess person by destroying a dozen or so "colossi," giant monolithic beasts that serve as your main enemies and also as platforming challenges. besides that, there is no dialogue in the game. there are no enemies other than the colossi.

it sounds like the game would be extremely sparse both in content and gameplay, but in reality, it comes across as one of the most atmospheric immersive experience in gaming. for example, the horse has more personality than many cliched video-game characters with dialogue, because he is so well implemented. like a real horse, he is smart enough to navigate the environment without your intervention. as a result, you end up relying on his independence in many battles. shooting arrows from horseback would have been quite difficult, for example, if the horse is constantly running into trees or falling off cliffs. in essence, the horse in sotc felt like a living creature; and unsurprisingly is probably one of my favorite videogame "characters" of all time.

similarly, the lack of enemies in the standard environment actually makes one take notice of the surroundings. you pass through meadows, glades, forests, desert, canyons, etc. the lack of random mobs of enemies bustling about in random patterns actually makes the locale feel real. after all, i don't think many people encounter mobs of level 1 bears roaming the forest when they go hiking. while you are traveling from one colossi to another, you are meant to take notice of the scenery, so you do; quite the opposite from standard gaming fare.

back to your topic; you can tell right from the bat that this is not your typical hollywood video game movie fare. with the complete lack of characters, such a movie would have to be almost completely silent in terms of dialogue. (i heard they are trying to take cues from the first half of WALL-E for this portion). similarly, the action set pieces would be dramatic, but have no element of that "one man against a million peons with swords and guns" that populates most videogame fare. each colossus is a puzzle that the character has to figure out; it's going to be very challenging to bring the movie viewer along with him (and keep him entertained) as he does.