2016: The Year of the Video Game Movie?

By Mark Delaney,
I've been trying to get to the movies for several weeks now, but every time I look at the lineup of titles currently in theaters, I'm left disenchanted. Where have all the good movies gone? I guess when it's not quite summer and several months past award season, we're left with a dearth of movies worth sitting through. As gamers, we know this feeling all too well. Decades of disastrous projects like Super Mario Bros. and Silent Hill: Revelation have created a generation of skeptical gamers who denounce almost every film adaptation of beloved gaming franchises as soon as they're announced.

For my money, the best video game movie to date is Wreck-it Ralph. A great film, it sort of cheated the system by not being an adaptation of any one IP. Instead, Disney took a passionate fanbase of gamers old and new and gave them a new set of heroes for whom to root, all the while throwing in countless cameos and Easter eggs. Therefore, we've still yet to see a truly great adaptation. Sure, film franchises like Mortal Kombat, Resident Evil, and Tomb Raider all have their fans, and I'm not saying I've never liked a video game movie either. The problem remains, however, that not one has ever received widespread acclaim. Someday it'll happen. It has to, right? And when that film comes, it may forever remove the stigma that surrounds the sub-genre of video game movies.

Might 2016 be the year that brings us that film? This year, moviegoers will see several high profile game franchises being shifted to the big screen, and each of them has a chance at being truly great, earning the critical praises needed to change the way gamers and non-gamers perceive the notion of translating game to cinema. Of course, it can't be assumed that any of them will work out as intended either. Years of precedents tell us the results may not pan out how we'd like them to. This is a history that has been added to as recently as this weekend.

The PlayStation exclusive Ratchet & Clank series and its creators, Insomniac Games, celebrated its first ever film adaptation this weekend, which makes them nearly the only ones who did so. The movie, geared towards kids, has been lambasted by critics so far. At time of writing, the movie, titled plainly Ratchet & Clank, has a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 20% after 49 reviews. It also holds a similarly dire 31 on Metacritic. The Los Angeles Times spoke of the game's storytelling perspective:
...the obsession with guns in a movie aimed at children is troubling, in poor taste and is lazy writing to boot.
movie 5MRW I saw the review scores.

The even harsher indieWIRE review did not mince words in the slightest:
So profoundly bad that it represents the worst of two entirely different mediums, Ratchet & Clank doesn't blur the line between movies and videogames so much as it flushes them both in a toilet and forces us to watch as they swirl together down the drain.
Suffice it to say, Ratchet & Clank is not going to be the movie that climbs to new heights for video game adaptations. However, there are still three more chances this year. Let's look at them one by one.

The Angry Birds Movie
US Release Date: May 20th

movie 3Remember us?

Why it will succeed: The cast of voice actors is overflowing with talented comedic minds. Jason Sudeikis, Maya Rudolph, Bill Hader, Tony Hale, Keegan Michael-Key — the list goes on and on. Animated family movies are always trying to walk the line between laughs for the kids and inside jokes for the adults that brought them, and this has been done to very varied effect over the years (see: Ratchet & Clank), but if the rookie directors helming the project are good at their jobs, they've put these talented actors in position to make something special out of a series that helped put smartphone gaming on the map.

Why it will fail: Who still plays Angry Birds? The timing of the movie seems very strange, doesn't it? As in, about four years late. Whilst that doesn't necessarily indicate that the movie will be good or bad, it does sort of feel like a cash-grabby attempt at resurrecting a kid-friendly franchise well past its prime. Then there's the fact that the games have next to no actual story. This could work in the movie's favor, I suppose, but the games have no lovable characters as a starting point. It'll have to imbue these differently colored birds and taunting pigs with something worth paying attention to other than the trajectory of the slingshot.

US Release Date: June 10th

movie 2Big budget = great movie?

Why it will succeed: Duncan Jones. Sci-fi fans should know the name well. The director, brought on to take over for Sam Raimi in 2013, is somewhat famous for being David Bowie's son. More important, though, are his own career accomplishments. He directed Moon, one of the best-received science fiction movies in ages, and it was his directorial debut, no less. He followed that up with the less memorable but still great Source Code, which played out the Groundhog Day-with-sci-fi angle years before Edge of Tomorrow did the same. This guy is the real deal. He has a unique vision that already comes across in just two feature length films and he seems to really respect Blizzard's property.

Why it will fail: The massive budget, the heavy use of CGI, the all-in approach by all parties attached to the project. Doesn't it all seem so familiar? It should. Plenty of bad video game adaptations — heck, plenty of bad movies in general had these same beginnings. A planet-sized budget doesn't make a good movie. I believe in Jones' direction, but you have to wonder how much of the Warcraft universe, especially within the MMO, will translate to a two hour experience. That's not why people play the games. Beyond Bowie's offspring sitting in the director's chair, this has all the makings of a movie with deep pockets and shallow intentions.

Assassin's Creed
US Release Date: December 21st

movieUbi's going all in with their biggest franchise.

Why it will succeed: If we've still made it out of the summer without a great video game movie, might Assassin's Creed deliver us from disappointment? It very well could. Out of the three films on this list, Ubisoft's flagship seems like the property most conducive to a theatrical adaptation. If you want great actors like Angry Birds, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are both exceptional and take the lead in the Assassin's Creed movie. And directing? It's being piloted by Justin Kurzel, who previously won an Australian Academy Award for his feature-length debut, Snowtown. His most recent work was also a finalist for the prestigious Palme d'Or at the Cannes International Film Festival. Most importantly of all, however, and what so many attempts in the past have stumbled on, is the series' natural transition to becoming a movie.

The AC universe, with its time-hopping, multi-protagonist storylines, and deeply seeded mysteries makes the move to film a seamless one. Fans can expect a reasonable idea how the Assassins and Templars will behave in the movie, but we get to meet new characters and discover new conflicts in the centuries long war in the shadows. It's no different than each new entry in the games.

Why it will fail: Maybe Nintendo has it right. They're so protective of their franchises, especially since the dumpster fire Super Mario Bros. movie. They've shut themselves off to the world of licensed projects like movie adaptations and remain in total control at all times of where and in what context their beloved mascots are displayed. Maybe they figured out years ago what so many other studios keep having to learn the hard way. Video games are great. Movies are great. But they need to remain great separately. Ubisoft has, like Nintendo, remained close by during the entire project, overseeing it every step of the way. But will it be enough?

movies 6Behold the Hall of Letdowns.

The remarkable thing is no matter how many times this keeps happening, we don't see filmmakers write off the idea for good. There's money to be made when you have a built-in fanbase like video game movies provide. You're starting with a distinct advantage over new properties trying to market themselves as worthwhile films. Sadly, to date, that marketing advantage has meant nothing for the people to whom the films are being marketed — the gamers. With future movies in the works based on Minecraft, The Last of Us, and a Tomb Raider reboot, among many others, it seems the commitment to get it right remains strong. Here's to hoping, one day, an actual video game movie can be quite as strong.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He has written for GameSkinny, Gamesradar and the Official Xbox Magazine. He runs the family-oriented gaming site Game Together.