Five Sins of Decent Videogame Movies

It’s a good time to be a geek. Hollywood never stopped looking for fantasy epics to adapt after Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter each managed to earn more money than physically exists, we’re living in a golden age of comic book movies, Game of Thrones gets nominated for Emmys, and there is a TV show about Green Arrow of all people that isn’t just “kind of watchable” like Smallville at its peak but legitimately good with flashes of greatness.

And then there’s videogames.

I’m not going to get into a thing over which side is winning, games that push the medium to grow and expand and find new ways to tell stories, or Battlefield of Duty knockoffs so generic you can’t tell one brown and gunmetal grey cover-based first person shooter from another. I’m instead going to talk about how Hollywood continues to make movies based on videogames, but also insists on not trying very hard.

It’s been over twenty years since the first major Hollywood movie based on a videogame, 1993’s Super Mario Bros., and despite that, to put it mildly, shaky start to genre, there’ve been 27 more released theatrically since then. But they haven’t gotten much better. In fact, thanks to some loopholes in German tax law, Uwe Boll was able to make several far, far worse.

We could argue back and forth for hours about why, exactly, video game movies seem unable to compete with their comic book brethren. Maybe it’s like horror movies, where the rate of return is narrow yet good enough that they don’t need to make it a great movie, just a profitable one. Maybe video games, unlike comic books, just don’t have the Joss Whedons and Christopher Nolans of the world champing at the bit to tell a story of quality in that universe. Or maybe there is just an intrinsic problem in taking an inherently interactive medium and attempting to adapt it to a medium far more passive. By way of a for instance, when I play Mass Effect, I am Commander Shepard. I decide who Commander Shepard is, what he or she does, how he or she feels, who he or she loves. Why would I want to exchange that for watching Chris Pine play a Commander Shepard I didn’t help shape making decisions I didn’t choose? Even for something as linear as Legend of Zelda, you lose something in the transition from interactive to passive.

But whatever the reason, videogame movies seem to go out of their way to make some of the stupidest choices available. Even the ones that avoid the obvious stuff, like “hiring Uwe Boll,” or “Being as terrible and as Super Mario Bros.” make stupid little choices that ensure video game movies stay stupid. Here’s some examples.

Resident Evil: just how many zombies are in that crate?

It has to be said: the Resident Evil series are the most successful videogame movies out there. We know this because they’ve managed five sequels, one of which is expected this year, none of which have gone directly to video. And they’ve managed this despite completely throwing out the basic plots of any of the games. Sure, every now and then Jill Valentine or Claire Redfield will turn up so fans of the games can say “Hey I know that person, awesome,” but in general the blend of lateral thinking and extreme violence that defined the game series has been replaced with the ongoing adventures of Milla Jovovich’s Alice, the genetically engineered superwoman out to defeat her former masters, the Umbrella Corporation.

And why not? Frankly the only surprise is that they haven’t made a game based around Alice yet. Maybe her style of combat is just too divorced from the engine they typically used to make the games. So that’s not the sin I’m here to complain about. I’m complaining about how one action beat led me to identify an annoying trope.

The third film, Resident Evil: Extinction, is set after the zombie plague has ended society. Umbrella is experimenting with a method of domesticating the zombies. However, while they do regain a modicum of intelligence, they also become hyper aggressive. So an Umbrella executive decides to bundle a group of these super zombies into a shipping crate and use them to ambush Alice and company. A standard sized shipping crate. Regular readers will be familiar with my usual complaints against what I call “infinite respawn,” in which the heroes are gradually overwhelmed buy an unending wave of generic bad guys. This can work if you have, say, a portal leading to sufficient numbers Chitauri to invade and occupy the entire planet, but not if you only have one shipping crate.

Sure enough, dozens upon dozens of zombies pour out of that crate. No matter how many team Alice kills, there are enough left over to wipe out half the main characters.  Just how many super zombies did they actually have? And how exactly did they stuff dozens of hyper aggressive extra strong living dead soldiers into one crate? One crate that, to hold all of them, must have been packed tighter than a Tokyo train at rush hour? Did they put the crate on its end and drop the zombies in through a trap door? Was there a bulldozer? How many staff died getting this crate filled?

You want a huge obstacle for the protagonist? Fine. You want the high body count that comes with horror films? Sure. Do that. But when I was watching this scene, I did not feel horror or even anxiety. I felt annoyed that they were still this many zombies no matter how many they picked off. That sort of physics bending just drags you out of the moment. Stop doing it.

Tomb Raider: worst artifact ever

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider wasn’t particularly well reviewed, and isn’t exactly the crown jewel of anyone’s DVD collection, but it remains one of the few actual success stories in videogame movies. And by “success stories” I mean it made a lot money. It was the highest grossing videogame movie until Prince of Persia, and it’s still the highest grossing if you adjust for inflation.

And at its center is the stupidest artifact you could ask for.

Lara wakes up one night as she’s heard a clock start ticking somewhere in her vast, vast mansion. She tracks it to a secret room under a staircase (must be a hell of a tick for her to have heard it while asleep on a different floor), and breaks it open to reveal an artifact. Which is a little stupid, but there’s more. She senses that it’s supposed to fit into something (like maybe a clock?), and learns that it’s the key to finding the fabled Triangle of Time, which was split into two pieces after it destroyed the city it was last used in. But it can be reunited during the planetary convergence that happens once every five thousand years or so. Which is different than all those other times the planets line up. Yes this is exactly what I was making fun of in course of true love in person the Jade Monkey. No I’m not sorry.

So Lara races against and sometimes works alongside the fabled Illuminati, and her friend/rival Alex West (tomb raider for the ladies) to find both pieces of the triangle. Why is the triangle split into two pieces and not three? Don’t worry; there’s an explanation and it’s stupid.

When both pieces are found and the Illuminati inevitably turns on Lara and Alex, the Illuminati leader attempts to reunite the two pieces which, it should be pointed out, have the jagged edge indicative of being smashed over a rock, not split into two modular pieces meant to be reunited. It does not work. Because it wouldn’t. It’s broken, you’re not getting it back together without super glue.

He turns to Lara, asking why they won’t reunite, and she throws a piece of the puzzle through a little space-time portal (I do not have space to explain why that’s a thing that happens), and as the pieces tumble out in slow motion, she grabs a single grain of sand, which is the missing piece of the triangle.

ARE YOU SHITTING ME.

First of all, who told her that was the key? I don’t recall any mention of two pieces and a grain of freaking sand that need to be reunited! And how did it not get lost? How did anyone come up with the plan “We’ll let them reunite the Triangle once every 5,000 years, but only if they figure out that they need to throw the compass through a magical time/space hole that splits it into its component parts and then grab a fucking grain of sand out of the air, which is the third piece?”

Nothing about this tomb raiding plot isn’t stupid. If you’re going to make it that weirdly hard to rejoin the Triangle, just leave it god damn broken.

Street Fighter: That UN asshole

There was so, so much wrong with this movie. While they fit in nearly everyone from the first three Street Fighter 2 games (there were a great many Street Fighter 2s before they gave in and made Street Fighter 3), only a handful of them actually resembled their counterparts from the game. Instead of focusing on Ryu, the most popular player character (from what I could tell) and the central character of any Japanese adaptation of the game (such as the far superior anime that hit video around the same time), they instead made Guile the main character. Presumably this was to give the plot, which centered around UN forces attempting to oppose General Bison and his terrorist army in the rogue nation of Shadaloo, a noble American protagonist. Which was not aided by casting a Belgian with the thickest accent possible.

But that’s not what I’m here to bitch about. You know what? Make Guile the lead. Guile from the games was actually out to stop end-boss M.Bison, while Ryu from the games just roams the globe looking for fights. Ryu from the game is an asshole and the people who played him at arcades I visited game zero shits about plot anyway. What I’m complaining about is the set-up to the most mocked and/or ironically beloved moment in the whole awful movie. Specifically, this speech.

Jump to the thirty second mark if you want to skip to my point. Jump to the 30 second mark and look at that asshole. “The security council has just voted. They’ve decided to negotiate.” Right. Okay. “What an asshole” speed round, go.

1. Of course the jerk who’s been riding Guile this whole movie picks the douchiest way he can think of to pronounce the word negotiate. “They’ve decided to nego-see-ate.” Dick.
2. Look how fucking smug he is about this. “Sure, he’s a terrorist who has killed thousands, including several of our own troops, but we’re knuckling under! Aren’t I the goddamn best, you Belgian gun-nut.” I guess “We do not negotiate with terrorists” hadn’t come into vogue yet.
3. Of course he’s British. Why wouldn’t the stick-in-the-mud trying to prevent good ol’ American gun-style justice be British. Unless you read a history book.
4.  Guile’s troops were literally minutes away from deploying, which should mean the council had already voted and the result was “Okay, go get him.” Armies don’t mobilize without a go-order, and when they get one, there’s typically little wait time and an understanding of “No take-backs.”
5. We’re over an hour into this movie and the action beats have been few and far between. There was no circumstance in which this preening frumunda stain strolling casually up to announce his intention to nego-see-ate with the ruthless terrorist was actually going to prevent the Guile/Bison showdown, or even delay it.
6. And how was that even necessary to motivate a rousing speech to the troops? President Whitmore managed to give a speech to the troops in Independence Day without needing anyone to saunter up and say “forget this desperate counter-attack against the genocidal aliens, we think we can talk this out after all.”
7. Was it impossible for action heroes in the 80s and 90s to head off to the climax without some blustering authority figure showing up to demand their badge and gun and say they’re off the case? Because that is all this moment accomplishes. We’re supposed to believe that Guile’s charge is made more badass because some dickless bureaucrat told him not to do it.

In summary, this useless blob of taint-flesh made man was the worst, most ham-handed “But you guys, fighting is bad” strawman this side of the celebrity caricatures in Team America. All the honest-to-god hard-working diplomats in the world should have filed a class action suit for defamation of character the second this ponce opened his mouth.

Prince of Persia: now 100% Persian-free

Prince of Persia: Sands of Time managed the twin tricks of being the highest-grossing videogame movie (domestically and without inflation) and being sort of okay, which is sadly high praise for the genre. It wasn’t a thoroughly faithful adaptation of the game, as it barely used the time-reversing dagger that’s the game’s primary hook, and had no sand-infected zombies for the heroes to battle, but we can let that slide. There’s still a roguish Persian prince, a princess charged with protecting the Sands of Time, and a scheming Vizier out to control them.

Except I remember them being a lot less white in the game.

Prince of Persia is set in what we now consider the Middle East, and was one of the few North American videogames to have an entirely POC cast. Look. I don’t want to have to explain why taking some of the few roles available to non-white actors and casting white folk in them is stupid and regressive, so I’ll not. Instead, here’s a list of actors who could have played Prince Dastan and Princess Tamina other than the very white Jake Gyllenhaal and the uber-British Gemma Arterton.

Oded Fehr (The Mummy, Resident Evil: Apocalypse and Extinction), Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire, Immortals), Naveen Andrews (Lost), Aishwarya Rai (The Last Legion, Bride and Prejudice), Kal Penn (Harold and Kumar, House), Preity Zinta (just Bollywood movies but she’s awesome), Dev Patel (Slumdog Millionaire, The Newsroom), Parminder Nagra (Bend it Like Beckham, ER, The Blacklist), Sendhil Ramamurthy (Heroes), Gal Gadot (The Fasts and the Furiosos, soon to be Wonder Woman).

There. And that’s just people from things I’ve watched (and Wonder Woman). And all but one of them are known to North American audiences. Would’ve been just that easy. If only major studios weren’t so convinced that white people are afraid of movies that don’t star white people.

Which I suppose would be easier if less white people were afraid of movies that don’t star white people.

Wing Commander: forgetting what kind of game they were adapting

The thing I remember most about the Wing Commander movie, other than being less interesting to watch than the Wing Commander full-video cut scenes, is that word had gotten out that it had the first trailer for Star Wars: Episode One, and when that wasn’t true, theaters actually had to put up disclaimers warning people. I guess people were demanding refunds, because without a Star Wars trailer there wasn’t anything worth the $10 ticket. Or whatever movies cost in 1998.

So, back then, I was powerfully fond of the Wing Commander games, even if my computer couldn’t reliably run the videos. Three and Four starred Mark Hamill and Malcolm McDowell, how can you go wrong with that? Well, some reviewers say “easily, as it turned out,” claiming the CGI in the cut scenes doesn’t hold up and that Hamill, McDowell, and Biff from Back to the Future aren’t exactly doing their best work, but all I know is that 15 years later I still recognize people as being from Wing Commander 4 when I see them in other, probably better paying projects.

But at the heart, this was a series based around outer space dogfights. Wing Commander the movie should have been Top Gun in space with cat aliens, but somehow they forgot about that, and instead made a submarine movie. They even had a scene where everyone on the cruiser had to stay quiet to avoid detection by the Kilrathi. Because, you know, sonar works exactly the same in the silent void of space as it does under water.

I do not remember a single decent dogfight in a movie that should have been 70% awesome space dogfights, but I remember that nonsense.

Hollywood is still determined to take some of that sweet, sweet gaming money and turn it into movie money. People are working on a new Tomb Raider (hopefully based on the new, more human Lara Croft), a new Mortal Kombat, an Assassin’s Creed movie set for next year, and possibly even a movie based on my beloved Mass Effect. I just hope even one of those screenwriters decides to put a little effort into the story. Because it would be a nice change of pace.

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