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Opinion - Is It Worth Getting Excited About The Next Wave Of Video Game Movies?

by Matthew Stolpe on Oct 02, 2014 at 09:51 AM

I always get a little more excitable when San Diego Comic-Con rolls around. While I love reading about the intricate booths and seeing pictures of fans’ meticulously constructed cosplay outfits, my favorite thing to do is read panel recaps. Since the four-day event has evolved into a celebration of both geek culture and mainstream media, I feel like I never have a lack of news to catch up on. The panels are, after all, where the most exciting announcements and reveals take place. I get a certain implacable thrill trying to hunt down exclusive panel footage of the next big comic book film, or speculating what stories lay ahead for Batman or Spider-Man thanks to carefully dropped hints from my favorite writers. So when I say that I got excited hearing that Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams was in talks to play Ellie in The Last of Us film adaptation, I genuinely mean it, but I couldn’t tell if it was the fervor around Comic-Con causing it at first.

To clarify, I’m not staunchly opposed to film adaptations of video games, but precedent holds they’re notoriously difficult to pull off. Let’s not create false pretenses here; condensing a 20-hour game experience into a 2-hour film is difficult work. Tough editorial decisions are made in any creative work, and in adaptations that often means leaving significant characters, locations, and scenes on the cutting-room floor. These choices, contrary to what some die-hard fans may believe, are not made out of spite, but rather to accommodate film’s varied demands as a medium. But cut content isn’t what troubles me about a The Last of Us film, nor any video game film for that matter. What concerns me is that unlike book-to-film adaptations, which run the gamut in terms of quality, video game films are nearly standardized in their consistent poor quality. When placed on a spectrum, they run from disastrous – Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark and Far Cry come to mind – to utterly forgettable, such as with the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. That doesn’t bode well for a movie based off a game championed by many as the greatest title of the last generation. 

A sentiment I’ve frequently heard expressed is that successful video game adaptions are possible, but the proper talent hasn’t been present in the past. While this argument has its merits – particularly in the case of Boll’s nine equally loathsome attempts at adaptation – it overlooks how much creative talent has been present in these films. Prince of Persia director Mike Newell has some impressive films under his belt including Donnie Brasco, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and yet he couldn’t capture the thrill of his source material. The catastrophic Super Mario Bros. has a writing credit from Ed Solomon, one half of the duo that gave us the endlessly entertaining Bill and Ted movies, but the only charm that adaptation can muster comes from its “so-bad-it’s-good” status. And when you cleanse from your memory that Tomb Raider’s “grit” is mostly a product of the 2013 Crystal Dynamics reboot, Con Air director Simon West doesn’t seem like such an odd choice to direct the sunglass-wearing, cat mummy-fighting Lara Croft in her silver screen debut. The final product, however, forsook the game series’ bizarreness (again, cat-mummies) in favor of flat, action schlock.

Mustering up excitement for these projects can be difficult when, on top of their poor quality, they seem to only offer reductive experiences when compared to their source material. Would you rather watch Jake Gyllenhaal survive a perilous jump in Prince of Persia, or calculate the risk yourself and feel the wave of relief when you stick your landing in the game? Do you want the cartoony, unchanging first-person sequence from Doom, or would you rather replay a spooky and dynamic level from Doom 3? What sounds better; being told Joel and Ellie are struggling to survive in a movie, or experiencing their desperation first hand in the game when seemingly no drawer or pantry has the resource you need?

But despite my qualms, I can’t help but imagine “what if?” What if a The Last of Us movie is part of a new wave of video game films – one that changes the tides for the better? The screenplay is in more than capable hands, with Neil Druckmann, the game’s co-director and writer, taking the reins. Sam Raimi is producing the project, and anyone who’s seen the Evil Dead films or Drag Me to Hell can attest to his strong creative vision. I can’t deny my eagerness to see how Raimi’s penchant for horror influences the depiction of the cordyceps-mutated zombies. And who doesn’t want to see Maisie Williams’ take on Ellie? The actress’ turn as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones is proof enough that she’s more than capable of playing a conflicted, tough-as-nails adolescent. This project is barely off the ground and yet the key players already involved make you want to forget about the past 20 years of video game movies. Let’s not forget that The Last of Us has been through a media transition before and lived to tell the tale; not only did The Last of Us: One Night Live, a stage rendition of the game’s cutscenes, resonate strongly with audiences this past July, but it also meaningfully contributed to the story with a stage-only epilogue. 

The Last of Us isn’t the only game property with a promising adaptation on the horizon either. A large reason Assassin’s Creed is finally getting its adaptation is because of Michael Fassbender, an actor who’s starred in some of the best films of the last five years. Preview footage from sci-fi director Duncan Jones’ Warcraft screened at Comic Con to positive reception. Even the trailers for the CG animated Sly Cooper and Ratchet and Clank movie seem to capture their respective games’ charm.

So it’s with a cautious optimism and a heavy grain of salt that I look forward to this next wave of video game movies. Is it possible that these films will sink to the platitudes of their predecessors? Absolutely, but that doesn’t alter my enjoyment of the games they’re based on. With new blood, properties, and talent in the mix, it’s OK to get excited about these films again, just don’t bet all your chips on them.