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A Beginner’s Guide to Video Game Cinema

A Beginner’s Guide to Video Game Cinema: New Line Cinema

New Line Cinema

Mention the phrase “movies based on video games” to a seasoned movie enthusiast or video game buff and it will probably take less than five minutes for one of you to say, “These all suck!" 

It’s a fair point. For some reason filmmakers seem to have a ridiculously difficult time turning popular video games into successful films, which is sort of strange when you consider that the best video games generally offer colorful adventures and suitably compelling thematic possibilities. With that sort of foundation, it’s pretty amazing that the majority of the films mentioned below are so consistently terrible.

Is it that producers once considered video games so disposable that there was no need for quality control? Perhaps most of these films were made as passionless money-grabs. Or maybe it’s just that crappy old mentality: "Gamers will drop their money on whatever we toss onto the screen, so don’t even bother putting forth that extra effort.”

The next 12 months will see the release of no fewer than five new video game adaptations—Ratchet & Clank (opening this week), Angry Birds, Warcraft, Assassin’s Creed and the sixth and final chapter of the Resident Evil series—and, like clockwork, each movie brings with it fresh hopes in the hearts of video game junkies. But first, the history…


1993

SUPER MARIO BROS.
You have to at least appreciate the ambition of this project. Here we have a live-action adaptation of Nintendo’s most globally popular video game franchise of all time—not to mention one of the most surreal—and you hand it off to the directorial duo that gave the world Max Headroom. It’s hard to lay much blame at the feet of Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo, who did all they could to bring Mario and Luigi to life, but the final product hit the screen like a garish, grim, glow-in-the-dark smear of a movie. This ungainly debacle pretty much derailed the filmmaking careers of co-directors Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton, and it’s also sobering to note that two of the three credited screenwriters never worked again. But yeah, this is a wildly terrible movie, and yet it also stands as a huge, glowing harbinger of terrible things to come.


1994

DOUBLE DRAGON
The clunky yet addicting side-scrolling beat ‘em up video game was one of the first to get its own movie—and the results were not good. Oh sure, it’s amusing now to look at younger versions of Scott Wolf, Mark Dacascos, Robert Patrick and Alyssa Milano as they leap, kick and scurry through a goofy fighting tournament and some limp adventure movie rigmarole about magical medallions, but as someone who actually paid money to see this movie in 1994… trust me, it’s terrible. And yet the movie somehow inspired a newer version of the Double Dragon video game! That was probably a first.

STREET FIGHTER
OK, maybe this would be the movie to break video game adaptations out of the stone age. It’s got some cool actors (Jean Claude Van Damme and Raul Julia! Wes Studi, Ming-Na Wen, and… Kylie Minogue?), a more than ample budget, and the man who wrote Die Hard calling the shots. But once again something went horribly wrong in the translation from colorful yet redundant button-mashing to ostensibly entertaining matinee-style action/adventure spectacle. Lots of explosions and brawls, to be sure, but very little in the way of cohesive storytelling or energy. Sadly, this was Raul Julia’s final film, but man, he totally leaps into the villain role with both feet.


1995

MORTAL KOMBAT
The Mortal Kombat games are little more than two players facing each other (in various colorfully exotic arenas) and beating the snot out of one another through the magic of intricate button combinations. Thanks in large part to its ensemble cast of kooky characters, the Mortal Kombat games were more than popular enough to inspire their very own live-action movie in 1995. It turned out pretty much as well as can be expected from such a skimpy back-story. All of the beloved (?) characters are included, most notably Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, and Sonya Blade and a whole bunch of other weirdos who face off tournament-style against baddies like Scorpion, Reptile and Sub-Zero.

Generally well-received by game fans (at least a whole more than its sequel was) and a big hit at the box office, Mortal Kombat ushered in the era of divisive genre filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson, who would go on to give us Event Horizon (1997), Alien vs. Predator (2004), Death Race (2008), Pompeii (2014) and a few video game adaptations we’ll get to in a minute.


1997

MORTAL KOMBATL ANNIHILATION
Given the success of the first Mortal Kombat flick (it grossed over $110 million in North America!) it should be no surprise that a sequel would pop up less than two years later—but did it have to be this awful? Clearly the victim of slashed budgets and lowered expectations, this indecipherable clunker is generally dismissed by even the hardcore Mortal Kombat nuts. And they love all this stuff!


1999

WING COMMANDER
The only clever thing about this dreary space adventure is how Fox attached the Phantom Menace trailer to the print, thereby guaranteeing a huge clunker a decent opening weekend. It didn’t work. Chalk it up to the weak special effects, the generic story, or the fact that people weren’t all that interested in an outer space movie starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard, but Wing Commander quickly fled theaters and faded into relative obscurity—except for when geeks like me write articles like this one.


2001

FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN
The hugely popular RPG series got its own (very expensive, all digitally animated) epic adventure movie, and while one can easily settle in and enjoy the nifty animation and some pretty cool action sequences, one can also wish a little more attention was paid to the screenplay and the characters. The top shelf voice cast (Ming-Na, James Woods, Donald Sutherland, Ving Rhames, Alec Baldwin) adds some much-needed spark of personality to the proceedings, but it’s basically a cool-looking diversion that doesn’t leave much of an impression. At a price tag of about $135 million and a global take of less than $86 million, The Spirits Within failed to generate the big-time franchise the producers were hoping for.

LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER
Say what you will about the movie itself but there’s little denying that Angelina Jolie was a perfect choice to play Lara Croft. Although probably one of the better films on this list, at least in terms of casting, production design and relative faithfulness to its source material, Tomb Raider falls prey to the most common problem in video game adaptations: They may be flashy but they’re very rarely fun. Ms. Jolie’s performance is certainly appealing enough to keep the movie afloat during the dry spots, and a few of the adventure movie set pieces are actually pretty cool. Unfortunately, the movie is also sort of a mess. It did, of course, make more than enough money to warrant a sequel.


2002

RESIDENT EVIL
Generally considered one of the best game-to-movie adaptations out there, the first Resident Evil earned a lot of fans for sticking pretty close to the games (at least in spirit), offering some cool special effects, zombie gore and action sequences and hiring the right woman to run the show. This franchise goes in some pretty wacky directions, but leading lady Milla Jovovich manages to keep even the silliest moments anchored with her bad-ass attitude, striking beauty and deadpan sense of humor.

Fortunately, the first Resident Evil makes a lot more sense than its colorfully insane sequels: a bad-ass troop of soldiers is sent in to secure a mansion when a horrible bio-weapon is compromised—only to discover that zombies are afoot and there’s a massive secret lab hidden underground. It’s not exactly Shakespeare, but it is, aside from a few slow spots in the middle, a consistently entertaining piece of flashy horror mixed with straightforward action and a few dashes of sci-fi. Ms. Jovovich and husband/producer Paul W.S. Anderson kinda struck gold on this movie, and both would return for no less than five sequels.


2003

HOUSE OF THE DEAD
Just when it looked like video game movies were about to enjoy a slight upgrade in quality… Hurricane Boll hit the scene. And our lives would never be the same. The guy got his fingers on the film rights to a bunch of lesser-known (but pretty decent) video games, and then he proceeded to subject the geek world to a deluge of hilariously inept anti-masterpieces.

As far as House of the Dead, it’s a goofy first-person shooter that’s been translated into a mindless action/horror flick that takes place on an island full of dippy ravers and unconvincing zombies. Definitely worth watching if you have a case of beer and you insist on struggling through Boll’s “best” movies, but don’t ever say I recommended this thing.

LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE
Aside from some of the more hardcore Angelina Jolie fans, very few people could claim to have loved the first Tomb Raider movie—yet it pulled in enough at the box office to give the well-regarded character a second moment in the cinematic sun. And somehow the sequel turned out to be precisely as messy, aimless and goofy as the first one. Ms. Jolie still seems to be having fun, and the big set pieces are once again suitably impressive, but there’s just not a whole lot of oomph or character in between the chases, scrapes and escapes. Still, as a female spin on the old Indiana Jones-style adventures, kids (and movie geeks) could do a lot worse.


2004

RESIDENT EVIL: APOCALYPSE
Once the first Resident Evil cracked $100 million (worldwide) against a budget below $40 million—and sold a whole bunch of DVDs—we knew it was coming. Unfortunately, Part 2 ended up being the weakest entry in the whole series, thanks mainly to a wildly disjointed plot and some generally unimpressive action sequences. Milla J. is as cool as ever, and I sort of enjoyed the “Escape from New York” homage for about an hour, but even as a fan of this goofy franchise, Part 2 would have to be considered the weakest link. Then again, it does introduce Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory) to the series, and for that we can all be grateful.


2005

ALONE IN THE DARK
While Uwe Boll’s House of the Dead is, by almost every conceivable measure, a very bad film, at least it had a basic, simplistic plot you could follow. His next effort, the unbelievably amateurish Alone in the Dark, instantly flies off the narrative rails and never once bothers to make a lick of sense. Ostensibly it’s about a paranormal investigator (Christian Slater) and a museum curator (Tara Reid) who have to stop some demons from coming out of a portal in a museum. I think. Stephen Dorff is a soldier of some sort. I watched the movie three days ago and remember virtually nothing of it, which is probably a blessing. Big fans of unintentional humor, however, should add Alone in the Dark to their “must see” list. (And don’t even get me started on the 2008 sequel, which is slightly more amusing, but still pretty awful.)

BLOODRAYNE
2005 was a big year for Uwe Boll, and his adaptation of BloodRayne did very little to lessen his reputation as one of the planet’s more inept genre filmmakers. Although arguably the director’s most accomplished film, the movie is still overloaded with bad effects, silly dialogue, unconvincing performances and clunky pacing issues. On the other hand, it’s not every day you get to see a period piece action horror hybrid that stars Michael Madsen, Michelle Rodriguez, Billy Zane, Ben Kingsley, Udo Kier, Geraldine Chaplin and Meat Loaf, is it? No. Plus there’s the presence of leading lady Kristanna Loken, who is actually quite fun to watch, and not just because she’s super hot.

So sure. call it a mild recommendation for BloodRayne but only the first one. I take no responsibility if you choose to forge ahead with BloodRayne: Deliverance (2007) and BloodRayne: The Third Reich (2011).

DOOM
With Uwe Boll stinking it up on the indie front, perhaps it was time for one of the big-time Hollywood studios to step up and deliver a truly fantastic video game adaptation. That’s the sort of mentality that movie geeks have come to know well, and it sort of began back in 2007 with the release of Universal’s Doom. Based on the classic first-person shooter from way back, Doom looked to have all the essential components: a hot action director (Andrzej Bartkowiak, of Exit Wounds and Cradle 2 the Grave), a big star (The Rock!) and the built-in loyalty of a long-lasting game franchise. So why did this $60 million production fail to make its budget back even after global receipts were counted?

No idea. The movie turned out to be a pretty basic Aliens clone and people rarely bring it up these days.


2006

DOA: DEAD OR ALIVE
Although generally dismissed as one of the worst of the theatrically released video game movies—if it’s remembered at all—there’s actually quite a bit of goofy B-movie amusement to be had from this broad, silly adaptation of the Dead or Alive game series. Sure, it’s little more than yet another spin on the old “martial arts tournament” premise that’s been jazzed up with a bunch of gorgeous ladies (Jaime Pressly, Devon Aoki, Natassia Malthe, Holly Valance and Sara Carter!), but director Corey Yuen keeps the absurd action coming at a brisk clip, plus the screenplay and the cast exhibit an appealing tongue-in-cheek sensibility. And you get Eric Roberts chewing through the scenery like only he can.

SILENT HILL
Konami’s powerfully popular “survival horror” game series gets a big-time movie of its very own… and it stinks, right? Nope! For my money this is probably the best film on the video game adaptation list. Not only did it pull in a nice chunk of change at the box office, but gamers and critics both mostly kinda liked it! It’s an indictment of the whole video game movie Pantheon that a “pretty good” horror flick is the best of the batch, but let’s just be grateful for small favors.

Written by Roger Avary (Pulp Fiction) and directed by Christoph Gans (Brotherhood of the Wolf), the visually impressive movie is about a young girl who finds herself hopelessly lost in the horrific, deserted town of Silent Hill—and the devoted mother who heads into Hell to save her. The premise is skimpy and the screenplay is sometimes a bit silly, but if you’re looking for doom, gloom, crazy creatures and an overall sense of creative creepiness, you could do a lot worse than to turn off the lights and settle in with this one.


2007

HITMAN
Yet another example of “close but not quite there,” this adaptation of the long-running stealth/assassination game franchise benefits from a strong lead performance (Timothy Olyphant), some impressive cinematography and a few cool action sequences. But there’s not much to care about since the characters are paper-thin, the plot is frequently confusing and the dialogue sounds a lot like what you’d hear in a video game cut scene. And we usually skip right over those.

IN THE NAME OF THE KING: A DUNGEON SIEGE TALE
Just when you thought Uwe Boll had moved on from creating atrocious video game adaptations he pops back up with (maybe) his biggest turkey yet. By this point the man has to know he’s making films suited only for ridicule, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the ponderous pacing, insipid dialogue and endlessly muddling storytelling that run rampant throughout this clueless RPG adaptation.

On the other hand, if you feel like giggling your butt off, there’s some gold in these hills. Jason Statham (as a farmer named Farmer) comes out relatively unscathed, as does the enjoyably wise-assed Ron Perlman, but the same cannot be said for co-stars Ray Liotta, Will Sanderson, Leelee Sobieski, Burt Reynolds (!), Claire Forlani or John Rhys-Davies. This flick is so bad it makes Dungeons & Dragons (2000) look like Return of the King (2003).

POSTAL
Once again Uwe Boll unleashes two low-rent movies in one calendar year, and (as usual) the results are pretty ugly… When the guy tries to be serious, he’s funny. And when he tries to be funny… (insert cricket noises here). What we have here is a chintzy, controversially violent game that was transformed into a garish, unpleasant and mostly witless misfire. Boll seems to be going for wildly over-the-top sociopolitical satire but he consistently displays a basic ineptitude when it comes to crafting and delivering a joke. Vulgar shock humor is pretty much all the flick has in its favor, although leading man Zack Ward (as a kick-ass ant-hero who kills terrorists) is amusing enough to make one wish the screenplay was a lot more creative.

RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION
After franchise chief Paul W.S. Anderson ceded the directorial reins to 2nd unit director Alexander Witt for Part 2, he (perhaps wisely) tapped veteran filmmaker Russell Mulcahy to helm Part 3—and the result was arguably the best Resident Evil we’ve seen so far. It’s basically a Resident Evil spin on a Mad Max-style story, and it benefits from some expeditious pacing and some nifty action beats. It also earns points for finally introducing Claire Redfield (Ali Larter) to the franchise, a move that surely made lots of fans happy, plus it’s oddly refreshing to see a franchise that actually plays like a dark soap opera as opposed to a series of stand-alone sequels.


2008

FAR CRY
Ready for a mild surprise ending to the Uwe Boll Video Game Movie saga? Brace yourself. After struggling through House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, BloodRyane, In the Name of the King, Postal, and a few of the guy’s sequels, I’d be forgiven if I simply gave up on his movies forever, right? Well, I almost did. But then I saw Far Cry pop up on Netflix and realized that I had to “complete the whole set,” in a way. And (holy crap!) I actually kind of liked this movie! I couldn’t believe it myself!

Now let’s not get nuts. Far Cry is certainly no masterpiece, but it seems like the relative simplicity of this game (it’s about a mercenary fighting mutated soldiers in the jungle) helped to keep Uwe Boll focus on straightforward plotting and basic-yet-effective action scenes. Til Schwieger makes for a suitable action hero, plus the supporting cast seems to all be on the same page, tonally speaking, which means that some of the modest contributions from Udo Kier, Clint Howard, Will Sanderson, Michael Pare, Patrick Muldoon and Emmanuelle Vaugier actually hit their mark. All things being relative, I’d definitely call Far Cry the best of the Uwe Boll Video Game Movie oeuvre. 

MAX PAYNE
Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis and Ludacris team up to bring the popular noir-style video game to life, but aside from some stellar cinematography—hell, the whole visual style is pretty fantastic, truth be told—there’s just not a whole lot of meat on these bones. Director John Moore (Flight of the Phoenix) focuses almost exclusively on the visuals while the screenplay meanders all over the place. It’s about a burnt-out cop on the hunt for the man who killed his family. Wake me when that sounds interesting.


2009

STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI
Call it a sequel or call it a reboot. Just don’t call it when you want a good movie! This one’s exactly mid-'80s Jean Claude Van Damme-level bad but still pretty tiresome. Sure, it’s sort of fun to see Smallville’s Kristen Kreuk as an action heroine—and it’s cool that Neal McDonough is on hand to play the snarling villain known as Bison—but aside from some decent fight choreography there’s very little here that you’ll remember next week.


2010

PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME
Once again the big production companies decide to get into the video game… er, game. This time it’s Disney rolling the dice on an adaptation of the (very fun) Prince of Persia game series—and while the movie didn’t exactly bowl over the critics, it did make well over $300 million worldwide, so clearly someone dug it. The normally reliable Jake Gyllenhaal feels a bit stiff as a “swords & sandals” adventure hero and the screenplay is frequently a confusing muddle, but the production design, special effects, and elaborate action sequences should prove entertaining enough on a boring Saturday afternoon. Call it a solid effort, but still not exactly the Video Game Movie Masterpiece we’re (still) looking for.

RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE
Not only does Alice (Milla Jovovich) have all sorts of wild super powers, but now she also has an army of clones at her disposal. The latter is destroyed in Act I and then the evil Wesker robs our heroine of the former with a secret serum (still with me?) so then she has little choice but to go track down her old friend Claire to see who survived the previous movie. It’s all very loud and crazy, but still a decent amount of fun. Also this is the only Resident Evil movie to feature both Claire Redfield and Jill Valentine, so that makes it sort of special. To me, anyway.

TEKKEN
Guess what it’s about? Yep. A fighting tournament. Earns a few points for its (slightly) futuristic setting and some decent brawls, but it’s not good enough to bother with or bad enough to remember.


2012

RESIDENT EVIL: RETRIBUTION
By the time you get to the fifth chapter of any franchise one can’t help but wonder “why” sequels keep getting churned out every few years. So here’s a pretty simple answer: the first four* Resident Evil* movies brought in more than $675 million in worldwide box office receipts. And this one, Part 5, would go on to pull in $240 million all by itself.

Probably the clunkiest flick in the series (at least story-wise), Resident Evil: Retribution does earn points for a very cool opening battle sequence, as well as for bringing back franchise favorites like Michelle Rodriguez, Oded Fehr, and (yes!) Sienna Guillory—but for the most part it kind of plays like a wheel-spinning placeholder for the sixth (and allegedly final) chapter, which is arriving in January 2017.

But given how much money these movies make, I wouldn’t bet on that “final chapter” stuff.

SILENT HILL: REVELATION
“Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it” holds doubly true for horror fans. I’d been hoping for a Silent Hill sequel since being more than a little impressed by the first film, and it was good news when director Michael J. Bassett (Solomon Kane) was hired to bring Part 2 to the screen—but something bad clearly happened on the way to the multiplexes, because Silent Hill 2 turned out to be a pretty dire affair indeed. Its 3D format was highly touted but also generally unimpressive, and while many of the actors from Silent Hill returned to reprise their roles, the plot was a confusing mess and (aside from some solid monster effects) the scary bits were not all that enthralling.


2014

NEED FOR SPEED
After the global receipts on Prince of Persia came in, Disney opted to give another popular video game series a spin, and while the Need for Speed didn’t exactly blow any doors down in North America, it did manage to pull in over $200 million globally. Not bad for a ridiculous, overlong car chase movie, sure, but Roger Corman used to produce car movies better than this one for less than a million bucks.

TEKKEN 2: KAZUYA’S REVENGE
A prequel to the highly forgettable Tekken adaptation from 2010. All I got.


2015

DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER
This low-budget made-for-cable zombie-fest almost didn’t make it onto the list, but A) I have fond memories of the first Dead Rising game, and B) for a low-budget, made-for-cable zombie-fest, there’s actually a decent dash of tongue-in-cheek horror entertainment to be found here. Nothing all that original, but hey, we can’t all be George Romero, can we?

HITMAN: AGENT 47
If there’s one thing that’s worse than a bad video game movie, it’s a bad video game movie sequel. It’s not like anyone was clamoring for a remake/follow-up to the first Hitman movie, but by removing one of that film’s coolest components—namely Timothy Olyphant—you’re already (as Blade would say) ice skating uphill. This frenetic but instantly forgettable action flick may find a few fans among the old-school Hitman faithful… but I doubt it. This movie came out last year and instantly it felt like a cheesy relic from 1999.


So there you have it. It’s been a pretty painful trek, frankly speaking, and it makes one wonder why it’s so damn difficult to translate a fun video game into an accomplished piece of popcorn cinema. But that doesn’t mean Hollywood should stop trying. We’re bound to get lucky sooner or later.

As long as we keep Uwe freakin’ Boll away from the video game properties.


Check out Playboy’s Beginner’s Guide to Superhero Cinema:
Part One
Part Two


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