By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist July 12, 2012 at 11:03AM
After a few years that have seen studios deciding to focus on trying to make movies out of board games, it looks, from the last couple of days, as though video games are cycling back around as the hot source material. Monday saw Michael Fassbender announced as the star and producer of a film based on Ubisoft's hugely popular "Assassin's Creed" franchise, while yesterday a movie based on the long-running "Deus Ex" series was set up at CBS Films, Sony's "God Of War" film got new writers, and Dreamworks' "Need For Speed" got a firm 2014 release date.
All this on top of the announcement a month or so back that "Chronicle" director Josh Trank was developing a "Shadow Of The Colossus" film, based on the seminal Playstation 2 game of the same name, and with 3D game-derived horror sequels "Resident Evil: Retribution" and "Silent Hill: Revelation" gearing up for release in the fall, with both films set to unveil footage at Comic-Con. And there are even more projects in development, and all told, it seems games are officially hot again in the movie world.
It's almost brave, given the track record of games-to-movies so far. They have been almost universally critically reviled, with the highest Rotten Tomatoes score to date (for what that's worth) being for 2001's flop CGI feature "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," with a less-than-rousing 43%. The biggest worldwide box office hit in the genre was "Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time," with $335 million worldwide, and that's a film generally deemed to have been a flop ("Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" is the biggest domestic grosser, with $131 million). Only the surprisingly resilient "Resident Evil" series has managed to sustain a successful franchise -- thanks to a 3D boost, the fourth installment took nearly $300 million worldwide -- but no film in the series has yet taken more than $60 million domestically.
And that's just the top end -- from "Super Mario Brothers" to "Max Payne," there are plenty of movies based on games that died at the box office. So are all these new projects destined to be as badly received and financially disappointing as their predecessors? Can a video game adaptation ever be successful? More importantly, can one ever be good?.
Of course, the two questions probably have more in common than one thinks. While, like all bad movies, the likes of "Hitman" and "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" have their defenders, they weren't just rejected by fans, but by audiences too -- the sequel to the latter halved its gross for follow-up 'The Cradle Of Life,' suggesting that many of those who saw the first one really, really didn't like it. Without a single film stepping apart from the herd to legitimize the genre, as Richard Donner's "Superman" or Tim Burton's "Batman" did for comic books back in the day, people are justifiably wary of seeing these things.
From our point of view, there's a couple of other major issues that limit video game adaptations from being much good. The first is the nature of the source material. From the emergence of the form in the late 1970s, games have taken serious inspiration from either sports or movies, and it's the latter that has taken particular precedence as the technology has improved. Even the most acclaimed games are generally inspired by movies, rather than something independent -- take Rockstar Studios, who've made billions of dollars from their open world games "Grand Theft Auto," "Red Dead Redemption" and "L.A. Noire." All three are immaculate, detailed games of real artistry, but they're also derivative riffs on, and homages to, the crime movie, the Western, and the detective genre, respectively.
And even selling points, like the bullet-time gimmick of "Max Payne" for instance, might feel fresh in a game, but in that case, and many others, it was something inspired by a movie ("The Matrix"), and when taken back to the big screen, it felt like just another violent cop actioner. This is not to say that Hollywood is a beacon of originality themselves, but aside from the brand name, and perhaps a star they like, the filmgoing audience aren't given any reason that they should go and see the film.