Films based on video games, and vice versa, are set to take over pop culture

Once associated with low-budget and even lower quality, movies based on video games, much like the superhero movies phenomenon, are destined to become too big to fail

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 April, 2016, 10:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 15 April, 2016, 10:00pm

As Hollywood truisms go, “video games make bad movies” is up there with screenwriter William Goldman’s infamous “Nobody knows anything.”

Ever since Bob Hoskins slipped on some dungarees and picked up his wrench for 1993’s appalling Super Mario Bros, game-to-movie adaptations have frequently tanked. Everything from Street Fighter to Max Payne to last year’s retro-arcade Pixels , starring Adam Sandler and Pac-Man, has largely evaporated at the box office.

Nonetheless, like that addicted gamer who can’t switch his console off at 4am, Hollywood keeps coming back for one more go. It’s understandable: like comic-books, the current king when it comes to studio source material, games come with a built-in (and very loyal) fanbase and that all-important brand recognition. The revenue streams are also huge, as anyone watching Take Two’s Grand Theft Auto V become the fastest ever entertainment property to reach US$1 billion will have seen.

Studios have begun to wake up to the fact that movies are no longer the main source of entertainment for the 18-24 demographic who are just as likely to spend their precious dollars on a game as a movie ticket.

“People now see this [gaming] as the creative medium of this time period,” says Harvey Smith, the American designer behind Arkane Studios’ Dishonored and this year’s sequel Dishonored 2. “The same way the novel had a birth, and it first wasn’t taken seriously.”

While it’s no surprise that Hollywood still wants a piece of the gaming pie, the unsophisticated narrative approach to such adaptations has frequently alienated viewers.

Yet this year looks set to be a watershed moment. With forthcoming movies of the hugely popular online game World of Warcraft and the award-winning console series Assassin’s Creed both in post-production, hopes are high, with both films boasting A-List stars, respected directors and big-budgets.

In the case of the Ubisoft historical-set stealth title Assassin’s Creed, the film reunites stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard with Australian director Justin Kurzel, who all just collaborated on a much-admired version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Wisely, the French game developer’s internal arm, Ubisoft Motion Pictures, is very much embroiled in the film’s production; and for once, all are on the same page.

“It’s about being loyal to the incredible fanbase of Assassin’s Creed,” says Kurzel. “There are 95 million players in the world, and people are very protective of the brand. That’s why it’s so successful, because there are a lot of really interesting, deep things in it. It’s been amazing doing the story for it because there’s a lot of meat there…the ideas in it [such as re-living memories] are as interesting and as deep as Macbeth.”

With other Ubisoft titles Watch Dogs and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell (currently with Tom Hardy attached) in the works, it finally seems as if actors, studios and games companies are working in harmony.

In the case of Warcraft: The Beginning, the development stretches back a decade, when Legendary Pictures and Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind the enormous MMORPG, first joined forces. Yet how can a game with such immersive qualities ever be reproduced on film?

While the interactive nature of a game can never be replicated in the more passive setting of a cinema, vanguard CGI/motion-capture/3D techniques can dip viewers head-first into game universes they’ve previously just experienced on their PC.

Behind Warcraft is director Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code), who has simplified the world’s enormous mythology to orcs versus humans. With the orcs just as developed as the human characters, comparisons to films like Gladiator and Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy are already being made.

Set in the fantasy world of Azeroth, the script has attracted actors of the calibre of Dominic Cooper (An Education, The Duchess) and Ben Foster (Kill Your Darlings).

“This story was very compelling in itself,” Cooper says. “It has a lot of questioning aspects, even towards the world we live in now. It’s about domination of lands and who is right – who do those lands belong to, who do we believe to be our heroes, who is good and evil, in our opinion, compared to another person’s opinion?

“For me, it wasn’t just a computer game about orcs being put on the big screen.”

Other more “adult” games, like Naughty Dog’s post-apocalyptic The Last of Us, are said to be in development – with Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams attached to play the young survivor Ellie.

Boasting one of the more sophisticated narratives ever seen in a video game, fans will be relieved to know that Neil Druckmann, one of the game’s original directors, is heavily involved, alongside legendary filmmaker Sam Raimi (who was previously earmarked to direct Warcraft before he quit the project).

Admittedly, whatever the good intentions, such complex games can often see the storyline compromised by the time it reaches the big screen. The soon-to-be-released movie of Rovio Entertainment’s massive mobile-seller Angry Birds has no such problem.

With minimal game-plot – unless you count catapulting birds at a pig’s fortress – the CGI-animated film has the freedom to conjure a story of its own choosing. Similarly, an origin movie of Insomniac Games’ platform-driven Ratchet & Clank is on its way.

Yet while games are feeding movies more than ever before, its becoming a two-way highway, with movies also feeding games.

Take the Lego series of console and mobile games: licensing blockbusters like Star Wars, Harry Potter and Indiana Jones and recreating popular movies in brick form has proved hugely popular.

Indeed, it’s arguable that the success of these games helped inspire the release of 2014’s The Lego Movie, which itself has led to a forthcoming spin-off The Lego Batman Movie.

The mobile game market – for smartphones and tablets – is also finding particular inspiration from tentpole movies right now.

The imminent release of Captain America: Civil War in cinemas has proved the perfect launch-pad for Marvel: Avengers Alliance 2, a mobile-only RPG sequel to the original Facebook game, Marvel: Avengers Alliance, which offers players the chance to take over a number of Marvel heroes – everyone from fan favourites like Hulk and Spider-Man to Guardians of the Galaxy’s Groot.

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What’s becoming clear is just how fluid it is these days between the games and movie market. This month, in the US and UK, sees the release of Hardcore Henry – a visceral action movie from first-time director Ilya Naishuller.

While it’s not based on any existing property, the film feels inspired by first-person shooters like Activision’s Call of Duty franchise, with the story entirely shown from the perspective of the cyborg Henry as he scythes his way through dozens of bad guys.

With just Henry’s arms, legs and torso glimpsed – he’s not played by any one actor, but by a series of stuntmen and cameramen – it’s a high concept that attempts to woo the hardcore gamer crowd like never before.

Indeed, the millions who play the Call of Duty games Black Ops or Modern Warfare online will immediately recognise the format; watching it also rather recalls all those YouTube clips of champion gamers working their way through level after level.

In this new spirit of reciprocity, it will be no surprise to see a Hardcore Henry tie-in game in the future.

But in the meantime, rights are being wronged. Already, there is talk that Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Daisy Ridley will play Lara Croft in a new Tomb Raider movie. Taking over where Angeline Jolie left off, after two less-than-impressive outings as the intrepid adventurer, it seems that comic books aren’t the only source material subject to continual blockbuster reboots.

It is, you might say, far from game over.