2016 Was Supposed To Be The Year Video Games Took Hollywood. What Happened?

Video game movies have a long, and frankly not very good, history of being turned into movies. But 2016 was different. 2016 was the year. In Warcraft the medium had one of its most popular games ever hitting the screen in a big-budget fantasy adaptation from director Duncan Jones, and in Assassin’s Creed, you had a respected director and a cast of serious, capital-A Actors and a creative team best known for Shakespeare. This was going to be it! Video games were finally going to get the respect they deserve!

Critics might argue that’s exactly what happened. Warcraft landed with a thud at the box office outside of China, and Assassin’s Creed is somehow differently, but equally, as bad. Considering the $200 million spent on it and the fact that it’s up against Rogue One, a movie that’s grossed $200 million in America alone before it hits the Christmas weekend, financially it’s not looking good either.

While our own Mike Ryan compared Assassin’s Creed to a Paul WS Anderson movie, honestly, Anderson in the director’s chair would have been a relief. Anderson knows he makes dumb fun for people who want to not think for two hours, and he’s also the guy who turned the barely coherent mish-mash of early-’90s Hong Kong and Hollywood fantasy tropes that was Mortal Kombat into a movie that’s at least fun to watch. Justin Kurzel, Assassin’s Creed‘s director, tries mightily to give everything going on dramatic weight, but he’s undercut by the sheer ’70s cheese of the concept, aiming for Shakespearean drama and instead just making a rather pompous kung-fu movie.

This is a problem for more than Fox and Ubisoft, the game company that owns Assassin’s Creed. Sequels haven’t been doing well in general, and superhero movies can’t continue their box office streak forever. Hollywood spends so much money on movies at this point that the executives running things are deeply afraid of spending money on a total unknown. Any property, no matter how obscure, at least has people who’ve heard of it and might show up. Hence, among other things, The Emoji Movie, but also a rising interest in adapting video games.

If Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed share a flaw, it’s that they’re both excessively, even slavishly, faithful to the source material, likely a function of the companies that own these games being intimately involved in the production. Warcraft has several major executives from Blizzard, the company that makes the Warcraft games, listed as producers, despite the fact none of them had made a movie before. Ubisoft is trying to launch a film studio with seven more movies, including a sequel to Assassin’s Creed, in the works, although they’ve just now gotten their first movie into theaters after five years of work.

The problem, of course, is that it means these movies lack perspective in multiple ways. The first is the assumption their stories and metaplots are interesting, which, well, they usually aren’t. I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed games for nearly a decade and I still don’t care what the Templars are up to. Warcraft‘s fantasy setting is and always was a sub-Tolkien slice of cheese that mostly served to justify the action. This is not the stuff of great filmmaking, unless you throw out everything but the basics and start over.

Worse is the assumption that millions of people care. There’s genuine, tangible evidence that they don’t, in some cases: The Assassin’s Creed game franchise is popular, but if a $60 game was a $10 movie ticket instead, they’d be lucky to kiss $60 million in the US box office, and that appears to be more or less where the movie is headed.

Would any of this matter if the movie were any good? Perhaps not. And it’s worth noting that there was a relatively successful movie based off a video game: Angry Birds. But that was a kid’s movie that had free reign to tell its own story and had a far different fan base. Hollywood studios approve movies based on math, not emotions, and frankly the math has never added up for video game movies. It’s a hobby that costs hundreds of dollars, hundreds of hours of leisure time, and has a fanbase that, to put it mildly, has not acquitted itself remotely well in the court of public opinion lately. It’s not that video games can’t make good movies, but rather that until Hollywood, and game companies, realize compromises have to be made, they won’t be more than a punchline.