Why Can’t Talented Artists Make A Great Video Game Movie?


With Rampage arriving in theaters, it’s collecting an underhanded accolade, of sorts: “The best video game movie of all time.” It deserves a bit more credit than that, even though that’s true: It’s an agreeably self-aware giant monster movie that owes more to King Kong than it does the Bally Midway arcade classic. And in some ways, it’s Hollywood taking yet another furious swing at a pinata it should have cracked by now. Rampage arrives just weeks after Tomb Raider, based on the game franchise’s reboot, lost out to Black Panther at the box office.But Rampage is bringing both Dwayne Johnson, one of the few actors who can credibly sell a movie just because he’s in it, and the team from Johnson’s disaster movie hit San Andreas. If anybody can finally make a movie based off a video game a mainstream hit, it has to be these guys, right?

Maybe! But we’ve been here before. Leaving aside the regrettable career of Uwe Boll and the career of Paul W.S. Anderson, which includes the wisely self-aware Mortal Kombat and the agreeably fun and long-lasting Resident Evil franchise, the history of video game movies has a surprising amount of talent swinging and missing. Here are the worst video game movies starring the Oscar-winners and/or directed by action impresarios or even Oscar nominees, that tried to break through and just couldn’t.

Super Mario Bros. (1993)

Of all the failed video game movies, this movie, starring Bob Hoskins as Mario and John Leguizamo as Luigi, might be the most notorious. Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, the directors, were an odd choice in the first place: They were most notable for a remake of the noir DOA and the highly influential cyberpunk TV series Max Headroom, so a kid’s movie wasn’t quite a fit. The resulting disaster was best summed up by this interview with Bob Hoskins in The Guardian, nearly two decades later:

What is the worst job you’ve done?
Super Mario Brothers.

What has been your biggest disappointment?
Super Mario Brothers.

If you could edit your past, what would you change?
I wouldn’t do Super Mario Brothers.

Street Fighter (1994)

Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, a worldwide star at the time because the ’90s were ridiculous, and Oscar-winner Raul Julia in his final role as villain M. Bison, Street Fighter had another secret weapon as well: action movie writer/director Steven de Souza, whose career includes the scripts for action classics like 48 Hrs. and Die Hard and, OK, movies like Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Hudson Hawk. (But writing Die Hard gets you a lot of mulligans.) Released on Christmas 1994, it only made $33 million. And there’s a reason; it’s so absurdly campy that only Julia can really make it work, which is why “But for me, it was Tuesday” is a meme to this day.

After this, and the equally notorious 1994 bomb Double Dragon starring Robert Patrick’s bleached hair, not even the notable success of Paul W.S. Anderson’s unpretentious kung-fu movie Mortal Kombat could boost Hollywood’s appetite for video game movies. It’d take an Oscar winner to do that.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

Tomb Raider is by far the most successful video game movie ever made, and playing Lara Croft helped cement Angelina Jolie’s career as an action hero and a star, right after her Oscar win for Girl, Interrupted. That said, the movie, directed by Con Air‘s Simon West, didn’t exactly light the box office on fire either. Part of this was probably the plot, which opens with Lara Croft fighting an ancient Egyptian robot in a pyramid and seems mostly built around leering at Jolie in bike shorts or bikinis. The 2003 sequel was slightly more restrained, but it also slipped out of theaters without a trace. Still, that was good enough for Hollywood to think games were ripe for adaptation, kicking off a spate of disappointments.

Doom (2005)

Dwayne Johnson isn’t talking about his first foray into video game movies, an attempt to adapt the beloved first-person shooter. To be fair, Johnson is second banana in this movie, which is led by Karl Urban, playing John “Reaper” Grimm, as he leads a squad to a mysterious city on Mars. Johnson does a good job with what he’s given, but the movie is hampered by a weird desire to play fast and loose with the original game, with a plot about a “Martian chromosome” mutating people, and to cater to fans at the oddest moments possible, like the movie’s finale, which pays tribute to the original game by… having Urban get on an elevator.

Silent Hill (2006)

Christophe Gans, who introduced himself to Americans with the elaborate horror adventure movie Brotherhood Of The Wolf, and Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary do a fairly good job of adapting the creepy survival horror game to the screen. One can argue that Gans’ taste for filigree and effects creates a bit of distance that blunts the horror, a bit, but then Pyramid Head shows up yanking the skin off of people and we’re off to the races. It didn’t excite critics, however, and only barely made its budget back, which is why a dirt-cheap sequel made in 2012 came and went with barely any notice.

Hitman (2007)

Timothy Olyphant has, undeniably, been best served by television. His dramatic roles on Deadwood and Justified, his laconic timing on Santa Clarita Diet and guest shots on shows like The League as a mistrusted sushi chef. But, hey, movies pay, and surely a movie based on a beloved game franchise like Hitman, where you play a genetically engineered assassin, could launch a leading man film career. Sadly, not so much, in part because Olyphant is stranded by the rest of the movie. By the end, Olyphant is fighting a helicopter and probably working out how to fire his agent. It’s much the same fate Rupert Friend dealt with in 2015, starring in the even-less seen reboot Hitman: Agent 47.

Max Payne (2008)

The original video game Max Payne is an ever-so-slightly tongue-in-cheek parody of neo-noir, with campy voiceovers and outright Looney Tunes references, which would seem to be a walk in the park for Hollywood. And yet, John Moore and Mark Wahlberg, for some baffling reason, not only took it seriously, but added a subplot where everybody tries a hot new street drug that makes you hallucinate metal album covers. Costing $35 million, it at least managed to get across $40 million at the box office, but there’s a reason Wahlberg moved on to movies that were slightly less ill-advised. And speaking of ill-advised…

Prince Of Persia: The Sands Of Time (2010)

By far the movie with the biggest budget on this list, Hollywood threw Jake Gyllenhaal, at the time a rising star, Mike Newell, fresh off a Harry Potter movie, and $200 million at the video game franchise with a plot that begins and ends with “Save the princess.” Leaving aside casting a white guy as the Persian prince in question, this was one of the more notorious flops of its era, making $90 million at the box office. It also, fairly definitively, shut down any attempt at big-budget video game adaptations for half a decade. But Hollywood loves a reboot, which brings us to the modern attempts to break through.

Warcraft (2016)

Funded, heavily, by Chinese investment, this was seen as the next step for Duncan Jones, who’d surprised audiences with his claustrophobic SF thriller Moon. And early on, it shows promise, particularly in any scenes involving Toby Kebbel’s orc. But quickly enough, it goes off the rails and becomes just another generic fantasy movie that adapts everything but the game’s sense of humor. It made its money back, thanks to Chinese audiences, but it feels a bit like a missed opportunity, if for no other reason than it would have been kind of great for the movie to either give Kebbel the room he needed, or to just roll with the game’s inherent absurdity and spoof-ish tone. We don’t even see orcs dance! Who doesn’t like dancing orcs?

Assassin’s Creed (2016)

While it still falls short, one can argue that Michael Fassbender’s take on the video game franchise, which mixes rigorous historical accuracy with a plot so bonkers not even the History Channel would take it seriously, is probably the best video game movie artistically. Fassbender was undeniably the motivating force behind this movie, bringing the director of his well-regarded take on Macbeth Justin Kurzel into the fold, and that may have been a mistake. Kurzel and Fassbender seem to want to both win Oscars and make a kung-fu movie, leading to scenes where Fassbender literally fights his past and stops the action so Fassbender’s hero can have a confrontation with his dementia-addled father. But no amount of restrained acting and tasteful set design can really make this whole thing less silly, and it feels like a movie slightly embarrassed for itself.

Which brings us to the Tomb Raider reboot and now, Rampage, which wisely has decided to focus on giant monsters instead of being absolutely faithful to an arcade game with no plot. Can Johnson and his team finally crack that pinata? We’ll see this weekend.