Tomb Raider and Assassin’s Creed are the perfect examples of why movies will never replicate the feeling of playing a great game.
*Mild spoilers for the 2018 Tomb Raider movie ahead*
“There has never been a good video game movie”. That’s a sentiment that’s shared by the vast majority of the internet collective conscious because – shock horror – it’s mostly true. From the numerous low budget productions of Uwe Boll (Alone in the Dark, BloodRayne, Postal etc) to the “almost but not quite” of Silent Hill and the “so bad they’re comedy gold” films like Street Fighter The Movie and The Super Mario Bros Movie, movie adaptions of video games have not once managed to replicate the magic of the monitor screen on the big screen. Not a single one has managed to break ‘the curse of the video game movie’ and there’s a simple reason for that – because it’s impossible.
I walked out of the cinema last week having seen “Tomb Raider” and was pleasantly surprised with what I’d watched. Very loosely based on the plot of the 2013 series reboot, the Tomb Raider movie isn’t a ‘good’ movie but it’s a competently put together, perfectly enjoyable popcorn flick that borrowed from the cinematic adventures Dr Jones a little too much while retelling the game’s plot with some originality. It did however, fall afoul of the same pitfalls of those that came before it…
In their review for Tomb Raider Polygon said “…the more cinematic qualities (a word I use in a broader literary sense, rather than its specific video game meaning) of Tomb Raider 2013 that would have been easiest to translate into a movie are also some of its most compelling. I’m talking about Lara’s relationships with her friends Sam and Jonah, and with her mentor and sort-of-surrogate-father Roth, as well as her academic mastery of archaeology and mythology. All of these worked to underpin already engaging gameplay with an enjoyable narrative weight and emotional stakes. None of that is in the movie.”. There are many other reviews out there that reiterate these sentiments which can be boiled down into a single sentiment – “This movie isn’t as good as the game it’s based on because it changed too much”. While I disagree with some of the criticism this movie has received, I can certainly see why Polygon make these comments in their review.
In contrast, last year’s Assassin’s Creed movie was criticised for trying to replicate too much of the game’s mechanics for the silver screen; “this movie is akin to watching someone else watch someone else play a bad video game. That extra layer of detachment creates copious layers of disinterest, rendering what could have been a passable action fantasy into a laughably bad botch.” From Forbes.
Creating a movie based on a video game must be seen as a bit of poison chalice in the film business because you can’t win either way.
Recreate a video game for the silver screen, shot for shot, set piece for set piece and it has no hope of being entertaining or at least as entertaining as the source material. Games work because they’re games and we enjoy them because the threat, the enjoyment and the experience is ours to control. It’s a personable media which puts the player in the driving seat and this is something that cannot be replicated in a movie. Even in the best films, you can emotively relate to the characters and their situations but at no point do you ever feel like the threat is yours or the events are happening to you, such is the experience with many video games. Put those mechanics we enjoy in a game into a movie – the leap of faith from Assassin’s Creed for example – and while they’re visually spectacular, they don’t carry the bum clenching excitement of doing it in a game and hoping beyond hope you haven’t just turned Evie Frye into pavement pizza.
Similarly, stray from the source material too far and you get productions like the ill-conceived Super Mario Bros Movie that’s neither thematically nor narratively akin to the famous games. It’s simply a film hoping to cash in on name recognition. The video game movies that do this – the likes of Doom and Need for Speed – alienate those people that love the game in the first place. This is the cinematic crime being laid at the feet of the Tomb Raider movie by some. By removing the supporting cast of characters that joined Lara on her adventure in the game with her not-so-dead Dad and replacing the supernatural with science, they’re shifted the tone of the film to be more grounded asking many critics to ask “Why try and fix something that isn’t broken?”.
So, you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t with video game movies. Re-tell the same story, it’s boring. Add some originality, it disenfranchises the diehard game fans. Recreate the game mechanics on screen, they lose their impact. Focus more on the plot than the action and you’re accused of turning the movie into one big cut scene. After 30+ attempts at it, we’ve yet to see a single really good video game movie because it’s a near impossibility. ‘The curse of the video game movie’ is destined to remain unbroken because while both medium’s share so much, the way in which they’re consumed is so vastly different. We passively watch movies, allowing the director to guide us through the story they want us to see. With games, we actively participate in it and are central to that experience.
A movie is, by default, the opposite to this and when film makers do attempt to give viewers that power, they inadvertently create a game instead.