Film adaptations of video games have descended on the unsuspecting viewing public like a Drop Bear. At first they look harmless enough, but they often leave viewers bruised and regretful.
These movies are plentiful. Last year Warcraft: The Beginning grossed US$433 million; Assassin’s Creed, featuring Michael Fassbender, was released earlier this year; and the sixth instalment of the Resident Evil hits Australian screens this week.
The potential to appeal to a devoted fan base – and for new franchises – makes these movies an attractive prospect.
Yet despite big budgets and quality talent both in front of and behind the camera, most videogame movies are commercial and critical failures. Most score below 20% on Rotten Tomatoes, with only The Angry Birds Movie (2016) – an animated adaption of an app – earning above 40%. Many fail to earn back their costs, and Warcraft, despite huge box office returns, hasn’t actually made money.
So why do these movies flop? The answer comes down to a complex mix of conflicting audience demands and commercial realities.
They must appeal to game fans without alienating the general public. They wrestle with the games’ narrative devices. And ever expanding budgets have introduced the commercial reality of plotting sequels, hampering satisfying storytelling.
There’s too much plot
Video game movies often assume that the audience wants, or is interested in, the game’s lore and background. In fairness, this is out of fear that fans will criticise lore changes, alienating a key demographic.
But games reveal lore progressively over tens of hours of gameplay, whereas movies have a fraction of that time.
This tension risks creating turgid exposition and convoluted story lines. For example, Warcraft details the origins of conflict between humans and orcs, the central conflict in the game’s world. However, a common criticism was that it was “full of boring exposition and mostly uninteresting characters” and “convoluted”, with a “stew of subplots”.
The core concern seems to be that the source material is complex and the lore extensive, and the movie erroneously attempts to cram too much of it in.
Assassin’s Creed is suffering similar issues. Wired felt the need to facetiously explain to non-gamers what the Assassin’s Creed trailer actually means. This complexity overburdens a film and alienates the general viewing public.
Angry Birds largely avoided these pitfalls because the game itself has relatively little plot, is humorous in tone, and lends itself to silliness that plays better in animated films than live action. This gives the film a relatively blank slate; and thus, more room for narrative creativity.
Adherence to silly narrative devices
Excessive adherence to the source material extends to using silly plot devices without spending enough time establishing plausible reasons for their existence. In games, these can work due to the “unspoken but commonly understood logic of ‘this is a video game’”. In a game, people accept perfunctory or inconsistent narrative devices because they facilitate interesting interaction and are the quickest route towards allowing gamers to, say, shoot hell-monsters on Mars.
Let’s examine a recent instance: Assassin’s Creed. The central premise of both the film and movie is that two ancient secret societies are duelling to direct humanity’s fate by capturing a magical MacGuffin (which contains the “genetic code for free will”, apparently). This involves the protagonist using a machine called “The Animus”, which allows people to experience “genetic memories”, in order to find out where an ancestor hid the object.
The game series became increasingly complex, as the player-controlled protagonist parkoured his way through time periods like Renaissance Italy and Revolutionary America. The implausibility of the narrative world paled beside the fun of vaulting from rooftop to rooftop in 15th-century Florence.
The film, in contrast, failed to bring its audience along for the ride. The plot – an original story which retains the key elements of the games – was savaged as “scattered and fractured”, “hastily explained” and “disorienting”. Vanity Fair pointed out that “it’s not clear why any of this is happening” and RogerEbert.com summed it up as:
Characters [talking] in hushed whispers about the hyper-convoluted methods they use to realize their poorly-hidden agendas.
Resident Evil suffers similar issues, although the films are more loosely connected to the games. The films largely involve the antagonist, Umbrella Corporation, creating a virus that turns people into zombies. They intend to sell the virus as a weapon of mass destruction. They also experiment on a woman named Alice by injecting her with the virus, which somehow bonds to her DNA and turns her into a supersoldier.
Thereupon she can singlehandedly defeat the zombies, which in the final film have surrounded a small pocket of survivors.
While on paper this is no less plausible than any other action-horror film, the Resident Evil movies have historically failed to persuade audiences to suspend any kind of disbelief. The highest-rated film in the franchise is the original, with a Rotten Tomatoes score of 34%.
In the games, the flimsy reasoning and internal inconsistencies don’t really matter, because the player gets the pay-off of mowing down thousands of enemies in an emotionally satisfying climax.
But simply transposing over-the-top and poorly explained plot mechanisms to film misunderstands their purpose, and creates an illogical barrier between the audience and the film.
Huge budgets need huge returns
Game adaptations’ issues seem not to be due to a lack of resources. Indeed, in an attempt to please myriad audiences, video game movies have attracted increasingly large budgets. In 2016, Angry Birds had an estimated budget of US$73m, Warcraft of US$160m, and Assassins Creed of US$125m.
Games movies have begun attracting quality talent. Prince of Persia (2010) featured Jake Gyllenhaal. Warcraft featured Travis Fimmel, following the well received TV series Vikings, and was co-written and directed by Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code).
Clearly, the films have financial support. But the return on investment is not encouraging (as illustrated below), with a number failing to recoup costs.
Official film budgets, used for this chart, actually overstate the films’ returns as they exclude costs such as marketing, which can be huge and erode profitability. This what happened to Warcraft: its huge box office returns officially returned its budget, but in reality barely made money for investors.
The large costs raise the ever-present desire to spawn sequels. Warcraft in particular was criticised for narrative holes and unanswered questions, with reviewers assuming the core movie was weakened in order to set up sequels. Review site Dark Horizons told filmmakers:
Focus on the movie you are making, not on setting up the sequel you haven’t earned.
Ultimately, this mix of commercial realities, and the conflict between fan pressure and viewer expectations hampers video game movies. It makes the production task all the more difficult. It’s unsurprising that so many video game movies perform so poorly.