Beginning in 1993 with the release of the much-maligned Super Mario Bros. film, movies based on video games have had a long and storied lifespan. Long regarded as unwatchable at worst and merely decent at best, recent entries within this crossover genre have been bucking the trend. Taking a look back at some standouts from video game movie history, we want to ask the questions of whether their poor reputation has always been earned, and whether it’s time to consider giving these films a more balanced look.
The Good, the Bad, and the First Sonic Design
Despite having already mentioned it, there’s no way to begin a conversation about the legacy of video game movies without first mentioning the original Super Mario Bros. Released at the high-point of Mario mania, expectations for this film were high. With a budget of around $45 million, Super Mario Bros. took massive liberties with the source material, mutating it into a live-action film that was almost unrecognisable from its inspiration. Earning $38 million at the box office, and 24% on Rotten Tomatoes, the movie would start this world off with a whimper, but the industry could go lower.
Earning a spot as arguably the worse video game movie of all time is 2005’s Alone in the Dark. Directed by video bomb-maker Uwe Boll, the plot of the Alone in the Dark games was flexible enough that a good writing and directing team could have turned it into something interesting. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. Returning $12.7 million on a $20 million budget, Alone in the Dark received a 3% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with critics labelling it, among other things, “inept on almost every level”. As Forbes explains, it wasn’t Boll’s first awful movie, and it wasn’t his last.
Of the more modern mainstream success stories, we have the recent Detective Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog movies. Receiving 68% and 63% ratings on Rotten Tomatoes respectively, these two films are widely considered the best that gaming and live-action have produced. As for what made them special, points have to go to how well the filmmakers understood the characters and themes. These movies didn’t try to tell good video game stories, they tried to tell relatable stories in video game worlds. Popular enough to have sequels in the works, these films have been credited with raising the bar beyond what many thought possible.
Whenever adapting a film to a certain concept, there are always issues that arise when considering where filmmakers should draw the lines of accuracy and intimacy. Lean into inspiration too closely, and you risk alienating the mass audience through unfamiliarity. Don’t leverage it enough, and you strip the original idea of everything that it made it popular.
Outside of video games, there are myriad examples of successful movie adaptions of ideas that understood this balance. The 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line is one such example. While Johnny and his music is the focus, the film also understood that his wife June played a part too great to be ignored, and the film succeeded for this consideration.
This concern also applies to the age-old classics of casino films. Here, titles like the 1960 or 2001 Ocean’s Eleven used Las Vegas as the backdrop, but as Vulture explains, it was the human aspect that was the most engaging. With a plethora of casino films achieving huge success, it begs the question as to why there aren’t more contemporary casino films that take into account large changes in the industry in recent times. For example, online casinos dominate the industry with well-established sites such as Betway Casino providing customers with a range of options across card games like blackjack and slot titles. The convenience they provide has naturally made them very popular and fuelled growth in this area. However, their presence is rarely acknowledged in casino films, which is bizarre considering we are now at a stage where filmmakers can shape any world they like, with CGI technology the best it has ever been.
Westerns are another standout example of balancing acts of inspiration and accuracy. The real old west was hardly as violent and lawless as movies suggest, but for success stories like Clint Eastwood’s A Fistful of Dollars, the disconnect was unimportant in the big picture.
Struggling with Understanding
When looking back on the failures and successes of video game adaptions, one of the most evident issues stems from a lack of understanding. With movies like Super Mario Bros. and Alone in the Dark, the people who worked on the films didn’t just fail to understand the games they were based on, they failed to understand gaming as a whole. Far from the niche oddities that studio heads seem to see video games as, the gaming zeitgeist is much more.
Gaming is a story of the evolution of hardware, software, and communities. Gaming enthusiasts can represent their culture through an expression as singular as frustration over one specific level, or as broad as an entire genre’s evolution. Yet, with video game movie failures, it’s undeniable that the creative force behind these films understood none of this. They painted with superficial strokes and cliché, but gamers and audiences aren’t that stupid.
Ultimately, what this means is that the future of video game movies is, at the very least, more promising than ever. Many in the film industry today grew up with video games, and they love them just as much as the general public. Movies like Sonic the Hedgehog and Detective Pikachu are, in this way, simply reflections of a greater cultural change. It gives up hope for the future of these crossovers, even if the industry has a while to go yet before it truly proves itself.