Clickbait Title: The Video Game Movies That Are The Most Memorable for Being Very Bad, Very OK, Or Occasionally Pretty Good
Video Game movies are historically not very good. There’s been long, arduous debates on whether or not video games should be adapted to film, especially considering that they involve players in such lengthy, complex stories on their own, and in the modern era pull off such incredible feats of animation that they’re on par with Hollywood filmmaking (see the ushering in of Unreal Engine 5 and Epic’s work with Lucasfilm to blur the lines between the medium’s visual fidelity). The case of trying to convert one from its medium to the other from a sensible, storytelling perspective only gets harder and harder.
But, as far as Hollywood is concerned, recognizable franchises beget the big money, and so for nearly 30 years, we’ve tangoed this dance.
In anticipation of Warner Bros releasing the new, very very long-awaited, third attempt at a Mortal Kombat adaptation, we’ve assessed the pantheon of questionable quality in video game movies. We’re not going to try and suggest you watch all these movies, but rather express why their presence over the years was important, and what their existence brings to us now.
If you’re at all interested in streaming any of these films, for one, bless you, you sweet summer child, and two, we’ve linked as many of them as we can to modern available streaming services for your convenience!
Here’s the deal with Sonic the Hedgehog. He’s a relic of the past. He worked as a marketing stunt in the ’90s to convert kids from a Disney-like Mario innocence to an edgy Nickelodeon cool kid X-Games club when Tony Hawk was still the bee’s knees and gaming selling children on toxic masculinity was at its height. Now that we’re slowly trying to wade out of that Mountain Dew flood 30 years later, Sonic has been struggling to maintain his own relevance as a game property. He’s a legacy character with an incredible original trilogy that, once converted into 3-D became increasingly harder to play, and SEGA has gotten increasingly worse at figuring out what they want the hedgehog’s identity to be.
The fandom knows Sonic so much better that they’ve made better Sonic games than SEGA themselves, and when they bullied the briefly shown original visual design that absolutely will outlive the relevance of this movie, even Paramount, and the film’s director, knew the fans were right. No matter how bad Sonic’s story content is, the character designs of him and his friends are so good that they elevate everything else around them. Without this movie’s ability to revitalize Sonic’s visual appeal from an animation design perspective, and lean into his original characterization, Sonic The Hedgehog may as well be that Peter Rabbit 2 movie that may or may not exist because it keeps getting delayed. The ushering of ‘90’s nostalgia in films will reach its peak when Jim Carrey returns in the sequel to drive us all mad as Doctor Eggman / Robotnik. Either him or more Olive Garden inside jokes, it’s kind of up in the air. [Evan Griffin]
Warcraft (2016) rent or buy on YouTube / Apple / Google
As one of the very few video games that I personally invested time in growing up – not to brag, but I was a level 17 Night Elf – Warcraft, directed by Duncan Jones (Moon) brought with it some decent expectations. While there was simply no way the film would be able to condense the hilarious amount of lore that follows the Warcraft saga, the resulting film is undoubtedly jumbled and, more often than not, incohesive in terms of character motivations and basic narrative structure. But the visuals were outstanding and hints of world-building intriguing. The level of loving care and technical craft that went into making the film bring value to it, especially in the creation and effects of the character design for members of the Horde. More than anything else, especially following the drab Mortal Kombat (2021), is the fact that throughout the narrative chaos and nonsensical plotting, it felt as if the creators behind and in front of the camera were having a blast, and it shines through. The film’s a functional disaster, but at least it’s a relatively entertaining one. [Allyson Johnson]
Doom (2005) on Netflix [R]
With historical context, it seems like a foolish task to adapt ID Software’s Doom to film. Infighting between brand owners and national controversies aside, Doom’s technical engineering mind, John Carmack, famously said in the game’s production “a story in a game is like a porn movie. You expect it to be there, but it’s not important.” If that’s where the priorities lie with the creator of the property Hollywood had been itching under the skin to make a film out of since its release in 1993, how do you stretch it out to a 90-minute movie?
The final product doesn’t really make a case for doing so, even with the gorier uncut version. The film certainly tries to make callbacks to the series by naming characters after people on the developer team or the demons in the game’s cast of enemies, but the final movie pays little audiovisual resemblance to iconic 90’s PC game aside from the vaguest of character designs and a first-person sequence in the last 15 minutes, which was what drew a lot of gamers to the film back when it came out. The problem is, the film is darker than Doom 3, and all the architecture of the inner depths of the UAC Mars base look exactly the same. Combine this with bad editing and the film is a mess to follow and the only thing carrying you along the story is the hope that the film’s most frustrating characters die. Meanwhile, Rosamund Pike is a scientist who is ignorantly covering up a genome experiment that makes the film’s creatures not demons from hell but mutants based on martian DNA that “chooses if someone is good or evil.” The sloppy storytelling makes the original game that makes fun of having a story seem like a masterpiece. But people really do like that final 20 minutes of first-person fighting plus a wire-fu fight where The Rock turns into a Buffy vampire before being blown up. Can I go home yet? [EG]
Silent Hill (2006) rent or buy on YouTube / Apple / Google [R]
For our money, 2006’s Silent Hill movie is the best game movie adaptation to date. There aren’t many other game adaptations that fully capture the mood a game tries to instill, but Silent Hill hits the perfect balance between typical loud spooky noise horror and the ethereal, haunted quality of the franchise it pulls from. The permanently fog-coated streets of Silent Hill shroud the set in an eerie haze, while Akira Yamaoka’s beautiful foreboding music (ripped wholesale from the games, but much to the betterment of the film) give it an otherworldly quality. Even the artistic liberty that was taken to change the protagonist from the games’ Harry Mason to the films Rose DeSilva works to the film’s strengths, creating a theme of maternity against the horrors within, one that director Christophe Gans wanted more predominantly in the film, before studio meddling (Hi Sean Bean!). In particular, Laurie Holden’s portrayal of police officer Cybil Bennett, who has a fair bit more agency in the film than she does in the game is a standout. Bucking the trend of “everyone else in Silent Hill is not 100% all there in the head” she is transformed from the game’s Cybil who feigns “there’s no such thing as monsters, that winged inside-out meat daemon that just flew by is clearly just a local townie hooked on the reefer” to a cinematic rework that’s a little more “that fart monster just shot acid at me, take this gun and let’s get the hell out of Dodge”. It plays better with the later ideas presnted, and the longer you stay in Silent Hill, the more it gets to you. The film also happens to be wonderfully bloody, even by most western horror movie standards, while still staying within the general tone and atmosphere of the games. While viewers question whether the notorious antagonist Pyramid Head should have been in the film at all, his presence brought a sense of brutality that is extremely on-brand for the series. Silent Hill is an absolute must-watch for fans of the game, or even just people who wish that The Mist show got a second season. [Miles Stanton]
Resident Evil (2002) on Tubi [R]
Back in 2002, director Paul W. S. Anderson made the first film adaptation of the Resident Evil games from the 1990’s. The games have become classics in time and have even begun to receive their own remake treatment recently. The movies, however, have left fans divided through their hilariously long run. The first film in the series is one of the better installments and is impressive as far as visual effects in the early 2000’s goes. What really made this movie memorable was the portrayal of the lead character Alice by Milla Jovovich. To this day her role in this film series has set a standard for badass female action stars in sci-fi/horror films. The plot of the film is pretty much the same as most of the entries that follow, which is both funny and incredibly boring. The evil Umbrella Corporation is experimenting on people and accidentally creating undead monsters and it’s up to Alice and her team to bust into the Umbrella Base of the Week and blow it up along with all the hundreds of undead beings she brutally shoots her way through. While this film series may not have been the best in terms of story, they were an important entry in the video game adaptation category that could definitely benefit from some new ideas. [Tyler Carlsen]
Street Fighter: The Movie (1994) on Peacock
How does a movie twice as expensive as Mortal Kombat made three years earlier manage to have practically no fight scenes until the final 15 minutes of the film? Really expensive lead actors. For a movie about Street Fighter, there’s little fighting, and when there is, they’re not in the streets. The film struggles to balance wanting to be a pulpy war comic and a fighting game adaptation, leaving the audience struggling with a bloated cast of characters until Ming Na Wen as Chun Li throws the first punch an hour into the film. It tries so hard to give visually accurate versions of these characters to the big screen that when designing the green-skinned, orange-haired Blanka, nobody stopped to think whether they should do a cheesy Incredible Hulk rip off in a movie where Jean Claude Van Damme also plays his best friend and intensely serious military professional, Colonel Guiles.
Easily the best reasons to throw this film on are three key performances: the first from Ming Na Wen in one of her first film roles chewing any scenery she can get her hands on. Second is 90’s B-movie relic Van Damme struggling to speak his lines in English phonetically through a coke induced fever, and finally a delightfully hammy final acting performance from Raul Julia as the villainous dictator M. Bison, delivering one of the most famous exchanges of dialogue in a video game movie ever: “For you; The day Bison graced your village was the most important day in your life. But for me… it was Tuesday.” And even that was ripped off from Conan the Barbarian, but boy did Julia sell it, knowingly overselling it as he waned from this earth giving it his absolute all for us all to admire. We also got a double meta tie in a video game in which we got to play Street Fighter with the actors of the film scanned in as sprites to pull off a Mortal Kombat look, and it is spectacularly dated. [EG]
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001) on Starz
At the dawn of the 21st century, big-budget, tentpole films were starving for female-led property, and the popularity of Brandon Fraisure’s The Mummy (1999) and its soon to arrive sequel got audiences in a mood for globe-trotting, treasure hunting adventures based on American exceptionalism and B-movies. At about this same time, 3-D gaming mascots were being pioneered, and besides Duke Nukem and Super Mario, the hottest protagonist in the late ‘90s was Laura Croft, the Tomb Raider. The issue with Laura Croft as a playable character is that, while she was able to run around ancient ruins, solve puzzles, and wield guns better than anyone in a John Woo film, the gaming community at large just had to turn her into an ultimate sexual fantasy for themselves, and the outrageous proportions on her six polygons of statuesque character design didn’t help.
Enter Angeline Jolie as the character comes to life on film, and the movie she stars in is constantly sidestepping between allowing her to be a character that defines herself outside of the world pressuring a certain style of femininity on her, and the camera gratuitously obsessing over her body and gun holsters. Highlights of the film include a pre-007 Daniel Craig as a competitor tomb raider, and some ridiculous action scenes and set pieces that don’t have a lot of interesting achievement from a filmmaking perspective but are all of impressive production value. The film tries really hard to mix Indiana Jones and The Matrix and it struggles to hit the marks of either, but Jolie puts in the work to sell the world, even if the characterization of Lara Croft herself is paper-thin. [EG]
Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019) rent or buy on YouTube / Apple / Google
Making a watchable Pokémon movie is a low bar, even for people who are admitted current or former fans of the game franchise and its tie-in anime. The movie, co-produced by Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros, also resembles very little to the Nintendo 3DS game of the same name. How is it possible that this movie works? The first is that it has little desire to adhere super close to the structure of pokemon media of the past, and instead works closely with Toho (known for Godzilla monster films in decades past) to create visual effects for these visually iconic pocket monsters to populate Ryme City to make beloved creatures featured extras amongst the humans with reverence for their environmental needs and habits.
Secondly, and most importantly, is selling Ryan Reynolds as Pikachu in the film, allowing his sense of humor to channel through the 3-D furry pokemon like a Muppet, and the result is giving the iconic character design by Atsko Nishida that took the world by storm to have more personality than ever. The film goes to great lengths to have Pikachu play off of Justice Smith as protagonist Tim, as he comes to Ryme City to search for his father, and as their connection begins tumultuously, the Bulbasaur sequence at the end of the movie’s second act could potentially hurt anyone’s heart, even if they have no affinity for the creatures themselves. The rest of the film plays out like a traditional noir sendup that can only be done in a kids film, but it cleverly uses the mystery that entangles Justice Smith into Detective Pikachu’s journey, and their hunt for the truth cleverly involving pokemon either pulling weird shenanigans or doing your traditional cage fights. The mystery isn’t particularly difficult to figure out, but the fact that a Hollywood movie managed to use Mew-Two and Bill Nighy as joint antagonists and managed to make it not completely embarrassing for themselves or the audience is a crowning achievement. [EG]
Mortal Kombat (1995) on Peacock
Make no mistake, New Line Cinema’s 1996 Mortal Kombat is not a good movie. However, for being the first video game adaptation to film since 1993’s Super Mario Bros and deep in the brutal phenomenon of Mortal Kombat fever in arcades and Sega Genesis consoles across the U.S., it was only a matter of time before Hollywood gave the controversial brutal-tastic fighting game an adaptation of its own. The story stretches out to 90 minutes by structuring the game’s characters into a tournament bracket with a less interesting version of Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon where martial artists of different disciplines are ferried to an island run by a shady man, and in between fistfights, they run investigations on the evildoing. In Mortal Kombat’s case, however, there’s no drug ring but instead wild magic and soul-sucking with the intent of summoning an all-powerful evil to earth. The movie tries to use its $18 Million budget wisely on production value and fight choreography, and while the sets and practical effects have a certain charm to them, the visual effects look like something straight out of an Akklaim game on Nintendo 64. Even worse, the fight scenes are boring. The characters all look as they originally were supposed to, even to the point where Scorpion, Sub-Zero, and Reptile all have the same costume in a different color scheme, and characters like Lui Kang, Johnny Cage, and Sonya have visually distinct looks and vaguely unique fight styles to differentiate them visually. This movie was popular at its time, but it’s also only really watchable when viewers are in some form of intoxication. Unless you’re recovering from a pulled wisdom tooth, the action scenes have the very little thrill to them compared to the martial arts films whose well it’s trying to drink from. [EG]
- Update 4/24/21, at least it’s better than the new one, holy crap
Super Mario Bros The Motion Picture (1993) This one you’ll have to buy on DVD or Blu Ray because they don’t want anyone to see it.
Super Mario Bros. was adapted so loosely from the source material that Nintendo is only now barely okay with letting someone take another crack with one of their IPs beyond Japanese anime adaptations – and they’re doing so with a close eye on the project. That trepidation is pretty fair, because the 90’s Super Mario Bros film is buck wild. The film resembles something more like Escape From New York or plenty of dystopian films of the late 80’s and 90’s than any part of the Mushroom Kingdom; a change that creates a massive tonal whiplash. That doesn’t mean that the entire film should be written off, however. Bob Hoskins’ performance of a working-class Brooklynite completely out of his depth is a pretty solid reading of Mario’s origins as they were established at that time (calm down Gamers, Yoshi’s Island wouldn’t release in the States for another couple of years) and plays well on screen with a young John Leguizamo as the bright-eyed and big-hearted little brother Luigi. If you were to take these performances out of the truly bizarre box they were put in, they’d be solid adaptations of these characters. But, that box they are stuck in overwhelms the entire production; from the de-evolution rays to Dennis Hopper’s extremely gelled hair to look like Koopa’s spiny head. The film simply fails to capture the energy and lightheartedness of the Mario franchise, either because the production didn’t think they could replicate it or didn’t believe it would sell tickets. Instead, it turned away anyone who wanted to enjoy the movie beyond irony. Even sadder, the lesson that should have been learned here is one that would still take years and years to actually be learned. What it did give us was a warning about the future of adapting video games to film, and a wildly fascinating production history that is worth more time delving into than the finished film itself. [Travis Hymas]