‘Assassin’s Creed,’ ‘Warcraft,’ and the Plague of the Self-Serious Video Game Movie

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Over the holiday weekend, an image was released of Michael Fassbender as Callum Lynch in the upcoming film adaptation of the video game Assassin’s Creed. The image is no big deal — sure, Fassbender looks a little silly wearing that smock and with his face painted up, but who wouldn’t? — and the film has some promise, seeing as it shares a director with this year’s great Macbeth, which also starred Fassbender and his Assassin’s Creed co-star, Marion Cotillard. And yet, the picture, as inoffensive as it is, can’t help but conjure memories of history’s long line of awful, disappointing video game adaptations.

The summer of 2001 was big for most fans of Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series: the series’ first next-gen game, Final Fantasy X, was about to be released, just before the feature-length animated film, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Fans’ expectations of the film were high, thanks to the fairly gorgeous graphics and the quality of the cast, which included the voices of Ming-Na Wen, Alec Baldwin, James Woods, Steve Buscemi, and Ving Rhames. The movie, as it turned out, was a technological masterpiece. It was also a boring disaster. Nobody was surprised. It had been less than ten years after the first video game movie hit theaters, but everyone had learned not to expect them to be good.

To list every awful video game film ever made would take a long time, so you can just go ahead and google “video game movies” and assume that every name on the list is a clunker. Since John Leguizamo and Bob Hoskins confounded audiences with 1993’s bizarro Super Mario Bros., it’s been clear that a successful video game does not guarantee a successful film. But, since then, video game adaptations have evolved. Whereas that film and a few of the films that followed (’94’s Street Fighter, ’95’s Mortal Kombat, both amazing in their campiness) attempted to very literally transcribe video game elements onto film, most of the post-’00s video game films have simply taken the name of a beloved, nondescript franchise, such as Tomb Raider or Resident Evil, and used it as the framework for darkly stylized and self-serious genre flicks. Neither of these approaches work, for film critics nor gamers.

Mortal Kombat and other video game films that enthusiastically embrace the absurdity of their source material are successful due to the very fact that they’ve given in to being kind of “bad” movies. You cannot make a movie about a guy who throws ice fighting a Bruce Lee ripoff who throws fire without embracing its inherent badness. The same went for Street Fighter and Van Damme fighting a lightning-shooting Raul Julia. But somewhere along the line, that changed. Video game movies, just like comic book movies, wanted to be taken seriously. And Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was the apotheosis of that change.

There are a lot of things wrong with The Spirits Within, but worst of all is the lack of the stupid fun stuff that makes the video game series great. There were no giant swords, no anime haircuts, no Moogles, no Chocobos, and no demons punching molten earth down at bad guys. It was very serious, and it was bad. And that’s true of almost every video game film that has followed, because all of them want to be “films,” and none of them want anything to do with video games.

But even hewing closer to the source material doesn’t mean guaranteed success. Prince of Persia is the most recent major video game movie to flop, but not because it veered too far from the franchise it was based on: it was just bad. White man Jake Gylenhaal as a Persian with a British accent running around a palace with a sand-powered dagger that can reverse time doesn’t sound like a good movie, or a good game. The games are fun because, even though you’re a Persian with a British accent, you’re killing hordes of undead and doing backflips off of walls and swinging from statues in what looks like the Lost Gardens of Babylon. It’s ridiculous, and the story is secondary. And that’s why it wasn’t the right game to be made into a movie, and maybe that’s been the problem all along: there’s nothing wrong with the idea of a movie based on a video game. Hollywood (and Uwe Boll) is just doing it wrong. The same elements that make for fun video games do not necessarily make for fun movies.

Forgetting that Puala Patton is playing an orc, next year’s Warcraft, directed by Moon and Source Code‘s Duncan Jones, is the most promising video game adaptation on the horizon. The Warcraft franchise has hundreds, maybe thousands of pages of lore to assist the filmmakers, and the earliest, pre-MMO games are structured around narrative-focused military encounters. There is nuanced drama in the conflict between the humans and the orcs, but there’s also built-in action as a result of that drama. The fighting that will be seen on-screen, if done correctly, will not supplant the story, but it will serve it, just as it would in any other successful military drama.

And so perhaps that leads us to the basic problem with video games being turned into films: most successful video games involve running around and killing a lot of people or things for no reason. Sometimes the story that’s shoved in around the killing is intriguing, but that doesn’t matter: if the killing is fun, the video game will be successful. Unfortunately, this just isn’t true of movies. Most of the time. Whether or not it’ll be true for Assassin’s Creed, we’ll have to wait and see.