There’s a very specific middle-ground in video games that will haunt and/or ruin a generation of critics and its name is never to be spoken, though we all know it well: The 90s. I have a weird obsession with movies borne out of video games, because it is a genre that did not exist before 1993, and it has less than 40ish major entries. It’s just the kind of pop culture knowledge I can corner and master even if it is absolute bullshit.
1993 marked the launch of Super Mario Bros. with Bob Hoskins as “Mario Mario” in the first real bridge between popular arcade IP and feature-length entertainment. It is a movie that most refer to with upsetting regularity because it birthed a genre; one that has still never found respect.
If you’ve never seen the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie, it enacted a strategy still resented by modern screenwriters, but which remains the wet dream of most contemporary film studios: making a story out of Fuck All. Mario Bros. is a game about a plumber (a detail we only know from the instruction manual) who chases a lizard and steps on mushrooms in a effort to impress a woman he’s never met.
So, when asked to adapt “Your Princess Is In Another Castle” into a long-form narrative, the feature film’s writers created a sub-terrestrial steampunk society based on the fear of reverse-evolution reliant upon a shadow economy since their king was chemically-rearranged into a fungus. Later game-adaptation-films like Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter would only need to explain why two dudes were locked in a punch-up, but Super Mario Bros. tried to build a world that required its own Bible to explain.
This was dumb and bad. But that simplicity was also a draw of early video games that those unlucky enough to be born after 1990 will never fully understand. Or Maybe that’s not quite true. So many afternoons of grade school could be spent writing personalized fan-fic about why stupid jumpy shooters played out the way they did. It is, perhaps ,since people like me had our own notebooks filled with stories about game backstories that antique video games movies still hold such a personal space: we’re hoping the professionals did it better than us.
Which is why DOOM, the cinematic version, is such a nightmare. The original shooter game had the vaguest outline of a narrative — wherein a Space Marine on Mars suddenly fights his way through waves of demons — so every narrative building block, from novels to website fan-fic, felt plausible but also rewarding. A portal to Hell opens up and demons pour out leaving only one bad dude to kill ‘em all. That’s simple but also easy to build a mythos upon.
Which is probably why in 2005 we all had such high hopes for the DOOM movie with The Rock.
A big budget adaptation of this demons-vs-guns approach seemed a slam-dunk, especially in the wake of Doom 3 and its serious dedication to mystery and its unwavering deluge of nightmares. Even a direct adaptation of that game could’ve slayed, despite its very simplistic narrative twists.
Instead, Universal pictured a more assault-on-base scenario where a group of Space Marines wind up on Mars and are driven insane and/or turned into zombies. Except for Karl Urban. As is written, Karl has to be Dredd someday, so he must live. The Rock goes from leader to bad-guy-demon and also Rosamund Pike is hanging out in the shadows because she didn’t know yet that she was too good for this spectacle.
Doom, as a movie, is just a laughable trainwreck which maintains some grip on the mainstream conversation based on a single first-person sequence which both mimicked the game’s perspective but also set the stage for modern cinematic games jokes like Hardcore Henry. It’s funny and cute now, but nothing of substance or genuine style. For everything that made writing backstories about video games fun, recreating them with CGI took all the fun out of it.
We don’t have to say much about director Andrzej Bartkowiak’s film, despite its sincere attempt at action horror, that cannot be said about the stoner friend you knew in your college’s film program. There were some good things, but history will never look kindly upon this. And there are rumblings of a reboot through Universal for the 3D film market in the next few years.
But more importantly, when watching the developer preview for the new Doom reboot, they discuss how they made a direct decision to remove overwhelming/distracting story beats from their action game. In one of the rare examples of games learning from their own filmic adaptations, Bethesda saw how story hinders what makes Doom into Doom, and pulled out the story beats in place of more chainsaws that will separate more demons from their limbs.