There’s a very big difference between making popular video games and making popular movies based on video games. Unfortunately, writer/director Duncan Jones found that out the hard way, as his big-screen adaption of the hugely popular video game Warcraft is such a disappointment. Jones is obviously a crazy talented dude, and yet he took on the thankless task of translating an entire complicated world — and one remains so personal to millions of people — into a whole new context. Wizards, orcs, mages, griffins, and more — it’s a lot to fit into a single narrative. The CGI is cutting edge, and the fantasy world he adapted from the video game comes to life in a surprisingly effective way, and yet it still doesn’t really gel.
It is, in short, a wonderful mess that joins the long list of not-quite-awesome video game adaptations that have failed to break the curse that has perplexed filmmakers for years. Dozens of very smart filmmakers have tried to crack the code, and yet most of them are just so-bad-they’re-good. Here are some of the most notable video game adaptations that can’t escape their own glorious mediocrity.
5. Wing Commander
Here’s the official synopsis for the 1999 movie version of Wing Commander: “Earth’s only hope against the vicious Kilrathi Empire are two young fighter pilots, who must stop the enemy and warn Earth of an impending attack.
If that sounds to you like it was assembled from every other sci-fi trope from the last four decades or so, well, you’re very right. Wing Commander, based on the series of popular fighter pilot PC games, is basically what you’d get if you mixed parts of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Top Gun and forgot to make it interesting. It makes sense when you realize the movie adaptation was directed by Chris Roberts, the video game designer who created the Wing Commander games and also was responsible for most of the live action cut scenes of the series. But minute-long snippets of footage can’t simply be expanded out into a feature length film, and Wing Commander definitely feels incomplete.
Still, it’s a fascinating window into late-1990s studio filmmaking where all you had to do was throw some teeny bopper newcomers like Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard into a $30 million movie and expect to reap immediate rewards.
4. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
If ever a video-game-to-movie adaptation came close to seeming like it would actually end up a good movie, 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was it. It looked from the start like a wild crossover, a superhero movie mixed with the epic adventure of an Douglas Fairbanks movie, and clearly was intended to launch a major franchise, a la Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean.
And yet, Prince of Persia faltered, and for what should have been obvious reasons. First: the prince of the ancient middle eastern kingdom of Persia was played by the very white Jake Gyllenhaal. But it tried to go as big as possible, and that might be the reason it failed. Gyllenhaal’s character, Dastan, kept the video game’s ability to run along rooftops, leap across long distances, and climb along the walls of the ancient city of Alamut, but otherwise, it very much strayed from the source. The time travel reversal narrative conceit also sucked away any dramatic tension. Prince of Persia was better when it was a video game, and it was a better movie when it was called Spider-Man.
3. Mortal Kombat
When it was released in 1995, Mortal Kombat just got it. It has that certain je ne sais quoi about semi-crappy movies released in the ‘90s that are still fondly remembered despite their flaws. Its perfect blend of martial arts cheesiness even still manages to outweigh its downright awful sequel, Annihilation, which was released in 1997.
The first Kombat tournament was brought to the screen by schlock auteur extraordinaire Paul W.S. Anderson, whose own series of Resident Evil adaptations remain admirably kitschy entries in the video game-to-movie genre. Still, nothing can beat the first Mortal Kombat, which had the bright idea of casting people (and actors outfitted in ridiculous practical effects) that vaguely resembled the characters from the video games and just have them fight one another all while lifting the plot straight from something like the Jean-Claude Van Damme cheesy classic Bloodsport. Anybody who thinks this movie isn’t in the so-bad-it’s-good category gets a fatality.
2. Street Fighter
Speaking of the Muscles from Brussels, he starred as Colonel Guile in writer/director Steven E. de Souza’s doomed adaptation of popular fighting game Street Fighter. The movie was a pioneer for video game adaptations both because it beat the release of Mortal Kombat by one year, and because it suffered from the production problems that would mar subsequent game adaptations that came after it.
Video Games blew up in the 1990s, and the companies responsible for them suddenly found themselves flush with cash and influence. Much to the dismay of de Souza, Street Fighter’s company Capcom had its hand in the production from start to finish, ordering the director to constantly add new characters and fight sequences in the middle of production, all the while keeping a strict release date of Christmas 1994. Van Damme’s outrageous cocaine habit and legal troubles from his third divorce also gave de Souza some serious headaches. What’s he got was a middling action movie that has the gaudy air of too much money and too many hands in the cookie jar. Come for the ridiculous Van Damme roundhouse kicks, stay for celebrated Shakespearean trained actor Raul Julia’s final on-screen performance as the evil M. Bison.
1. Super Mario Bros.
If you’ve ever wondered what Dennis Hopper’s Frank Booth from Blue Velvet would be like as the villain of a classic video game, then the 1993 adaptation of Super Mario Bros. is your movie. It’s had the worst reputation over the years, with most audiences critical of weird details like the titular brothers’ surname being “Mario (meaning Mario’s full name is Mario Mario) and it’s bizarrely dark humor.
Actor Bob Hoskins, who played Mario, called it “The worst thing I ever did.” And yet the Mario Bros. movie is a valiantly batshit crazy version of a video game that everybody grew up playing. It’s all thanks to co-directors Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, who were recruited because of their contributions to the cult satirical sci-fi series Max Headroom. It’s absolutely insane that they were given millions of dollars to make this movie, and unfortunately it remains a cautionary tale for studios worried about possibly investing in something that gets too weird for its own good. Yet Super Mario Bros. remains a fond memory for those willing to accept that video game adaptations can be something different altogether.