Film adaptations of video games have notoriously crashed on the rocks of critical and popular assessment.
The median Rotten Tomatoes score for all video game movies released since “Super Mario Bros.” — the first of its kind, in 1993 — is a paltry 18%. Sony and developer Rovio’s “The Angry Birds Movie,” which topped the domestic box office over the weekend with a $39 million gross, is the second-most critically acclaimed game movie ever — with a middling 43% approval rating (narrowly missing the 44% “crown” held by 2001’s “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”).
But with higher-tier filmmakers and production companies involved in a slew of upcoming projects, the genre could see a shift toward quality.
“Assassin’s Creed” will be released in December — against all odds, given how controlling developer Ubisoft has been with the property. The movie stars Oscar nominee Michael Fassbender and Oscar winner Marion Cotillard, and is directed by art-house filmmaker Justin Kurzel (“The Snowtown Murders,” “Macbeth”). Oscar-gobbling production company New Regency (“12 Years a Slave,” “Birdman,” “The Revenant”) is writing the checks.
MGM, Warner Bros. and GK Films’ “Tomb Raider” reboot has found its new Lara Croft in Alicia Vikander, fresh off her Oscar win for “The Danish Girl.” Academy Award-winner Graham King (“The Departed,” “Hugo”) is producing. Along with “Resident Evil,” the “Tomb Raider” franchise has performed most consistently in the realm of video game adaptations.
And “Warcraft,” based on the popular online role-playing game, hits theaters next month courtesy of “Moon” director Duncan Jones and geek property powerhouse Legendary Pictures. (Though early reviews suggest this one went the way of its predecessors in the genre.)
“Warcraft” shares an Oscar-nominated producer, Charles Roven (“American Hustle,” “The Dark Knight”), with the planned adaptation of “Uncharted.” Sony has had that project in the works since at least 2008, the year after the first game in developer Naughty Dog’s action-adventure series was released. The film hasn’t come to fruition, though, perhaps due to trigger-shyness over the genre’s failure to perform. Directors David O. Russell, Neil Burger and Seth Gordon have been attached, while Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal (“The Hurt Locker,” “Zero Dark Thirty”) has also taken a shot. None have stuck.
“Uncharted” is perfect fodder for a movie, with parallels to Indiana Jones and the Republic Pictures serials of the 1930s that inspired the whip-cracking, fedora-sporting archaeologist/adventurer. Chris Pratt and Nathan Fillion have bubbled up as possible choices to play charismatic protagonist Nathan Drake, and Fillion even launched a Twitter campaign in a bid for the role.
The fourth installment of the series, “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End,” came out May 10 and drew raves. A globe-trotting adventure bounding from Scotland to Madagascar to a remote deserted island that once played host to a robust pirate community, it tells the story of Drake’s quest for the pirate Henry Avery’s fabled treasure reserve. The addition of Sam, the brother Drake thought he lost during a Mexican prison escape 15 years ago — which you also play through — provides the opportunity for emotional and character scope as the tale flashes back to the the pair’s time together in an orphanage, learning about their mother’s life’s work, which in turn informed Drake’s cutthroat “career” path.
Add to the mix Drake’s relationship with Elena, another staple of the series who by this point has settled down and tamed the adventurer* (or so she thought), and you have a promising storytelling gumbo. Indeed, those behind the adaptation are currently adjusting the film’s storyline to reflect this character development.
I clocked 13 hours playing through the game, but you could easily take your time and explore even more. That’s a hallmark of titles like this and Naughty Dog’s other critically acclaimed hit, “The Last of Us,” not to mention “open-world” games that seem endless in their environmental renderings.
So the truth is, properties like “Uncharted” might not really need Hollywood. The ideal versions of these stories are consistently knocked out of the park by game developers. But there is still the obvious potential to grow them on the big screen, and with every studio in town clamoring for franchise material, having it in your own garage is a huge bonus: Sony has owned Naughty Dog since 2001, making “Uncharted” home-grown intellectual property.
Yet while these titles hold promise, there’s no denying the genre’s poor box office history. “Super Mario Bros.” — that absolute disaster from Disney with Bob Hoskins, John Leguizamo and Dennis Hopper — didn’t recoup half of its $48 million production budget. Since then, the only video game movies to top $200 million at the global box office have been “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Need for Speed” and two “Resident Evil” installments: “Afterlife” and “Retribution.”
But the key to understanding that a tipping point may be on the horizon — on top of the caliber of talent involved lately — is the evolution of the gaming industry itself. The “Uncharted” installments, for example, aren’t really “games” in the strictest sense. They’re more like interactive movies, and “A Thief’s End” is the gorgeous, glorious culmination of a movement toward a cinematic experience at your fingertips.
Maybe video games needed to grow up before their film counterparts could do the same.
*As a 34-year-old with a kid on the way, somehow one of the most exciting moments of the game for me was exploring Nathan and Elena’s suburban home. “Ooh, that’s a nice bookshelf.” “Neat, I like what they did with that space — hey honey, check this out.” Go figure.