Video games have perhaps never been as embedded in mainstream culture as they are now. It’s become almost a cliché to note that the video-game industry has equaled, if not surpassed Hollywood in terms of sheer profitability in recent years. Technology has improved to make games feel like immersive, cinematic experiences. Virtual reality is on its way to becoming a household item, and the grand debate over whether games can be considered “art” now seems passé. In 1993, Hollywood took its first crack at the video-game market with Super Mario Bros., a steampunk film adaptation of the colorful Nintendo game starring Bob Hoskins as the titular plumber. Unfortunately, it was a financial bomb, a critical disaster, and eventually disowned by everyone involved.
In the intervening decades, Hollywood has tried again and again to bring video games to the screen, with at least 40 major adaptations over the last 25 years. Exactly one, the Angelina Jolie-starring Lara Croft: Tomb Raider in 2001, was a genuine hit, grossing $131 million domestically. Others have been cult sensations, or popular overseas, where video-game brand recognition is enough to sell tickets. But the video-game movie remains a neglected subgenre in the action-movie world, still largely greeted with derision by critics. That said, there have been small signs of life in the genre recently—namely, efforts to engage with the act of gaming itself, rather than just trying to replicate the bloody shoot-em-ups and bombastic set pieces of the source material.
After a real fallow period for gaming films in the last five years (unless you count the success of The Angry Birds Movie, a children’s cartoon based on a cellphone app), two movies in the last two months glanced up against greatness, at least within the limited bounds of video-game cinema. The first, and more frustrating, was Assassin’s Creed, Justin Kurzel’s adaptation of the wildly successful franchise that transposes stealthy action with various historical settings. In the Assassin’s Creed games, the player’s character uses a device called the Animus which allows him to project his mind back in time, to play as one of his ancestors, an assassin operating in the past (say, during the French Revolution, or the Crusades). It’s the kind of bonkers made-up technology that games use all the time as a simple story crutch.
Except Kurzel not only kept the Animus for the film, he made it the central focus of the story, which followed petty criminal Callum Lynch (Michael Fassbender), a descendant of a famous assassin, being strapped into the device to experience the exploits of his murderous forefather. In the film, Callum plugs in, Matrix-style, to a giant spinal tap attached to a crane, and leaps and jumps around in an empty warehouse, mimicking the memories of a murderous hero in 15th-century Spain, while lab assistants (led by Marion Cotillard) around him take notes. It was a broad metaphor for the act of gaming itself—Callum lives an action-packed, but consequence-free, life of bloody mayhem within his own mind. And eventually, as with the other lab rats around him, it begins to take a strange mental toll.
The problem with Assassin’s Creed, strangely enough, was that the action itself was muddy-looking and dull; every time the film cut to Callum’s historical visions, it was hard to stay invested. Kurzel is an Australian director who had previously worked on the dark true-story drama Snowtown and a grim, but well-received adaptation of Macbeth also starring Fassbender and Cotillard. He was better suited to the blurry morality of Assassin’s Creed than to the convoluted video-game logic of its plot or the sweeping vistas of its set-pieces. It was an unusual inversion of the typical problem with video-game films, which emphasize crisp action over deeper philosophizing.
Kurzel was also one of the only directors with any hint of prestige filmmaking in his resume that dared take on video games. Usually, such films are handed to relative neophytes or filmmakers with a background in music videos or commercials. There’s a reason more established directors stay away—Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) saw his reputation permanently dinged by the box-office failure of Prince of Persia, a Disney adaptation of a famed platform game, while Duncan Jones (Moon, Source Code) took on the mighty task of adapting Warcraft to the screen and was greeted by punishing reviews for his years of work.
Those aforementioned films were embarrassments at the U.S. box office that nonetheless earned their money back worldwide, thanks to the global appeal of gaming’s biggest brands. Warcraft, an epic fantasy adventure that cost $160 million to make, grossed a pitiful $47 million from American audiences, but a staggering $220 million just in China, where the game it’s based on is hugely popular. And if you’ve ever wondered why six Resident Evil films have been made over the last 15 years, despite no discernible interest from U.S. viewers, it’s because those action-packed zombie dramas are consistent earners overseas.
That bring us to Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, the latest in the long-running series that has quietly become a cult sensation over the years. Shepherded to screen by the director-writer-producer Paul W. S. Anderson (the king of video-game films, having also made 1995’s Mortal Kombat) and starring his wife and muse Milla Jovovich (a deeply underrated, immensely charismatic on-screen presence), the Resident Evil films are the only other video-game movies that have come close to capturing the joy of the medium.
The first Resident Evil (2002), starring Jovovich and Michelle Rodriguez, was a claustrophobic adventure set in an underground facility crawling with zombies, an evil computer, and various deathtraps. The characters literally moved from room to room dealing with new obstacles, progressing incrementally as one might through a mid-’90s horror game. As the years have passed, the films have expanded their scope, but remained similarly reliant on video-gamey plotting. Apocalypse (2004) was set in a city overrun with zombies; Extinction (2007) saw Jovovich’s Alice traversing a blasted, post-apocalyptic desert, Mad Max-style; Afterlife (2010) returned her to the setting of the first film, this time equipped with institutional memories (a player’s guide, if you will). In Anderson’s most ambitious effort, 2012’s Resident Evil: Retribution, Alice woke up in a simulation that revisited moments and revived characters from previous films, as if she was re-loading a save point and getting different chances to replay her life.
Some cineastes have grown to appreciate the weird artistry of Anderson’s work, even though the Resident Evil films are still laden with cheap CGI, wooden supporting characters, and buckets of gory action. Anderson’s been called a “vulgar auteur,” along with other B-movie action directors like Justin Lin (the Fast & Furious franchise) and the self-branded duo of Neveldine/Taylor (the Crank films). All of them owe some indirect debt to the world of video games, as their films combine intense action set-pieces with ridiculous, convoluted plotting that only the most die-hard fans can keep straight, but only Anderson has directly adapted games to the screen.
So many of the most hallowed titles—Nintendo’s Zelda franchise, the dystopian masterpiece Bioshock, or legendary PC games like Half-Life or Portal—have never made it to screen, despite frequent rumors over the years. It will always be difficult to find a way to adapt games that thrive on the user’s experience of exploring and existing in a world; it’s a fundamentally different experience from seeing a film, one that forgives more basic, derivative storytelling. Video games are not usually narrative media. Even the ones that are (like 2013’s apocalyptic The Last of Us) feel heavily indebted to films like 28 Days Later or I Am Legend, and are notable for putting players inside the story rather than making them spectators. Right now, the only adaptations worth any serious discussion are the ones that engage with that fact—that games succeed by inserting us into the action. But until others begin to do the same, movies like Resident Evil will never be widely seen as “great.”