Lights, Camera, Insert Coin

By Tom Holste

Nov. 10, 2015

Recently, a small independent movie company called Rainfall Films released a short 10-minute film called Metroid: The Sky Calls, based loosely on the Metroid video game series that started on the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1987. This isn’t an official production, but a fan-made film.

“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. Sakamoto.”

Metroid: The Sky Calls is the latest attempt by someone in Hollywood to tackle a challenge that has largely proved insurmountable: how to make a good movie out of a video game.

When video games were simpler, consisting of only a single screen, and with no actors or story, they must have seemed too primitive to make the jump to film. Sure, Space Invaders seemed influenced by Star Wars, Pitfall! took a page from Indiana Jones’ playbook, and Donkey Kong probably wouldn’t have existed without (of course) King Kong. But one would be hard-pressed to identify, for instance, exactly why Pac-Man needed to eat the ghost monsters, or where the game took place. (Yes, there have been fan films attempting to answer those questions, too — such as this and this. And there were Saturday morning cartoons with those characters, but the characters were shoehorned into rather generic cartoon plots.)

But as the years progressed, game developers were able to make the games longer, and eventually add voices as provided by the actors. The graphics grew more realistic; the music went from non-existent to repetitive to actually evoking mood from scene to scene; and the storylines and themes became more complex and sophisticated. In nearly every way, video games had become like movies. So why couldn’t video games actually make the jump to the big screen?

One of the first attempts was called The Wizard, which featured Fred Savage of The Wonder Years in a plot weirdly ripped off from Rain Man, just more family-friendly. Savage’s character traveled across the country to help his savant brother win a video-game championship (since his brother was a “wizard” at video games). Ultimately, the movie is now most remembered for a laughably bad line where an all-too-smug competitor expressed his admiration for Nintendo’s new game peripheral. “I love the Power Glove,” he cooed. “It’s so bad.” (“Bad” in this case means “cool,” for us old-timers out there.) The line launched a thousand Internet memes:

PowerGlovePowerGlove2PowerGlove3Apparently, the powers-at-be at Nintendo thought that this movie was a bit silly. (I can’t fathom where they got that idea from.) So they decided that their next movie, based on Super Mario Bros., would be a lot more serious. And it was. In fact, it was way more serious than any movie based on Super Mario Bros. had any right to be. Instead of the brightly beautiful Mushroom Kingdom from the games, the filmmakers inexplicably gave us a dark, post-apocalyptic looking world that looked like rejected sets from Blade Runner. The story was incomprehensible, giving us Bob Hoskins as Mario, and John Leguizamo as his adopted younger “brother.” Princess Peach was nowhere to be seen; instead we got the unmemorable Princess Daisy. In the games, Bowser is a giant dragon. In the movie, Bowser is played by Dennis Hopper, looking like Dennis Hopper with a few bumpy ridges on his head and a long tongue.

Critics rightly lambasted the film, and baffled audiences stayed away. Attention, people of Hollywood: This audience accepted a series of games where a plumber heroically fought against turtles before donning a raccoon suit that allowed him to fly. When this same audience says that your movie is too confusing, you really haven’t done your job right.

Bowser

We got from this to … well, that (see following image).

to that

“Pop quiz, hotshot. You’re stuck in a lame video game adaptation. What do you do? WHAT DO YOU DO?”

Further games based on movies came out, but nearly all have been critical failures, and most have been commercial failures as well. Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, Tomb Raider, Doom, Wing Commander … the list reads like a Hollywood hall of shame. The Resident Evil series is the only set of movies based on games that I can think of with more than two entries, and even those movies not held up as any kind of cinematic classics.

The Godfather is a very well made movie even if you don’t like gangster movies; The Wizard of Oz is very well made even if you don’t like fantasies. But where’s The Wizard of Oz or The Godfather of video game movies – the movie that would appeal to someone who doesn’t even play games? Since modern video games seems so much like movies, why is it so hard to make a good movie out of a video game?

I think the answer lies in the types of experience that audiences and players look for in their respective entertainments.

Video games are very much about letting the player enter the world as the character. When a player wants to be Sonic the Hedgehog, for instance, he or she wants to imagine himself or herself in the role of the little blue critter that runs fast and jumps on little robots. In contrast, a movie invests us in characters that have very specific personality traits and specific histories. In order for a Sonic movie to work, the filmmaker would have to create a deep psychological background for Sonic. However, if the writers and directors make Sonic too strange, with a shattered psyche, then audiences would reject the film because it’s not how they always imagined Sonic themselves (with everyone pulling from their own personality traits). But if they keep Sonic as generic as possible to fit everyone’s interpretation of him, then the movie will be suffocatingly dull.

Also, the pleasure of a game comes from overcoming a challenge after multiple attempts. There doesn’t need to be anything more in terms of conflict for a Super Mario game than simply executing a series of increasingly difficult jumps. The variety and style of the jumps creates an exciting challenge for the player. But how could one watch two hours of “Mario jumps, then he jumps again, and this time he has to jump a little bit higher”?

How profound of a relationship can Link have with an Octorok?

How profound of a relationship can Link have with an Octorok?

Let’s look at another example: The Legend of Zelda, a sword-and-sorcery series starring Link. In the games, Link usually travels alone while attempting to rescue Zelda. It’s a terrific series of games. But in a movie version of this game, who would Link talk to for two hours? Would he only talk to the bad guys just before killing them? Or would the filmmakers have to invent an annoying sidekick for him? There was a short-lived cartoon series where Link hung out with Zelda, and the two of them did lame romantic comedy-style bickering. Indeed, Link has an obnoxious catchphrase from the cartoon: “Excuuuuse me, princess!” As you can probably guess, there are memes galore for that too.

For another example, let’s go back to the 1987 video game classic Metroid. (Spoilers ahead for a 28-year-old game, and for the aforementioned fan film.)

Players found themselves on an eerie distant planet as a character named Samus Aran, an intergalatic explorer who had to fight off some nasty aliens. Throughout the game, players couldn’t see Samus’ face, as Samus was in a large space suit. When players successfully completed the game, Samus retired from duty by taking off the suit. That’s when players learned that Samus had, in fact, been a woman all along.

“Hello, my 8-bit avatar. How YOU doin’?”

It’s a great twist that no one saw coming, which is a good reward for finishing the game, and the twist nicely challenged our preconceived notions of who our video game heroes should be. So how does one capture that in a movie?

If one hides Samus’ face until the very end of the movie, as in the original game, audiences might be unable to connect with a character whose face they can’t see. Besides, millions of gamers already know that twist. But if the filmmakers get rid of the twist, what’s left to surprise the viewer?

Interestingly, the makers of Metroid: The Sky Calls show Samus as a woman right up front, but then do a story all about exploration. Weirdly enough, Samus never fights any aliens in the short film. Apparently the filmmakers were deliberately going for a 2001: A Space Odyssey tone, which is kind of neat. It’s certainly effective for 10 minutes. But would audiences accept a full-length movie where Samus never blasts any of the aliens from the game?

(Here’s a link to the movie, btw.)

(Spoilers end here.)

So as you can see, what people want when they play video games – to immerse themselves as the main character, to overcome hurdles that are physical instead of psychological, and to often explore the game area alone – are often the opposite things of what people want when they watch movies – to get to know unique characters, to watch those characters overcome complex challenges, and to watch them do it surrounded by other interesting characters.

Mind you, I’m not saying that it’s impossible to do a really good video game movie. I’m just saying that it hasn’t been done yet, and outlining what the challenges are for any filmmaker. If someone figures out how to crack the code, I’ll be first in line.

In the meantime, we have to continue to live in a world where, oddly enough, The Wizard remains the most memorable video game movie made to date.

And how can we not love it? It’s so bad!

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