The recent Tomb Raider reboot starring Alicia Vikander recently overtook her husband Michael Fassbender’s Assassin’s Creed in terms of worldwide box-office gross with a modest $265 million in comparison to the latter’s $240. Due to the smaller budget of Tomb Raider, and the higher box-office gross, it’s likely that we’ll get a sequel to this Tomb Raider movie, but the ‘success’ of this movie does beg the question for movies based on video game IP: What’s going wrong? Why do movies based on video games continue to struggle?
Before examining that question we need to first look at the state of video game movies at this current moment in time. So, thus far, the highest grossing video game movie is Duncan Jones’ Warcraft which was released in 2016, garnering largely negative reviews from critics and fans alike. Warcraft grossed roughly $433 million, a substantial portion of which came from China. And yet, despite being the most financially successful video game movie to date, talks of a sequel have been noticeably mute since its release; despite director Duncan Jones expressing interest in a sequel. The reason Warcraft didn’t spawn a franchise akin to Lord of the Rings related to the fact that the movie was not a box-office hit in the way that Universal and Legendary Pictures envisioned.
So the bar is decidedly low for video game movies. As you look down the list of the ‘most successful’ video game movies of all time what’s strikingly noticeable is how many of these movies were flops, maligned, forgettable or just average. The only obvious success story on the list is the series of Resident Evil movies which have been kicking around for over a decade and grossed north of $1 billion, and yet these are not movies that draw either widespread critical admiration or fanatical fanfare. Other movies on the list include Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the original two Tomb Raider movies with Angelina Jolie, & Angry Birds, all of which have passed out of the popular consciousness.
So why is the list of ‘successful’ video game movies so poor? In years gone by, one could make the argument that video game culture was largely a niche populated by adolescent males, and so the movies made were aimed directly at that audience. However, that is no longer the case, and video games are no longer outside of the popular culture; in fact, in many ways they are moving closer to the centre of the cultural zeitgeist. Look to phenomenons like Overwatch, Fortnite or even the abundance of video game language and tropes in the recent Ready Player One, which drew heavily from gamer culture, to see how video games are becoming more and more popular.
So why are movies based on video games still so poor in a world where the video game medium itself has produced such classics as The Last of Us, Metal Gear Solid, Portal, Bioshock & Mass Effect. I believe that one of the major driving factors in why we’re not seeing groundbreaking video game movies being made today is that the genre is still very much in its infancy. While there have been video game movies stretching back decades to Super Mario Bros in 1993 & Mortal Combat in 1995, the modern incarnation is still relatively new and is comparable with the early 2000’s period of comic-book movies like Daredevil, Hulk & Blade where the creators, writers, producers, studios etc… are still trying to get to grips with this new beast. I think that we’re still waiting for a video game movie to break the mold and free itself from the baggage of negative perception in the same way that X-Men and Spiderman did in that initial batch of early 2000’s comic-book movies and legitimise the genre moving forward.
Will that movie be the Uncharted movie starring Tom Holland as a young Nathan Drake? I don’t know, especially when we have another Indiana Jones movie arriving in 2020 to satisfy our swashbuckling and treasure hunting desires.
Will that movie be Sony’s Metal Gear Solid movie directed by Kong:Skull Island’s Jordan Vogt-Roberts? While there is very little confirmed for this one yet, Vogt-Roberts has reportedly met with Hideo Kojima, prior to his split with Konami, in relation to the project. Who knows with this one? Metal Gear Solid in its purest form will be a hard sell to mainstream audiences.
As someone who loves both movies and video games it would be great to see these mediums merge and come together in the way that film has with other mediums, like books and plays. There is no reason why a movie based on a video game can’t be the next big thing. Maybe in ten or twenty years time, video game movies will be the studio tentpoles that modern day superhero franchises are.
C’mon Hollywood, Would you kindly not give up on video game movies!