The Needles

The Ugly Truth About Videogame Movies

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I finally got around to watching the Max Payne movie this weekend, something I’ve been putting off because as a fan of the games it was inevitable that the translation to the big screen would be a letdown. Sure enough, my disappointment did not disappoint. I came away unsatisfied, vaguely confused and happy above all else that I didn’t fork over twenty bucks plus gas and corn to see this thing in the theater.

Not that it was the unspeakable abortion some people had made it out to be. Probably the most succinct and accurate summation came from a friend who, after learning I’d rented it, said to me, “You know it’s a crappy movie, right?” And he was bang on the money: It was indeed crappy. Not awful, not horrible, not hilariously bad. Just “crappy,” that generic sort of mediocrity that’s the hallmark of all but a handful of movies released these days.

“Disjointed” is the word that kept popping into my mind as I watched. It was less a movie than a pastiche of brief but stylish video clips chock full of slow-motion gunfire, moody lighting and intense close-ups but utterly devoid of anything more substantial. Imagine a movie trailer cut together for maximum impact that somehow stretched on for an hour and a half: The characters are ill-defined, their motivations are unfathomable and dialog veers from cryptic to nonsensical with all the trying-too-hard gravitas of a first-year film school project. The most interesting part of the whole experience is the fact that I went into it prepared to excoriate Mila Kunis for destroying the role of Mona Sax and came away amazed that she hadn’t fared much worse than anyone else involved in the thing.

At the time of its release, Max Payne represented our best chance ever at getting a videogame movie that finally broke the shitmold. The game featured great characters from top to bottom, a story as good as that of any Schwarzenegger flick you’d care to name and tons of guns-blazing, bodies-flying, stuff-blowing-up action. It all seemed as simple as sitting the director and the screenwriter in front of a PC and saying, “See that? Do that!” And once again, what should’ve been simple turned out to be anything but.

Why is it so goddamn hard to make a good videogame movie?

They’re not all great steaming blobs of rank putrescence, of course. Travesties like Wing Commander and A Dungeon Siege Tale get all the attention but there’s a handful of game-based films, slowly growing, that have managed to claw their way out of the cesspool and into the ranks of the nearly-not-bad. Doom was idiotic and bore little resemblance to the game besides the name on the box but was goofy fun nonetheless, while Hitman was a passable action film and even Max Payne managed to avoid serious train wreck territory; not a ringing accolade, perhaps, but really no worse than what you’d say about most of the schlock Hollywood throws up on the silver screen these days. Yet in spite of the great wealth of subject matter available, there’s not been a single movie based on a videogame that broke out of the gate, made a good impression and rolled on to serious commercial and critical success.

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It shouldn’t be so complicated. In fact, I don’t think it is: The problem isn’t just that it’s hard to make a good videogame movie but that it’s apparently harder than hell to make a decent movie of any sort these days. Bombastic CGI and action sequences taken to ridiculous excess have turned the average big-weekend blockbuster into a sound-and-fury spectacle with about as much redeeming value as a music video that just refuses to end. Is it reasonable to expect that movies spun from our particular subculture of choice would somehow be immune to that sort of environment?

And let’s face it: Storytelling in movies and games is fundamentally different and that’s a fact that has to be accounted for somewhere in the process. Hideo Kojima notwithstanding, videogames typically provide about 15 minutes worth of cheesy, awkward exposition for scriptwriters to work with. No matter how awesome it may sound, sooner or later most movie audiences that don’t consist of me (and a few of my friends) are going to get tired of watching guys shoot each other and want to know what the hell’s going on. Yet studios keep aiming for that elusive sweet spot at which gamers don’t feel betrayed and non-gamers don’t feel lost, a spot I don’t think even exists; sooner or later you have to pick your audience and pander to them accordingly. It’s harsh, but that’s life. You really can’t please all the people all the time.

But just as important to the equation, and thus far just as absent, is the obligation gamers have to recognize this fact and adjust our expectations accordingly. Sure, a lot of this stuff is outright garbage, but how close did we really expect Doom to stick to the script? Nobody’s going to nominate Karl Urban for an Oscar but Doom should probably get more credit than it does for serving up a passable action flick based on one of the most famously thin game concepts to ever land on a PC. Is it how I would’ve done it? Definitely not, and I’m certainly not above thinking that my ideas, ephemeral and vague though they are, are better. But if I was really that smart I’d be writing movie scripts instead of bitching about them.

It’s hard to argue that movies based on videogames haven’t been more or less universally atrocious from the moment the genre came into existence, but maybe they haven’t sucked quite as badly as we think. It’s a twist on the Deus Ex effect: Our demands are so unreasonably high that they’ve become impossible to satisfy. And if that’s true, can we honestly say that these movies suck? Well, yes, they do. But maybe a little bit of that is our own fault.

Andy Chalk would have found a way to work Mike the Cowboy in there somewhere.

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